Blazin' Saddles

Froome presents case for leadership

On the first rest day after Team Sky's dominant start to the Tour one reporter told the yellow jersey that some race watchers had likened him and Chris Froome to Batman and Robin.

"Yeah, but I'm Batman," replied Brad Wiggins with a chuckle. KAPOW!! One reporter sent on his way without even a swear word uttered.

"But your so curious costumes...?" probed another. "Don't be put off by them, ma'am. Under this garb we're perfectly ordinary Britons," replied Bruce Wayne Bradley (or would have done, had that second question actually been real).

If Froome's performance on the way to La Planche des Belles Filles had set tongues wagging about his own potential Tour winning credentials, then Wiggins's riposte — SPLOOSH!! — one day later in the ITT firmly reinstated Brad as driver of the Sky Batmobile.

With its four gruelling climbs and short but beastly parcours, Thursday's Queen Stage of the Tour provided the ideal setting for the next instalment of Batman & Robin: Sky Fight.

Early in the stage, Batman Brad had lent the keys of the Batmobile to his trusty Antipodean Alfreds, Mick Rogers and Richie Porte. Efficient and butler-like, they did their job and then scarpered for the final showdown scenes between Batman and Robin on one side, and the Riddler (Vincenzo Nibali), Catwoman (Jurgen van den Broeck), Penguin (Cadel Evans) and Mr Freeze (Tejay Van Garderen) on the other (Denis 'The Joker' Menchov didn't turn up). ZWARP!!

After Riddler Nibbles had put in his second of two pulsating attacks on the final ascent to La Toussuire, Froome was well and truly living up to his billing as Robin: fading fast, he was nearly dropped off the back. TWACK!!

Saved by a lenient flat section of the Cat.1 climb, Froome returned to support Wiggins. Then they looked back and saw Penguin Evans dropping back with a flap and forcing his own understudy Tejay Van Garderen to, well, Freeze. KER-PLOP!!

Froome and Wiggins smelled blood and laid down the hammer. But as they caught the Nibali group up the road, Froome continued on with what can only be described as a full-on attack. This huge surge of pace was too much for Wiggins, who subsequently cracked. SPLA-A-T!!

With 5km to go, sidekick Robin had rebelled against Batman's authority. Transcendent and all in black, Froome had done what no one else in the peloton has managed to do: crack the yellow jersey. All of a sudden, he was less Robin and more Dark Knight. And you could see in the way he was riding — he could and would have continued.

But then he suddenly slowed. He was fiddling with his earpiece and talking into his radio. ("Holy strawberries, Batman. We're in a jam," he didn't say.) No, the orders had come in. Over the shoulder he looked — and there he saw Master Wayne out of costume and floundering. And so he sat up and waited for Batman's return, reprising his role of Robin. KLONK!!

After the stage, Wiggins tried to make light of the situation. "At the moment when Froome went ahead, there was a lot of noise and a lot of things going on over the radio and there was a bit of confusion at that point as to what we were doing," he said (although he also claimed that he "didn't have a radio at that point as my earpiece had fallen out.").

Holy demolition, Batman! But not wholly convincing.

Chris — or Froome, as Wiggins bizarrely seems to refer to his team-mate as — was much clearer on what had happened. "They asked me to slow down," he told reporters when quizzed about what DS Sean Yates and the Sky management had said on the radio.

Froome did have a little dig close to the line and managed to take third place on the stage, taking two seconds off Wiggins's overall lead as he moved above Evans into second place on the GC.

Two Britons holding the top two places on the Tour GC is quite unprecedented — but talk won't stop of whether or not Robin could well be stronger than Batman. There's no doubt that Wiggins is the better rider against the clock, but left to his own devices in the Pyrenees, many feel Froome could easily claw back his two-minute deficit if only he wasn't under strict orders not to undermine Sky's hierarchy.

It's reached a point now when the f***ing w***ers on Twitter are already discussing the teams Froome should join next season in a bid to be numero uno — although this is a moot point given the hefty contract extension the Kenyan-born Brit recently signed (in blood?) with Dave Brailsford's squad.

Admittedly, the thought of Froome taking the race to Wiggins in the Pyrenees is certainly more appealing to the neutral than a continued Sky stalemate.

Indeed, seeing a rider's wings clipped by his own team is excruciating for those who fear a repeat of the 1985 Tour when Greg Lemond was forced to deliver La Vie Claire team-mate Bernhard Hinault to his record-equalling fifth Tour win instead of riding himself to what would have been an almost certain win.

Froome's sudden volte face en route to La Toussuire was reminiscent of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix when Rubens Barrichello was ordered to allow Ferrari team-mate Michael Schumacher to pass to obtain the win.

The difference being, of course, is that team orders are allowed in cycling, predominantly a team sport. Quizzed about the situation at the finish, Froome simply said: "Our plan is to look after Bradley and I'm here to do that."

Asked then if he was frustrated, Froome replied serenely: "No, I follow orders at all costs. I'm part of the team and I have to do what the team asks me to do." He added, diplomatically: "Bradley is just as strong as me and stronger than me in the time trials."

Known as 'Froome Dog' by his team-mates, the 27-year-old will know that he'll fittingly be kept on a leash in the remaining mountain stages by his own owners.

Paid handsomely (north of one million pounds a year some claim) to do a job for a man who (let's be honest) has earned Sky's leadership fair and square, Froome is doing just that. He's still young and his time will come, Froome knows that full well. Whether or not he will ever get a good a chance as this to win a Tour de France is another matter.

An outright Froome win over Wiggins, however, would be a PR disaster for Team Sky. Sure, if it happens as a Plan B after Wiggins cracks or crashes, then it would be a welcome tonic. In short, this is a perfect situation to be in for Team Sky. They have the right man in yellow — and the race's strongest man riding in support. How could they lose?