MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, France // Imperious Tour de France leader Chris Froome tightened his grip on the yellow jersey after finishing runner-up to world champion Tony Martin in the race's 11th stage time trial Wednesday.
Martin, the Omega-Pharma rider, had set the early pace for the windswept 33km course from Avranches to Mont-Saint-Michel in 36 min 29 sec but had a nervous wait as Froome threatened to upset his hopes of victory. "It was a long wait," said Martin, who started 65th from the 182 starters and finished with the third-fastest ever time for a time trial on the race.
Belgium's Tomas De Gendt, of Vacansoleil, was closest to challenge Martin before Froome but was 1 min 1 sec slower than the German at the finish line to end up third.
Martin, who had won the last nine time trials in which he has competed, started to get worried when Froome topped the times at both intermediate time checks.
"To be honest, I'd almost given up hope of the stage win. It was starting to look very disappointing when I saw Chris beat my times at the intermediate check," he said.
"I nearly started to cry. I couldn't believe it. I expected that Froome might get to within 30 seconds or something like that but not beating me at the intermediates.
"Now I'm really happy and maybe it's nicer to win this way."
Martin's win was all the more welcome as he came close to leaving the race after the crash-marred opening stage, which took swathes of skin off his back, legs, arms and buttocks. "Luckily some of my skin is back and I can sleep on my back again. I'm more-or-less recovered ... for sure there are still some wounds that are open but we riders are used to this so it's no problem any more."
Froome missed what would have been his third stage win in the race, but there were other rewards for the Kenyan-born Briton.
"I'm very happy with the time I set. The objective today was to try and take the maximum time possible from my rivals," said Froome, who won Olympic time trial bronze in London last year.
He finished 2:03 ahead of principal rival Alberto Contador of Spain, and 2:00 ahead of his compatriot Alejandro Valverde, while Australia's Cadel Evans finished 2:30 off the pace. The Movistar leader Valverde remains second overall but saw his deficit of 1:25 balloon to 3:25, while Dutchman Bauke Mollema of Belkin moved up to third to sit 3:37 in arrears.
Contador, the race champion in 2007 and 2009, is fourth at 3:54 while 2011 champion Evans is 14th at 6:54 after finishing a disappointing 21st.
Asked if he could beat Froome, Valverde, who won the 2009 Tour of Spain but has never finished on the podium of the Tour de France, just shook his head and said: "Difficult ... difficult."
Contador, a climbing specialist like Froome but who was less suited to the flat, mostly linear race course, said he has not given up hope.
"No one's lost this race yet and no one has won it. There's a lot of racing to be done," said the Spaniard.
The onus will now be on Team Sky's rivals to attack Froome during four tough stages in the Alps beginning Sunday, as they did last Sunday when aggressive racing on stage nine destabilised the British team and ended the podium hopes of Froome's teammate Richie Porte.
Asked how he expected his rivals to race next weekend, Froome said: "Like we saw last weekend, other teams are going to throw everything they've got at us. We're just going to try and have to deal with that the best we can with the team that we've got. I'm just looking at my rivals as they are in the general classification and at this point it's Alejandro Valverde that I have to take care of the most in the race."
"But having said that there's a group of guys who are within touching distance of the yellow jersey and naturally those are the guys that I'm going to have to mark for the next week."
Mark Cavendish ‘sad’ at poor fan behaviour
Mark Cavendish had urine thrown at him by a spectator during Stage 11. Although the Briton declined to answer questions, his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team manager said: “I regret this. I always felt that cycling fans were gentlemen, enthusiastic people. Mark is sad. He’s not upset – just sad. There are 100,000 or 200,000 people on the road, and one person decided to do this.”
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