By John Leicester
MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, France: Going down a row of television cameras, answering one question after another, the wearer of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey never veered off message. Yes, said Chris Froome, he was delighted to have increased his race lead with a super-fast ride in the time trial. But, no, he added, the Tour isn’t over yet because the road to Paris is still long.
Froome is right about the long part — Paris is still 1,032 miles away. But if Froome really believes there is any doubt that he will be standing on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees on July 21, then he is part of a quickly shrinking minority. After Wednesday’s time trial race against the clock to the medieval abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel — among the most beautiful backdrops ever visited by the 110-year-old Tour — the Briton has a lead that now appears unassailable.
Looking like spacemen in their aerodynamic teardrop-shaped helmets and riding special go-fast bikes to better slice through the air, the 182 riders set off one after another from the Normandy town of Avranches, which the forces of U.S. Gen. George S. Patton liberated in World War II.
Froome, as race leader, set out last. His skin-tight racing suit was yellow, so was his saddle, parts of his bike frame and a thick stripe down the middle of his otherwise black helmet. He puffed out his cheeks and licked his lips. The race starter held up five fingers and counted down. When the fingers were folded away, Froome raced off, powering past crowds several rows deep.
Through a patchwork of fields green and gold he rode. Through tidal marshlands where sheep graze, giving their meat a tang of saltiness from the sea.
Through picture-postcard villages of cottages built of dark granite.
Not that he noticed.
“During the race, you can’t really take any of that in at all,” he said. “You go into tunnel vision, and it’s just a blur of noise and color around you.”
But with each push on his pedals, Froome’s lead over his rivals grew.
By the end, with Mont-Saint-Michel rising majestically in front of him from an islet off the Brittany coast, Froome wasn’t far from catching Alejandro Valverde, even though the Spaniard set off three minutes earlier than him from Avranches.
As Valverde was crossing the line in front of the abbey called the “Wonder of the West,” the crowds could already be heard cheering for Froome, who zoomed in just one minute later.
Although Valverde is still Froome’s closest rival, it’s really no longer close. Froome’s lead over the Spaniard more than doubled to 3 minutes, 25 seconds.
At the Tour, that might as well be light years. Froome would have to crash, suffer some other mishap or get sick and melt down on the towering Mont Ventoux and in the Alps next week for his rivals to catch him.
“Once we get into the Alps, there’s a run of a few days, back to back, which are going to be very hard,” he said. “I’m sure other teams are really going to test us.”
For the moment, two-time champion Alberto Contador still isn’t ready to surrender to Froome — even though he’s essentially racing for second place. The time trials at this 100th Tour were shortened from those last year to try to maintain suspense in the outcome. But Contador still lost more than two minutes to Froome on the 20-mile course. He is now 3:54 behind Froome in fourth place. Dutch rider Bauke Mollema is third, 3:37 behind Froome.
“No one’s won the Tour de France yet and no one’s lost it. We have to get to Paris yet,” Contador said, perhaps more in hope than conviction. “Chris Froome is in impressive form and is a great climber, but there are still many stages left.”
The winner of Stage 11 was time trial world champion Tony Martin. The German collapsed exhausted after crossing the line and lay face-up on the asphalt, a towel covering his eyes, before slowly climbing back to his feet. A kid immediately got him to cough up an autograph.
The only ugliness on this otherwise spectacular stage was that a roadside spectator apparently sprayed urine at British rider Mark Cavendish as he was riding the course, said Patrick Lefevere, manager of his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.
Froome noted that one of the attractions of cycling is that spectators get close to the athletes. The Cavendish incident “ruins the whole atmosphere.”
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten and AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed.