PLUMELEC, France (Reuters) - Chris Froome stayed firmly on track for the Tour de France title when he retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey after the ninth stage, a 28-kilometre team time trial won by the slimmest of margins by BMC Racing on Sunday.
Heading into Monday’s rest day, Froome has the edge over his main rivals, who were hoping to take advantage of the Briton’s supposed weaknesses in the tricky opening block of racing.
The 2013 champion will now be keen to all but wrap up the race as it goes into the mountains -- the Pyrenees in the second week and the Alps in the third.
On Sunday, BMC Racing clocked 32 minutes 15 seconds to beat Sky by one second and Froome now leads American Tejay van Garderen by 12 seconds overall.
“If you had told me I’d be in yellow at this point I would not have believed it,” Froome told reporters.
“It’s definitely not for me to be attacking at the moment. Right now the biggest rival is Tejay van Garderen.”
According to France’s Thibaut Pinot, third in last year’s Tour, “Froome is as strong as in 2013”.
“I’d like to think so,” Froome replied.
BMC Racing leader Van Garderen is not giving up hope, though.
“We knew we were on a good one, on a perfect day we would have taken yellow too, but still a great win. In a perfect world I would have taken the jersey,” said Van Garderen, who was hoping to become the first American since the disgraced Floyd Landis in 2006 to be Tour overall leader.
Movistar took third place, four seconds behind, as Colombian climber Nairo Quintana limited the damage caused by Froome and Van Garderen, even gaining ground on Spain’s Alberto Contador and struggling defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team were fourth, 28 seconds adrift, and Nibali’s Astana outfit ended up fifth, 35 seconds off the pace after a demanding time trial that ended up the Cote de Cadoudal, a brutal 1.7-km ascent at an average gradient of 6.2 percent.
Contador, looking to achieve a rare Giro d‘Italia/Tour double, is fifth overall 1:03 behind Froome, while Quintana, regarded as the Briton’s toughest opponent in the climbs, is ninth and 1:59 off the pace.
The title is further slipping away from Nibali as the Italian again lost time on his main rivals. He is now 13th, 2:22 behind Froome.
Editing by Mark Meadows