To the base of a climb steeped in history, where a British rider in Tom Simpson tragically fell victim in 1967, a British team, made up of an international roster, and with a supremely talented leader in Chris Froome was about to tear the Tour de France apart. A furious opening two hours had the peloton hitting the town of Bedoin nearly 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and although there had been moments of weakness in the days and week before, although the team had lost two riders to injury, and had been completely done over on the roads to Saint-Amand-Montrond, they were all there, all of Sky's seven. Fronting the base of one of the hardest climbs the Tour faces as a cohesive unit, unblinking and ready.
Rouleur Ian Stannard was quickly off the back as the climb began to bite, with Geraint Thomas, David Lopez and Kanstantsin Sivtsov not lasting much longer. They'd all done their bit, but the afterburners were yet to open up.
Peter Kennaugh, an Olympic gold medallist on the track at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and one of Britain's most talented up-and-comers, drilled it as the climb hit the Ventoux forest and the gradients kicked above nine per cent. Kennaugh is a prodigy, and he's been seriously considered a future Tour contender since as far back as 2009. There were no surprises after his Criterium du Dauphine, and his ride on Ax-3-Domaines that he could climb, and climb he did. He gave himself to Ventoux, completely empty, just past the 10km to go mark, he pulled off and all but stopped. There were less than 20 riders left. Job done.
Podcast 15 July 2013: Team Sky second rest day press conference Ã¢â¬â Froome, Brailsford by Cycling Central
The baton was now with Richie Porte, an Australian from a promising, although unfulfilled career in triathlon, who has succeeded at every level of cycling since his transition on the domestic scene to his arrival in the WorldTour. In his first full year with Saxo Bank, he was the best young rider at the Giro d'Italia. The Tasmanian, a stage-racing thoroughbred to succeed Cadel Evans. And since joining Sky he's built on his talent, maturing into one of the top five riders in the world. His dominance at Paris-Nice was as complete as his Kenyan-born leader's at the Tour, and here he was about to take a turn that would ram home his team leader's advantage.
Valverde, popped, Saxo crumbled, and only Alberto Contador could follow. But even he was suffering. A smile, a grimace, or was it a snarl from Porte, and then he was done. And finally the tiger was let loose, Chris Froome making mincemeat of Contador before charging off after the only prey that had been able to defy the Sky charge, Nairo Quintana.
This was an epic stage, and it was beautiful to witness. For Froome it was the biggest win of his career, a statement that further rammed home his superiority in 2013, from January through July. From 2012, when he'd been second at the Tour and fourth at the Vuelta, he was the obvious candidate for yellow at the 100th Tour. Here he was converting. A plan coming together. A second Tour win in four years for a team that started as nothing, and has gone on to fundamentally change the sport. A moment that had endless angles.
So why, tragically, has doubt, cynicism, and outright slander befallen him? Why is Froome saying "I have not doped" even a story? Okay, a lot of people have been hurt by Lance Armstrong. Cycling fans, and many of the sport's journalists, are a skeptical bunch. When they see the unbelievable, they think it's just that, unbelievable. But let's separate the two, shall we? There are no parallels. No parallels.
Here are some of the obvious criticisms I've seen from the doubters. Let's address them.
Froome climbed Ventoux at a speed only bettered by Armstrong
True, but I'm not sure what that means. The climb has only been used a few time in the past 20 years, and there are many variables when comparing times up a mountain. Wind, and the way the climb is ridden are two major ones. Stage 15 was essentially a team time trial, with very little messing around, and an almost direct run to the finish. Full gas all the way, plus a tailwind to aid them. Here's Sky's own explanation from the rest day press conference.
From team boss David Brailsford:
1) Froome's major accelerations came on the 'false flats' towards Chalet Reynard.
2) There was some motorbike drafting, particularly at that point, then later after the Chalet, because the bikes didn't move out of the way
3) The road surface is completely different to 2000 (Armstrong), when final section had ruts and pits and was rough aggregate.
4) There was a headwind in 2000, a tailwind yesterday.
