By JEROME PUGMIRE
SAINT-NAZAIRE, France — Given the way Chris Froome is riding, he could take a big step toward winning the Tour de France on Wednesday.
That’s when Froome gets the chance to extend his lead over the likes of two-time champion Alberto Contador, 2010 winner Andy Schleck and 2011 winner Cadel Evans in the Tour’s first individual time trial, one of his favorite disciplines.
Froome’s rivals are already lagging behind after two punishing days of climbing in the Pyrenees that underlined the British rider’s status as the clear favorite. But Contador, who is nearly two minutes back, has not given up hope.
“I will try and do something,” Contador said Monday. “Everyone’s legs are hurting, but if you don’t think you can succeed then you never will. So we have to take a few risks.”
Froome demonstrated panache and resilience over the weekend. First, he crushed his rivals with a brutal acceleration up to the finish line in Saturday’s eighth stage. The next day, he fended off attacks from rivals without the help of his teammates on an even tougher mountain stage.
“They were probably thinking about getting some time back on me,” Froome said. “I knew that those were attacks that I had to cover.”
It is hard to spot any weakness in Froome, who finished runner-up to his Sky teammate and countryman Bradley Wiggins last year when he had to curtail his own attacking instincts to serve Wiggins.
After nine nervous, crash-filled days and 940 miles in the saddle, Monday’s rest day near the cooling waters of the Loire-Atlantique region could not come soon enough for the battered peloton after the stifling heat of southwestern France.
Contador, Schleck and the 36-year-old Evans now have to figure out a way to take the yellow jersey from Froome. Contador is 1:51 behind in sixth; Schleck is four minutes back in 15th place; and Evans trails by 4:36 in 16th place.
Given that Froome has looked the strongest in the mountains and is among the favorites Wednesday, they have a lot of thinking to do.
“It’s been a super first week,” Froome’s Sky team manager Dave Brailsford said.
Unless Froome has an accident — and there have been several high-speed spills so far — it is hard to see where he can possibly lose time. If anything, he will gain ground.
That is providing his Sky teammates don’t have another bad day like Sunday, when they were dropped in the early climbs.
“If we get another chance like this we will make the most of it,” Contador said.
There is a glimmer of hope for Contador and others if they can work together against Sky when the race returns to the high mountains Sunday. But that is easier said than done.
Contador takes heart from having won the Spanish Vuelta last year, when Froome finished about 10 minutes behind in fourth place.
“I was in survival mode at the Vuelta,” Froome said. “If people want to make comparisons that’s up to them, but I don’t feel I was at my best.”
Wednesday’s 20.5-mile dash from Avranches to Mont-Saint-Michel is a chance for him to put more time between him and Contador.
“It’s a very flat time trial and that is a disadvantage for me,” Contador said.
This is the 100th edition of the Tour and also the first since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven straight titles (1999-2005) for serial doping.
Froome has said twice so far during the race that he is riding clean. Contador said Monday he has never doped, even though he served a doping ban and was stripped of his 2010 Tour title for the banned drug clenbuterol.
“Naturally people are going to ask questions in cycling,” Froome said Monday. “Whenever there are great performances they have been linked to doping in the past, so naturally now we’re bearing the brunt of a lot of those questions.”
Contador, who lost his 2010 title to Schleck, has always denied doping.
“You can believe what you want,” he said. “But the only thing that I can tell you is that I have always practiced cycling clean.”
Froome would not be drawn on Contador’s comment, other than saying: “There definitely do need to be questions asked about performances in the past, where guys have been very successful and are no longer on that same level.”
In March, Belgian authorities opened a judicial inquiry into Dr. Geert Leinders, who previously worked for Sky and before that for Rabobank. Several Rabobank riders have confessed to doping and implicated Leinders, who has denied the accusations.
“We all know the level of suspicions there is around the sport,” Brailsford said. “We have to accept that questions about performances are legitimate questions.”
Leinders left Team Sky late last year after more than a season working with them.
“The whole thing is my responsibility. I’ll take that squarely on the chin,” Brailsford said. “I shouldn’t have done it. I made an error of judgment.”
Tuesday’s stage is a flat route for sprinters. After the time trial, there are two more sprint stages. On Sunday there is a massive 12.9-mile ascent to Mont Ventoux. A few days later, riders face three straight days of rigorous climbing in the high Alps.
“Throughout my career I’ve found my best form in the third week,” Contador said.