Alberto Contador finished in 8th place in the steep summit finish of stage five Wednesday and passed the first big climbing test of the 2017 Tour de France.
It is always a question how the legs will react on the first mountain ascent and, unlike previous years, the first summit finish arrived early in the first week, throwing the climbers into the fire after only four stages.
The 5.6-kilometer La Planche des Belles Filles climb was not long, but what it lacked in distance it made up with steep gradients, hitting 13-percent grades early and topping out at a massive 20 percent in the final meters.
The day's breakaway was quickly tamed in the first part of La Planche des Belles Filles, and the peloton rapidly pared to its strongest climbers.
Bauke Mollema supported Contador for as long as he could, but the ridiculously steep gradient offered little respite for pacing teammates, and he fell off the lead group soon after the three-kilometer to go marker.
"The whole day we rode very fast because the front group was very strong and BMC worked hard, I think they thought Porte could win this stage," said Mollema. "We had an average of 44-45km/h the whole day until the steep climb, and everybody came fresh to the bottom and immediately went full gas. It was a very explosive climb.
"I had to find my climbing rhythm back because I felt it that we have not climbed for a week now. We only had flat stages until now, and those were stages where I didn't really have a personal goal except for getting safely through the day. I tried to stay with Alberto as long as possible, but at around 2.5kms from the end, it was over for me."
Fabio Aru (Astana) was the first to attack, jumping away with 2.3 kilometers to go. His move went unanswered until Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) accelerated, and Sky responded: Chris Froome played his card 1600 meters from the line and exploded the leading group, leaving Contador pulling a group of seven, and Froome moving clear with three others in pursuit of Aru.
Contador, initially dropped, recovered and pulled back to within a handful of seconds to the biggest two pre-race favorites, Froome and Richie Porte (BMC), while Aru danced his way to the win and moved into third place overall.
"With the attack with two kilometers to go, I preferred to go a little more steady because it was still long to go to the finish," Contador explained. "I think it was okay – I continued with very high watts, and came back close in the end.
"Okay, I lost some seconds in the sprint, but we saved a very hard day. This is a long race, it's not like a one-week race, and in the Tour de France a lot of things can happen. We have had only had one time trial and one mountain stage, it has been a good test, but I think it will be harder this weekend."
This is going to be a Tour for riding regular, and I will try to do it.
Froome finished 20 seconds behind Aru, enough to land him in the yellow jersey, while Contador moved up the standings to eighth place.
"I was more aware of Chris and Richie," added Contador. "For sure that Aru is a very strong rider, he already showed it in the Dauphiné, but today I had focused more on watching the other two.
"I have to see the GC carefully, but the differences have not been very significant considering how we have done the climb. This is going to be a Tour for riding regular, and I will try to do it. We'll see in the Alps, which is the area I like the most, to see if we try something.
"I think this Tour will be open until its finale; it's different than last year. I think it's one where it's important to be steady. If you have one bad day, you can lose everything, and the secret will be avoiding a bad day."