It has become a familiar sight at the Tour de France: the riders of Team Sky, clad in jet-black jerseys, tapping out a high cadence at the head of the peloton.
On Sunday, as the race leaders made their way over five climbs in the Pyrenees, most of Sky's members were nowhere to be seen. Attacks from rival teams like Movistar had decimated the British squad, leaving its captain – and current Tour leader – Chris Froome to fend for himself at the front of the race.
Although Movistar, a Spanish squad, and its leader, Alejandro Valverde, seemed to push the pace incessantly, trying furiously to shake Froome throughout Stage 9, won by Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp, he vigilantly marked the attacks to keep a stranglehold on the yellow jersey.
"It was one of the hardest days I've ever had on the bike," Froome said. "Also to be in the front group on my own was a difficult position to be in, but I'm happy with how I've come through today, and obviously with the yellow jersey to not have lost time to any of the other contenders."
Indeed, there were few changes to the top 10. Valverde is 1 minute 25 seconds back, though he took over second place from Froome's Sky teammate Richie Porte, who cracked on the day's second climb, the Col de Menté, and is now nearly 20 minutes off the pace. Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank is in sixth place, still nearly two minutes behind Froome; Cadel Evans is in 16th place, 4 minutes 36 seconds back.
Froome, a Kenya-born Briton, had wanted to follow up on his explosive ride to Ax-3-Domaines on Saturday, which brought him the Tour lead for the first time in his career and opened big-time gaps over his rivals.
But it was apparent early on in the 168.5-kilometre stage, which ended in the spa town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre, that he would have to be content with simply managing his newfound status, when an attack by two Garmin-Sharp riders saw Peter Kennaugh tumble off the side of the road as Sky mounted a chase. By the time the race hit the Col de Menté, Froome was down to just Porte. When Valverde and his Movistar teammate Rubén Plaza stormed ahead on the ascent, however, only Froome could follow.
With a small breakaway ahead for most of the stage, Froome rode solo amid a group of nearly 30 riders, including his fellow contenders Contador, Evans and even a rejuvenated Andy Schleck.
"I had Nicolas Portal in the car, telling me not to worry," he said, referring to one of Sky's sport directors. "But it was straightforward. My big rivals were in that group, and obviously the objective for me was to make sure I stay with those guys."
But it was Movistar who gave him the most difficulty, including on the stage's final climb, La Hourquette d'Ancizan, when Nairo Quintana, the team's Colombian climber, tested Froome's fitness with a series of small bursts of speed.
"He's a light little Colombian who can fly up hill, so to cover his attacks wasn't easy," said Froome, who revealed that he was prepared for a fight on the last climb. "I was ready for more attacks, but I'm quite glad that there weren't any."
Despite all the pressure, some riders felt that the group had not done enough to challenge Froome.
"I was quite surprised they didn't attack him more," said Martin, the stage winner. "It was a massive opportunity for Saxo and Movistar to attack him, but they waited for the climbs to attack him, which is the worst possible time, really."
When Rohan Dennis pulled out of the Tour before the stage, Martin's Garmin-Sharp squad was down to seven riders. Though they tried throughout the day to be in the breakaway, it was Martin, an Irishman, who finally broke through as he and Jakob Fuglsang of Astana attacked with less than 38 kilometres to race. Martin outduelled the Dane to the finish line for his first Tour stage win – and the first for his team this race.
"We're going to enjoy the stage win," he said. "It's been an incredibly difficult first week so far."
Canada's Ryder Hesjedal finished the stage 59th to drop into 41st overall. David Veilleux of Cap-Rouge, Que., and Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., are 132nd and 173rd respectively.
After the stage, riders took charter planes from the Pyrenees to Saint-Nazaire, on France's northwestern Atlantic coast, where a rest day awaits Monday. Though there will be a stage for sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan to shine Tuesday, the next chance for overall contenders to claw back time against Froome is Wednesday, a 33-kilometre time trial that ends on Mont-Saint-Michel.
If last year's course, with nearly 97 kilometres of individual tests against the clock, was built for a time-trial specialist like Bradley Wiggins, who won the 2012 race, this year's course is suited more to all-around riders.
And although Froome has been dominant this year in the time trials he's entered, including at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, where he beat rivals like Contador, he is clearly relishing the more balanced racing format.
On Sunday, though exhausted from a stressful ride against his closest rivals, he seemed energized by the day's activity.
"This is bike racing," he said. "There's a lot more to G.C. riding than going fast uphill and time trialing."