Sky is far too strong to be believed
Really? Sky has expended its team completely on each and every stage to keep Froome in the position to be where he is. It's 10th in the team's classification, hardly remarkable. It had a roster purpose built for Grand Tour success, something it has dialled in over the past four years. It has the most advanced coaching techniques, and innovative backroom staff, and has revolutionised the way cycling teams train and race. In May and June this year, the team was in Tenerife at altitude, honing its form for July in camps that Porte has described as "harder than some race efforts". Is it so surprising that a team that has been successful in races with and without Chris Froome over the past 24 months can select a pretty strong final nine for the Tour de France? I don't think so.
Froome has come from nowhere
This one is pretty hilarious. At the age of 23, Froome was fourth overall at the Herald Sun Tour, finishing second on the queen stage to the Victorian ski village at Falls Creek, months before he'd completed his first Tour de France, unremarkably, but he'd finished. He was a climber. He'd grown up at altitude in Kenya, and was a youngster with plenty of potential. He was ambitious, but level headed. In 2009, he was 34th in one of the dirtiest Giro d'Italia's in recent history. The next year was his first in the WorldTour, a step up, and one in which few flourish. He'd only just begun to get over the parasitic blood disease bilharzia, which had restricted much of his progress, and was serving an apprenticeship with Sky.
In 2011, at 26, an age riders historically begin to start producing results in bigger races, Froome was second at the Vuelta a Espana. The guy who won, Juanjo Cobo, is one of the more dubious characters out there. In 2012, he finished second at the Tour and fourth at the Vuelta. And this year he's been the best stage race rider out there, bar none. Hardly a bolter. Cadel Evans rode his first Tour de France in 2005, also 28, and was eighth.
Quintana vs Froome
Apparently Froome beating Quintana is noteworthy. I'm not sure why. Froome is five years older, and has shown himself to be the best climber in the race already on the three key mountain days. Before that at the Dauphine. Before that the Criterium International. The list goes on. Both come from backgrounds growing up in countries at high altitude. Why are the questions of Froome and not Quintana?
Froome is as dominant as Armstrong
Other than the obvious "they win a lot", I don't get this either. Being dominant isn't a sign of doping. Testing positive for cortisone in 1999, or later as revealed in L'Equipe for EPO - that sounds a lot more like a 'sign' of doping. Where is the testimony of the 'embittered' former employees, and there are a few, Bobby Julich, Sean Yates, Steven de Jongh, Michael Rogers, Juan Antonio-Flecha, Russell Downing ... Surely they saw something? No? Is it possible that there was nothing to see?
Here's a sticking point. The only sticking point, but still one that's hardly compelling. It was a mistake to hire Leinders, something Brailsford has admitted, but there's nothing to suggest the Dutch doctor, who had a murky past at Rabobank, was involved in anything nefarious at Sky. If links to a (not banned) doctor make you guilty of doping, are the same anti-Froome crusaders also saying that Evans, who met Michele Ferrari early in his career, is dodgy? That's the same logic isn't it?
So essentially, there's no evidence, no clenbuterol positive, no connections to Operacion Puerto, no meetings with Dr. Ferrari, no suspect blood values, no come-from-nowhere-progression. So, why are we asking these questions at all?
"Quite frankly, my team-mates and I have been away from home for months, training together, just working our arses off to get here, and here I am basically being accused of being a cheat and a liar and that's not cool," Froome said, before not long after, walking out of the Team Sky Tour press conference visibly upset.
I just wonder how any of you throwing your uninformed, shoot-from-the-gut reactions, questioning the work ethic and performance of someone who has done nothing wrong, who is an exemplar for new cycling, would react if the positions were swapped. If you were in his shoes. Just think about that.
If you're so embittered by cycling's history, so unable to believe in the sport now because of what's happened, so burnt by your faith in riders, so skeptical, perhaps you should take a few years out and reassess. Froome's story is the story of a champion's rise. This Tour has been the realisation of years of his hard work. That should be recognised, so let's focus on it. Anything else isn't even worthy of talking about. Peace out.
Stage 16 will be streaming live through the SKODA SBS Tour Tracker from 2200 AEST. Live broadcast on SBS ONE and SBS HD also begins at 2200 AEST.