By Julien Pretot
AX-3-DOMAINES, France (Reuters) - Chris Froome's rivals had nothing to cheer about and little to hope for on Saturday after being destroyed by the Team Sky rider in the first mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Froome sped away from a group of favorites in the final climb to Ax-3-Domaines and never looked back, beating team mate Richie Porte of Australia by 51 seconds and securing the overall lead.
In the overall standings, Froome also leads Porte by 51 seconds with Alejandro Valverde in third place 1:25 behind.
Double Tour champion Alberto Contador, labeled as Froome's main rival before the start, had no answer to the Briton's acceleration and finished the stage 1:45 behind him.
"I absolutely did not feel well today. I must thank my team mate Roman Kreuziger who made impressive work and prevented me from losing more time," the Spaniard told reporters.
"I now greatly need to eat and recuperate. Tomorrow will be another day. We will see as the days go by if it was only a bad day or if I'm at my place."
While his compatriot Valverde of Movistar limited the damage, 1:08 off the pace, Australian Cadel Evans, the 2011 Tour de France champion, quickly realised he was no match for Froome.
"It's my worst day on the Tour de France healthy. GC (general classification) is over," Evans, who finished the stage 4:14 behind, told reporters.
Andy Schleck was 3:34 off the pace and the Luxembourg rider was keen to remind reporters he was not on the list of top contenders this year.
"I'm not the favorite of the Tour. They were climbing too fast for me," he said.
"There are big gaps, especially for Contador. But don't bury him too quickly. Everybody knows he suffers from allergies. The Tour is long."
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, his country's best hope after finishing 10th overall on his Tour debut last year, lost contact in the descent from the Port de Pailheres and never made it back into the leading group, losing six minutes on the line.
"He must free himself from the media pressure. He set the bar very high last year," his FDJ.fr team manager Marc Madiot said in a statement.
"We've lost a battle, we haven't lost the war"
Garmin-Sharp had wanted to cause chaos in the mountains but had to be content with American Andrew Talansky and Irishman Dan Martin crossing the line 2:34 after the winner.
"Chris is phenomenal. Last year on the Tour he was clearly the best climber in the race and this year he is getting to show what he can do, which he didn't get to do last year," said Talansky, riding his maiden Tour de France.
Talansky, who is in the mix for the white jersey for the best Under-25 rider, made a gloomy prediction.
"You know you're not going to beat Chris Froome in a drag race with an uphill finish. He's going to win every time. He's going to beat us in the time trials as well," he said.
Sunday's ninth stage is unlikely to feature a battle between the race's big guns, who should stay quiet until Wednesday's individual time trial before the peloton tackle the Alps in the third week.
(Editing By Alison Wildey)