BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, FRANCE >> Defending champion Chris Froome took his rivals by surprise with a daring downhill attack that earned him the race leader's yellow jersey on the eighth stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.
Leading at the top of the final climb of the Tour's second Pyrenean stage, a tough 184-kilometer ride from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon, he attacked when least expected on the grueling Col de Peyresourde.
"It surprised myself too, this was the first time in my career that I attacked in a downhill, I did not believe I was able to win like this," Froome said.
In his two wins at cycling's biggest event, in 2013 and 2015, the 31-year-old Team Sky leader had asserted his authority on the race in the first mountain-top finish.
Given that track record, the other leading contenders didn't expect Froome to make a move before Sunday's stage to the ski resort of Andorre-Arcalis.
"It really was just a bit of a gamble," said Froome, who used a left jab to push aside a fan running too close to him before his stunning descent of the Col de Peyresourde.
"I thought, 'I feel good, I want to give this a try, and I would like to see if this pays off.' And I'm glad it did."
Thanks to the hard work of his teammates at the front of the peloton in the four major climbs of the day, Froome arrived in perfect condition at Peyresourde. After a first attack by Frenchman Romain Bardet fizzled out, Froome counterattacked but failed to drop Nairo Quintana in the first skirmishes among the leading contenders.
Then Froome went all out in the downhill, reaching speeds close to 90 kilometers per hour. The style remained unorthodox, but it was brilliantly efficient.
Crouched over his handlebars for extra aerodynamics, he opened a 20-second lead and used his time trial qualities to resist the chase, posting a sixth career stage win on the Tour.
"It scared me," Team Sky director Dave Brailsford said. "Today he won the race rather than the other losing it. He is a true racer."
Tour director Christian Prudhomme was also among those praising Froome's unexpected move, lauding "his great panache."
It's not the kind of praise Froome is used to getting, having often been criticized in the French media for his riding style, despite having won the Tour twice.
The other bad news for his rivals in 2016 was the impressive collective strength displayed by Sky. The British outfit set the pace at the front and prevented Froome's challengers from trying their luck in hot temperatures, and increased the tempo on the final climb.
"This big Sky team made our life tough," said Bardet, who lags 23 seconds behind Froome overall, in the same time as Quintana, Fabio Aru and Tejay Van Garderen. "And we saw a great Chris Froome, who deserves his victory."
Froome gritted his teeth as he crossed the line, raising both arms in celebration then pumping his right fist emphatically.
Dan Martin, an Irish rider with Etixx-Quick Step, won a sprint for second, crossing 13 seconds behind, and Joaquim Rodriguez, a Spaniard with Katusha, finished third.
Froome leads fellow countryman Adam Yates and Rodriguez by 16 seconds in the overall standings.
Although it did not feature a mountain-top finish, the stage took the peloton on a hard ride including the legendary Col du Tourmalet, a punishing 19-kilometer climb at an average gradient of 7.4 percent.
After losing more than three minutes to the main contenders in Friday's first Pyrenean stage, Frenchman Thibaut Pinot attacked at the foothill of the mountain pass.
Pinot was joined by Alberto Contador's Tinkoff teammate, Rafal Majka, and time trial specialist Tony Martin as riders climbed the Tourmalet for the 84th time in the Tour's history.
Pinot stepped up the pace in the final kilometer of climbing, cheered by fans lining the road, but was dropped in the Col de Val Louron-Azet. Movistar and Sky continued to push and Pinot couldn't match the frenetic pace imposed by the peloton, falling even further out of contention.
After Martin and Majka were also reeled in, Michael Morkov became the first rider to abandon the race, a week after injuring his right leg in a crash during the first stage in Normandy.
With all the favorites still together in the main pack, Team Sky riders Mikel Nieve and Geraint Thomas spent long spells at the front and led the peloton in the fast downhill where Wilco Kelderman crashed on a hairpin alongside his Lotto-Jumbo teammate George Bennett. Both men remounted and continued riding on the final ascent.
Former Tour winner Alberto Contador's struggles continued and the Spaniard lost 1:41 to Froome, dropping to 20th overall, 3:12 back.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf contributed to this report.