Sheer incline that stretched even the finest

The lead group on stage two of the Tour de France, climb the steepest part of Jenkin Road in Sheffield. (Picture: Tony Johnson)
The lead group on stage two of the Tour de France, climb the steepest part of Jenkin Road in Sheffield. (Picture: Tony Johnson)
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Chris Froome versus Alberto Contador on the No 45 bus route – Jenkin Road and the Tour de France might never be the same again.

If a snapshot of this most majestic, yet surreal of weekends was required then it came yesterday on that beast of a 33 per cent gradient.

The leading yellow jersey contenders jostling for position, straining every sinew, with blue collar Sheffield unravelling in the distance behind them.

Such heavyweight contests at a Tour de France are normally reserved for the final weeks of the race, for the picture-perfect Alps with their switchbacks and descents.

But this was day two of the race, and this was South Yorkshire – a time and a place far removed from the great duals in Tour history.

Jenkin Road had been pinpointed as a potentially decisive sting in the tail ever since the routes for the two stages in Yorkshire had been announced.

World Tour teams looked upon it with fear and began lowering expectations before they could be raised.

“We’ll try not lose time to our general classification contenders,” was the message from team bus to team principal.

Whether collectively, or individually, each of the teams targeting the maillet jaune at the end of this three-week journey decided that the best form of defence on Jenkin Road was attack.

All of the major general classification contenders were there on that 800m climb: Froome, Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen.

They took turns attacking and retaliating. At one stage with Contador out of the saddle and off the front, the leaders looked like they would grind to a halt as the sheer incline of Jenkin Road bit hard.

Froome had the energy to kick on and launch an attack on the inside, the crowds who had rolled out of nearby houses or flocked in from far and wide, banging the hoardings with approval.

This was the pivotal moment of Yorkshire’s Tour de France and the big boys had come out to play. Eventually Froome and Contador relented and sprinter Peter Sagan took up the charge before Nibali broke with 2km to go, sped past Meadowhall Shopping Centre without a moment’s thought for the mid-season sales and raced to the line. Froome, finishing 19th, just two seconds behind.

Another 200 metres and he might have been caught but the third favourite for the yellow jersey held his arms aloft to salute victory. Just as Harrogate had seen a worthy sprint champion in Marcel Kittel, so Sheffield could revel in a winner of genuine class.

But it is the Froome versus Contador battle up Jenkin Road that will define the Tour’s visit to the Broad Acres.

It was our Greg LeMond against Bernard Hinault up Alpe d’Huez in 1986, our Contador versus Andy Schleck through the mist on the Tourmalet four years ago.

“For me personally it was about staying out of trouble, staying at the front and avoiding any major issues or splits,” was Froome’s modest assessment, while Contador said it was ‘a day to test his overall strength rather than make an all-out attack’.

Regardless of their protestations, it was an epic contest that looked every inch a sharpening of the claws.

And it was Nibali – known as the Shark – who bared his teeth. His break from 2km out thrilled the crowds and as well as a first stage win at the Tour de France, the 2013 Giro d’Italia winner now has the yellow jersey in his possession and a two-second lead to protect as the race heads south.

Nibali, who came home ahead of Belgium’s Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing), said: “I had a great chance to attack and I took it. My main goal is to get a good result at the end of the Tour de France. I don’t want to lose my head, the Tour is a very hard race. I want to dedicate my win to my team (Astana) and the people of England.”

Those fans came under scrutiny again with Van Garderen questioning the sanity of one fan taking a ‘selfie’ with 200 cyclists bearing down on him. So the enthusiasm of Yorkshire’s five million cycling fans needs tempering a little... but, in all honesty, who could blame them for being a little over-excited?