Froome-Quintana battle still looming after calm mountain leg
LE LIORAN, FRANCE — The expected battle between Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana at the Tour de France has been put on hold for at least a couple of days.
The leading contenders had a relatively quiet day in the race's first medium mountain stage Wednesday, content to let Greg van Avermaet complete a successful solo attack and take the overall leader's yellow jersey. The Belgian rider is not in contention to finish top of the general classification, or GC, when the race ends in Paris.
"For us it's just about winning the GC and Chris was comfortable. It was not really a day for the big GC guys," said Geraint Thomas, Froome's top support rider at Sky. "Obviously some guys lost a bit of time but for Froomey it was just about staying at the front, staying calm and not losing any time to anybody."
Two-time winner Alberto Contador and 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali both lost time over the demanding route through the Massif Central.
Contador finished 33 seconds behind the other overall favorites while Nibali — who won the Giro d'Italia in May — lost more than eight minutes, putting an end to his chances of overall victory.
"It's just a handful of seconds here," Thomas said. "You can't write Contador off. Obviously it's a bonus, but we certainly don't take anything for granted."
Still, it's looking more and more like a battle between Froome, the defending and two-time champion from Britain, and two-time runner-up Quintana from Colombia.
Van Avermaet was part of an early nine-man breakaway and he methodically whittled down the group before accelerating past fellow Belgian Thomas De Gendt with 17 kilometers (10 miles) to go on the penultimate climb of the day.
The 31-year-old Van Avermaet also won a stage in last year's Tour and is known as a specialist at single-day classics and short stage races, having won Paris-Tours in 2011 and the Tirreno-Adriatico this year.
"It's special for me. It's the best jersey in the world. It's my first time and perhaps the last so I will enjoy every moment," Van Avermaet said. "It's the best moment of my career. Winning a stage is already quite something but this takes it to another level."
The 216-kilometer (134-mile) fifth stage from Limoges to Le Lioran featured five climbs in a constant up-and-down finish, including the 1,589-meter (5,213-foot) Pas de Peyrol.
It was the first time that the Tour reached above 1,500 meters this early in the race since the leg-breaking start to the 1979 edition, which began with three stages in the Pyrenees over the first four days.
Nibali was dropped on the Peyrol along with world champion Peter Sagan, who was wearing the yellow jersey for a third day.
Sagan still has the green points jersey but he fell to 76th overall, more than 23 minutes behind.
"I dont care about it. C'est la vie," Sagan said, using a French phrase that translates to "That's life."
De Gendt finished second in the stage, 2:35 behind and Rafal Majka of Poland, the 2014 King of the Mountains, crossed third, 5:04 back.
In the overall standings, Van Avermaet holds a lead of 5:11 over rising French rider Julian Alaphilippe, with Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde third, 5:13 behind.
Froome is fifth, 5:17 behind, and Quintana is seventh with the same time.
Contador, who fell twice in each of the opening two stages, is 25th, 6:38 back.
"I knew it would be hard," Contador said. "The two crashes really hurt. I'm still aching. It's not easy to recover. But I'm hanging in there."
Van Avermaet does not consider himself a threat for the overall title. He plans to support BMC captains Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte in the Pyrenees and Alps.
"It's good to have good morale in the team and to take the pressure off," Van Avermaet said. "The main goal for us is having Tejay or Richie on the podium in Paris."
On a sunny and pleasant day with the temperature at about 20 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit), fans — many of them wearing polka-dot King of the Mountains jerseys — lined the road in large numbers leading up to the Le Lioran ski resort.
"The most important thing was not crashing, because the descents were tricky and the pavement was melting," Van Avermaet said. "It was good to stay concentrated and enjoy the last kilometer. It's kind of strange because I'm a sprinter and usually you cannot enjoy the finish so much."
Stage 6 Thursday is a flatter 190.5-kilometer (118-mile) leg from Arpajon-sur-Cere to Montauban. The next mountain stages come this weekend in the Pyrenees, although the Tour may not be decided until the race reaches the Alps in the third week.
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