June 13, 2015

SAINT-GERVAIS MONT BLANC, France (AP) Chris Froome sent out a strong message three weeks before the Tour de France by winning the toughest mountain stage of the Criterium du Dauphine race in dominant fashion on Saturday.

American rider Tejay van Garderen took the race leader's yellow jersey from overnight leader Vincenzo Niabli. But the seventh stage - featuring five category 1 climbs - belonged to Froome, the 2013 Tour champion.

Van Garderen finished 17 seconds behind him and South African Louis Meintjes was 41 seconds back in third.

The 30-year-old Froome was delighted to win the queen stage: the name used in cycling to describe the toughest mountain stage of a race.

''I couldn't be happier right now because the guys rode out of their skin today. After a day like yesterday, with nearly 200 kilometers in the rain and a lot of big contenders in the break, it made us tend to make it again as hard as we could,'' said Froome, who lost his Tour title after a heavy crash early in last year's race. ''It's a really good show of where I'm at. It was very important for me to win here even if my form is not at its best.''

Van Garderen leads Froome by 18 seconds in the overall standings, with Spaniard Benat Intxausti 45 seconds back in third.

It was a bad day for Italian rider Nibali, as the reigning Tour champion suffered on the climbs and crossed the line four minutes behind Froome, who won the stage - 155 kilometers (96 miles) from Montmelian to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc - in 4 hours, 24 minutes, 17 seconds.

Froome attacked about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the end. Van Garderen responded quickly and followed his wheel as they soon caught the three front-runners: Daniel Navarro of Spain, countryman Jonathan Castroviejo and Bartosz Huzarski of Poland.

Van Garderen and Froome looked at each other with 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) to go before Froome put his head down and launched a blistering attack to pull away from the American rider.

''I couldn't be more pleased with the yellow jersey. Froome and (Team) Sky really lit up the race from early on and rode really strong with authority,'' Van Garderen said. ''I knew (Froome) was interested in the stage so I was happy to work with him. When he went, there was no way I could follow so I'm very happy with the yellow jersey.''

Froome thrust his arms in the air after crossing the line and then thumped his chest.

Nibali, meanwhile, tumbled down the standings to 11th and is 3:05 behind the leader heading into Sunday's eighth and final stage.

Stage 8 is another mountainous trek, taking riders over 156.5 kilometers (97 miles) and finishes with a category 1 climb up to Modane Valfrejus.

The July 4-26 Tour starts in the Dutch city of Utrecht.

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