ROUBAIX, France, July 15 (Reuters) - It was not the expected major shakedown, but the riders’ faces told a story of suffering as most of the main Tour de France favourites stayed in contention after a much-feared stage nine on Sunday.
The 156.5-km route from Arras featured 21.7km of cobbled sections, in which the climbers had to grind their way to the finish.
There were scares and crashes, but defending champion Chris Froome, his lieutenant Geraint Thomas as well as Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, twice runner-up Nairo Quintana, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin and 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali all escaped unhurt.
Only Australian Richie Porte crashed out after 10km and last year’s runner-up Rigoberto Uran lost one minute 28 seconds on the favourites’ group after hitting the ground.
France’s Romain Bardet lost seven seconds but things could have been much worse for the twice podium finisher as he suffered three punctures.
“It’s a big relief to get through that stage, the guys did a great job keeping me and Geraint safe, chapeau to them. I’m looking forward to the rest day tomorrow,” said Froome, who finished 27 seconds behind stage winner John Degenkolb.
“The GC (general classification) guys got through. Richie crashed out before the first section, it’s never nice to see a rival go like that.”
The four-times champion crashed on a cobbled section but on the side of the road and he was quickly back in the main bunch.
“(My team mate) Gianni (Moscon) went down in front of me and I just went over the top,” Froome said.
“It was a stressful day, I’m just grateful we got through. I had a bit of a tumble but I got back and finished with most of the GC guys.”
Overall, Froome lies eighth, one minute 42 seconds behind Belgian Greg van Avermaet, who is expected to lose his yellow jersey on Tuesday when the peloton hits the mountains, and six seconds ahead of Nibali.
The best-placed overall contender is Thomas, who is second and 43 seconds off the pace.
“It’s a good position to be in,” Froome said. Uran dropped down the rankings to 22nd, 2:53 behind Van Avermaet while Bardet is 17th, 2:32 off the pace.
“I had misfortunes today with the punctures but the legs are good and it’s a good sign before the Alps,” the Frenchman said.
Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Ed Osmond