Froome faces ultimate test as Le Tour takes on Alpe d'Huez
Two ascents, one 'hellish' descent, storms, 1 million spectators and Contador all lie in wait
CHRIS FROOME faces possibly his biggest challenge yet in the campaign to win the Tour de France today as he embarks on what promises to be an epic stage, featuring two ascents of the famous Alpe d'Huez and a kamikaze plunge down the side of the mountain. His task will be made all the more perilous by the threat of storms, gales, huge crowds and non-stop attacks from his Spanish rival, Alberto Contador.
The British rider may have tightened his grip on the yellow jersey yesterday by winning the time-trial into Chorges, switching from a road bike to a specialised time-trial machine midway through the course, and extending his lead over Contador by nine seconds, but it is today's stage that could make the difference.
"Who, or what, on earth can stop Froome now?" asks Ian Chadband of the Daily Telegraph. "Perhaps only Thursday's ultimate challenge, the 100th Tour's razzmatazz stage, the double ascent of its most celebrated mountain, L'Alpe d'Huez, sandwiched by a hellish descent which plenty of riders are up in arms about, all very possibly staged in the teeth of a thunderstorm and 1.2 million in-your-face fans."
The race will head to "the mother of all battlegrounds today with Contador's form apparently improving and his spirit refusing to be quelled," says Owen Slot of The Times.
But while Contador remains bullish could Froome be feeling the heat? Earlier this week he criticised his rival for taking "uncalculated risks" and "desperate" riding. Now he has joined calls to cut short today's stage if rain arrives because of the extreme nature of the course as it races down from Col de Sarenne.
"The descent is so tight and cliff-edged that significant, respected riders have claimed that it pushes danger too far," says Slot. "The last thing the peloton needs is for rain to accentuate the risk factor - and that is what every forecast suggests it is going to get."
The debate over safety takes the sport to "a dark place" he adds. "The amount of danger they wish to take on is a personal decision for every rider to make, but... one slight error of judgment could be fatal."
Froome has made his feelings clear. "It's a dangerous descent, if it's raining it will be even more dangerous," he said. But William Fotheringham of The Guardian notes that the Briton's stance would "not endear Froome to those who believe that downhill skills are as much a part of a bike racer's repertoire as uphill power output".
That is a theme picked up on by Contador's team. The Spaniard's team manager Bjarne Riis warned: "Froome should use his brakes more if he is too afraid because we are going to attack everywhere, whether it's uphill or down."