- Associated Press - Monday, July 8, 2013

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.

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