MONT VENTOUX, France – From now on, let him be called Chris Vrooooom.
In a display of cycling power that flabbergasted seasoned observers of his sport, Chris Froome tamed the mammoth mountain climb up Mont Ventoux in Provence on Sunday to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey in a relentless ride toward victory at the 100th Tour de France.
On France's national Bastille Day holiday, he became the first British stage winner on the mountain where his countryman, Tom Simpson, died from a lethal cocktail of exhaustion, heat and doping at the 1967 Tour. The final burst of acceleration Froome used to shake off his last exhausted pursuer, Colombian Nairo Quintana, was close to a stone memorial to Simpson on the mountain's barren upper reaches.
Mouth agape from the effort, filling his lungs with the thinning mountain air, Froome thrust his right arm upward in victory as he became the first rider since the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1970 to win a Mont Ventoux stage while also wearing the race leader's yellow jersey.
"It was incredible (Sunday), incredible. This is the biggest victory of my career," Froome said. "I didn't imagine this; this climb is so historical. It means so much to this race, especially being the 100th edition. I really can't believe this."
Froome required oxygen at the summit, 6,273 feet up, to recover. But it was his rivals who were knocked out. The closest four riders to Froome are now more than four minutes behind – a lead that should comfortably carry him over the last six stages and 520 miles to the finish next Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
"It's over," predicted Greg LeMond, the only U.S. winner of cycling's greatest race after Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong were stripped of their titles for doping.
In a sport where so many exploits of recent decades later proved to have been drug-assisted, Froome has been asked during this year's race if he's riding clean.
Not only does he insist he is, he also says his success proves that cycling's sustained anti-doping efforts are working and leveling the playing field. If so, then the extravagant superiority, grit, strength and speed Froome demonstrated on Ventoux, one of the most respected and storied ascents in cycling, deserve a special place in the sport's collective memory. Because this was, as Froome said, "an epic ride."
Froome said it was the first time he'd needed to breathe oxygen at the end of a climb. He coughed violently at the top, and his voice sounded croaky.
"It really was a full-gas effort up until the finish," he said. "I was feeling quite fainted and short of breath at the top."