AP Sports Writer
CAMBRAI, France — Having stayed safe on the treacherous cobblestones, Chris Froome cared little about conceding the race leader’s yellow jersey to Tony Martin on Tuesday’s fourth stage of an action-packed Tour de France.
After crashing out of last year’s race early, following three crashes in two days, Froome had good reason to be nervous given that this stage featured seven sections of cobbles.
But the nightmare scenario never materialized, and the British rider repelled the attacks of defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali as the valiant Italian failed to claw back time on him.
“I wasn’t trying to show how strong I was on the cobbles today; it was about staying out of trouble,” said Froome, the 2013 Tour champion. “Congratulations to Tony for his late attack.”
Relieved after cruising through the final paved section, Froome did not chase as the German rider peeled away some 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the line to clinch a fifth Tour stage win and take the yellow after narrowly missing it on stage 1.
“While Tony’s a great time trialist, he’s not going to be there in the mountains,” Froome said. “I’m happy to see the jersey go to him rather than any of the big overall rivals. This is the perfect situation for us.”
Ferocious side-winds in stage 3, a huge crash on stage 4 that took down 20 riders and put five out of the race, and Tuesday’s cobbles have presented riders with a dangerous cocktail of hazards.
Froome’s come through them unscathed and with a healthy lead over his rivals.
He leads two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador by 36 seconds; Nibali by 1:38 and Colombian rider Nairo Quintana, the 2013 runner-up, by 1:56.
“We can all let off a big sigh of relief after today,” Froome said. “It was a stressful stage and sketchy on the cobbles, and I know we’ll all be sleeping a lot better tonight.”
The 30-year-old Martin, a three-time world time trial champion who finished second to Rohan Dennis in stage 1’s time trial, fell into the arms of his teammates after the stage. Countryman John Degenkolb finished second and Slovak Peter Sagan was third.
“All the pressure of the last days has come off,” said Martin, who was one second behind Froome overnight. “I was really on the limit. I got round the last corner and I was surprised I could make it.”
After the final cobblestone section, he got a flat tire and swapped bikes with teammate Matteo Trentin.
“Changing the bike, with the wrong position, I was just thinking to finish,” Martin said. “Suddenly, five kilometers (from) the finish, I just decided to give it a chance.”
He leads Froome by 12 seconds and American rider Tejay Van Garderen — shaping up as a dangerous outsider — by 25 seconds.
Nibali, who built last year’s win on the back of a brilliant performance on the slippery cobbles, failed repeatedly to crack Froome’s resistance.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Nibali said. “Froome is very strong.”
After Monday’s spill, riders hardly relished the cobbles dotted along the 223.5-kilometer (138.6-mile) trek from Seraing to Cambrai, as the race crossed the Meuse river in Belgium’s Walloon region before swinging back into France.
They rolled over the first cobbles safely.
One down, six to go.
As some rain began to fall the roads were more slippery, and Dan Martin, Matteo Tosatto and Michele Scarponi fell taking a tight corner. They all carried on.
But the dreaded downpour never came.
After losing time to Froome in stages 3 and 4, Nibali hoped to turn the tables, and his Astana teammates really started to speed up heading into the second cobble section.
But Froome was right behind and, refusing to be intimidated, right next to Nibali nearing the third set of cobbles.
Flanked by teammate Lars Boom, Nibali launched a sudden attack. Froome appeared caught out, drifting back briefly, but then responding quickly.
Section 4 made little impact, but it was approaching section 5 when Froome survived a scare as he went on the outside of Jacopo Guarnieri, who squeezed him for space. With his bike wobbling dangerously to the right, Froome steadied it just enough.
Pushing hard, Nibali still had not gained time on Froome in the final three cobble sections, one of which caused Frenchman Thibaut Pinot to lose valuable time after a tire puncture.
While Martin changed his bike, Contador rode the last 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) with the broken rim of his wheel rubbing the brakes.
“I hung in there,” the Spaniard said.
Wednesday’s mostly flat fifth stage, over 189.5 kilometers (117.5 miles) from Arras to Amiens will be a welcome relief after a demanding few days.