AX 3 DOMAINES, France – At his first real opportunity, Chris Froome blew away his main Tour de France rivals with a supersonic burst Saturday, a fierce uphill climb that felt a little like the days of Lance Armstrong.
But the Briton who took the overall race leader’s yellow jersey, and looks more likely than ever to keep it all the way to the finish in Paris on July 21, insisted there are fundamental differences between then and now.
Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour titles last year for serial doping. Froome promised that his achievements won’t need to be erased in the future.
“It is a bit of a personal mission to show that the sport has changed,” Froome said. “I certainly know that the results I’m getting, they’re not going to be stripped — 10, 20 years down the line. Rest assured, that’s not going to happen.”
Froome hasn’t come out of nowhere. The 28-year-old was the Tour runner-up last year to teammate Bradley Wiggins, runner-up at the Tour of Spain in 2011 and has been the dominant rider this year coming into the world’s premier cycling tour.
Drug testing in cycling is also better and more credible than it was when Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates were taking hormones, blood transfusions and other performance-enhancers.
While improved doping controls do not guarantee that the 198 riders who started the Tour on June 29 are competing clean, they do allow Froome’s generation to argue more convincingly that they are a different and more believable breed of competitors from those who doped systematically in the 1990s and 2000s.
“It’s normal that people ask questions in cycling, given the history of the sport,” Froome said.
“But I know the sport’s changed. There’s absolutely no way I’d be able to get these results if the sport hadn’t changed.”
Still, the hammer-blow Froome delivered on the first stage at this Tour to finish in the high mountains and the way his Team Sky support riders exhausted his rivals by riding hard at the front made it almost impossible to not think of Armstrong.
At the Tours of 1999, 2001 and 2002, Armstrong also used the first high mountain stage to put a grip on the race. A favored tactic for his Postal team — the so-called Blue Train — was to ride so hard at the front that rivals would eventually peel off, spent, leaving Armstrong to then reap victory.
Andy Schleck, the 2010 winner, rode in 3:34 after Froome. The 2011 victor, Cadel Evans, was 4:13 behind. Two-time champion Alberto Contador lost 1:45 to Froome. The gaps were so large that it seems unlikely Froome can be caught.
“The Tour de France is over, it’s finished,” said Marc Madiot, manager of the FDJ.FR team. “We’ll have battles every day for stage wins but the question about who will win the Tour is done.”
Closest to Froome was teammate Richie Porte, who came in 51 seconds behind. That sets up the prospect of a second consecutive one-two finish in Paris for Sky.