Sky protects Froome’s Tour lead as Majka wins Stage 11


CAUTERETS, France | Rafal Majka led a solo breakaway to win the 11th stage of the Tour de France under a scorching sun on Wednesday, leaving behind a small group of rivals on the hardest climb of Day 2 in the Pyrenees mountains as Chris Froome easily retained the yellow jersey.

The stage victory by Majka, a Pole who won twice on last year’s Tour, provided a lift for a Tinkoff Saxo Bank team whose leader, two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador, has been struggling in this year’s race. Tinkoff Saxo became the seventh squad to win a stage this year in a sign of well-distributed honors in a race otherwise dominated by Froome’s powerful Team Sky.

“I like this weather when it’s really hot. Many others suffer, but I prefer this to rain,” Majka said. “I think that to be a climber, you have to be born a climber … I like long ascents like this.”

The 25-year-old Majka presented little threat to Froome. He had begun the 188-kilometer (117-mile) stage from Pau to Cauterets more than 44 1/2 minutes behind the British race leader. Froome finished more than five minutes back along with the other pre-race favorites.

Majka, who last year took home the polka dot jersey awarded to the race’s best climber, burst out of a breakaway bunch on the way up the Tourmalet pass — the highest and most frequently visited Tour peak in the Pyrenees — and was the first over it. For that achievement, he won a 5,000 euro ($5,500) prize awarded in honor of a former Tour race director.

The day’s results had little impact on the overall standings, a day after a superior Froome impressed his main rivals by winning Stage 10, which featured a tough uphill finish. He leads Tejay van Garderen of the United States, who is second, by 2 minutes, 52 seconds while Nairo Quintana of Colombia is third, 3:09 back. Contador is sixth, 4:04 off the Briton’s pace.

Froome’s lead after 10 stages was the biggest at this phase of the race since at least 2006 — the year after Lance Armstrong won his last Tour before his seven titles were stripped for doping throughout his career.

Froome played down talk about the race already being all but over, telling French TV before the stage: “A bad day in the mountains, and three minutes can disappear.”

The Briton and his Sky team made sure that Wednesday wouldn’t be that bad day.

Defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali trailed more than five minutes behind Majka, like Froome and the other title hopefuls. Showering himself from a water bottle in the heat, Nibali sought to salvage some honor after he all but fell out of contention in Tuesday’s entree into the Pyrenees.

He was briefly at the front of a small lead bunch, before Sky regained control. Leading Sky’s train was Australia’s Richie Porte, wearing a Cheshire-cat smile as he panted up the climb.

A seven-rider breakaway including Majka led the way over the day’s first hard climb, the Aspin pass. Among them were Dan Martin, an Irish rider with Cannondale-Garmin who won a Tour stage in this region two years ago, and France’s Thomas Voeckler — a four-time Tour stage winner who won the polka dot jersey in 2012.

Many seasoned race observers say it will take nearly a miracle for Froome’s main rivals to topple him before the race ends on Paris’ Champs-Elysees on July 26.

Appropriately enough, Stage 11 took the pack into the Roman Catholic shrine town of Lourdes, made famous because of a peasant girl’s visions of the Virgin Mary over 150 years ago. These days, millions of Catholics visit the town every year.

Livestock on the sunbaked, grassy mountainsides offered their own hazards for the speeding racers.

France’s Warren Barguil had to gingerly veer to the edge of the road on the fast downhill route from the Tourmalet as a pair of cows meandered across the road.

Thursday’s finale in the Pyrenees offers more punishment, with a 195-kilometer (121-mile) trek from Lannemezan to the Plateau de Beille ski resort, featuring another uphill finish.