PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AP) One mountain range completed, one more to go.
Only the Alps loom as the last major obstacle between Chris Froome and a second Tour de France victory in Paris.
His rivals tried and failed to make the British rider and his super-strong Sky team wilt on the toughest – and last – day of climbing in the Pyrenees on Thursday, on Stage 12 won by Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain, who gritted his teeth in driving rain on the final climb for his second stage win.
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With those mountains that straddle France and Spain behind them, the opportunities for podium contenders to eat into Froome’s comfortable race lead are starting to run out. That might make them only more dangerous. They could take bigger risks, like speeding hell for leather on downhill roads, in hopes that Froome might crash, or gang up on him, as they sought to on Thursday’s steep final ascent.
”There are only a certain amount of opportunities before we get to Paris,” Froome said. ”We’ve just got to expect everything to be thrown at us.”
But to get to the 2013 champion, Froome’s rivals must first get past his teammates. And that is a problem.
The big budget of his Sky team has bought the best help money can buy, riders so strong they could lead other teams if they weren’t working for Froome.
They ride hard at the front, controlling the race. They allow only those riders with no hope of victory in Paris – like Rodriguez – to escape up the road, because they’re chasing stage victories and other rewards, while Sky fixates on the big prize: Keeping Froome in the yellow jersey to the July 26 finish on the Champs-Elysees.
Rodriguez was part of a group of 22 riders – none of them podium contenders – that broke away shortly after the start in Lannemezan, a Pyrenees town of 6,500 inhabitants, whose signature dishes include black Bigorre pork and an almond cake named after bandits.
The 195-kilometer (121-mile) trek to the Plateau de Beille, which draws cross-country skiers when it snows, took the Tour up four increasingly high ascents, 53 kilometers (33 miles) in total.
Rodriguez made his move halfway up the final 16-kilometer (10-mile) uphill grind, wheeling around world champion Michal Kwiatkowski in a switchback, and riding alone to the finish. He celebrated by waving a pointed finger like John Travolta dancing in ”Saturday Night Fever,” and thrust both arms in the air. The leader of the Katusha team also won a shorter uphill finish on Stage 3.
Rodriguez started the day 19th overall, trailing Froome by more than 20 minutes. His winning ride moved him up to 15th but, at 13:45 off the lead, he’s still not a podium threat.
The handful of riders who are, Froome and his team watch like hawks. Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, his biggest rivals before Froome crushed them on the first day in the Pyrenees, tried testing him on the final ascent, taking turns with bursts of acceleration. But Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas, Froome’s guardians when the roads veer sharply uphill, and the race leader himself reeled in the challenges.
Thomas is riding so impressively that a podium double might even be possible for Sky in Paris. Thomas is fifth overall, less than a minute behind Quintana in third, and just over a minute behind Tejay van Garderen, the American leader of the BMC team who is proving resilient in second place.
But Froome remains in a class of his own. He bared his teeth on the last climb, with a turn of speed that shook off all but Quintana before the Colombian and other rivals caught him again.
”I was just testing the legs,” Froome said.
His lead of 2:52 over Van Garderen and 3:09 over Quintana could comfortably carry him to victory in Paris if his rivals can’t find ways to claw back time on the four Alpine stages, the last two particularly daunting.
Quintana vowed to try.
”He’s human like the others,” the Movistar team leader said.
Skeptics aren’t so sure. Froome’s dominance is raising eyebrows and questions in a sport where trust remains in short supply, after Lance Armstrong’s era of systematic doping.
Like an unwanted ghost, the American who was stripped of his seven Tour victories returned on Thursday to the fringes of the race, on a money-raising ride. He and Geoff Thomas, a former footballer raising funds to fight blood cancer, are riding two stages of the Tour route together, one day ahead of the race. Tour racers were largely indifferent, and Armstrong’s presence wasn’t felt at the race itself.
Podium contenders should be able to take something of a breather before the Alps. The next four stages take the Tour on a west-to-east swing. They are hilly but not hugely mountainous.