Froome finds himself alone among enemies in Tour de France
Team Sky crush opposition on the first climb of the race in a style that led many to make inevitable comparisons to the Armstrong era
Irishman Dan Martin won the ninth stage of the Tour de France yesterday after a dramatic day of racing in the Pyrenees saw yellow jersey holder Chris Froome forced to dig deep to defend his race lead.
Martin, of the Garmin team, came over the finish with his arms in triumph after beating Dane Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in a two-up sprint.
Froome and all the race favourites arrived 19 seconds later although the Kenyan-born Briton was the sole surviving member of a Sky team over the 168.5-kilometre race from Saint-Girons to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
Post-race speculation on Saturday, when Richie Porte finished the first day in the Pyrenees second overall at only 51 seconds behind Froome, suggested Sky could aim for a second consecutive 1-2 finish in Paris on July 21.
However, the Australian was the main casualty of a frantic start to the race, and an even more concerted effort to drop him later on, as teams appeared to collude in an attempt to drop him down the standings and boost their own hopes.
Porte, the 2013 Paris-Nice champion, was over 11 minutes in arrears when Froome came over the finish line alongside rivals Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans among others.
It meant Valverde, whose Movistar team were protagonists on most of the day's five categorised mountain climbs, has moved up to second place, only one minute and 25 seconds behind Froome.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) moved up to third overall ahead of fellow-Dutchman and teammate Laurens Ten Dam, while Spain's two-time winner Contador moved up one place to sixth at 1:51 off the pace.
Martin's maiden win on the race, a few months after he lifted his biggest race at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, put the Irishman into the top 10 where he is eighth overall at 2:28.
He is from solid cycling stock, being the nephew of former Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and world champion Stephen Roche.
Meanwhile, Froome's dominating performance in the previous day's leg on which he gained the yellow jersey brought inevitable comparisons with the bad old days of Lance Armstrong.
But the Briton insists there are fundamental differences between then and now.
Last year, Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour titles for serial doping. Froome promised that his achievements would not need to be erased in the future.
"It is a bit of a personal mission to show that the sport has changed," Froome said. "I certainly know that the results I'm getting, they're not going to be stripped - 10, 20 years down the line. Rest assured, that's not going to happen."
Froome, 28, hasn't come out of nowhere. He was the Tour runner-up last year to teammate Bradley Wiggins, runner-up at the Tour of Spain in 2011 and has been the dominant rider this year coming into the Tour.
Drug testing in cycling is also better and more credible than it was when Armstrong and his US Postal Service teammates were pumping themselves with hormones, blood transfusions and other banned performance-enhancers.
While improved doping controls do not guarantee that the 198 riders who started the Tour on June 29 are competing clean, they do allow Froome's generation to argue more convincingly that they are a different and more believable breed of competitors from those who doped systematically in the 1990s and 2000s.
"It's normal that people ask questions in cycling, given the history of the sport. That's an unfortunate position we find ourselves in at the moment, that eyebrows are going to be raised, questions are going to be asked about our performances," Froome said.
"But I know the sport has changed. There's absolutely no way I'd be able to get these results if the sport hadn't changed. I mean, if you look at it logically we know that the sport's in a better place now than it was, has been, ever."
Still, the hammer-blow Froome delivered on the first stage at this Tour to finish in the high mountains and the way his Team Sky support riders exhausted his rivals by riding hard at the front made it almost impossible to not think of Armstrong.
At the Tours of 1999, 2001 and 2002, Armstrong also used the first high mountain stage to put a grip on the race. A favoured tactic for his Postal team was to ride so hard at the front that rivals would eventually peel off, spent, leaving Armstrong to then reap victory.
"Any results now, they're definitely a lot more credible," Froome said. "The questions should be asked about people who were winning races maybe five, 10 years ago when we know that doping was more prevalent.
"Anyone who actually spends a bit of time with the team, with us, building up to an event like this, I mean this is months and months of preparation that's gone into this," he added. "That work equals these results, and it's not something that's so, 'Wow. That's unbelievable'.
"It actually does add up if you look to see what actually goes into this."
Reuters, Associated Press