By Martyn Herman
SHEFFIELD England (Reuters) - Drifting out to the right on devilishly steep Jenkin Road, Chris Froome briefly left his rivals standing near the finale of second stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.
After two days of keeping his head down, the reigning champion decided that it was time to have a blast.
While it did not earn the Briton the yellow jersey on Sunday, that honor going to overall Tour contender Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, Froome showed that he is ready for the battles to come over the next three weeks.
Alarm bells had been ringing in the months leading up to the race with the British Team Sky rider suffering from a back injury and then crashing at the recent Criterium du Dauphine where Spain's Alberto Contador appeared to have his number.
"It was a really difficult day," the 29-year-old Kenyan-born Froome told reporters. "It was undulating all day and it was a big fight for position.
"You could see in the final a lot of the contenders were making moves. For me it was about staying out of trouble and avoiding any major splits or issues.
"It's a small margin but the win puts Nibali into the yellow jersey. It should be an exciting week of racing to come."
Froome was given huge support by the massive crowds along the 201-km stage from York to Sheffield, across sweeping hills, old mill towns and picture-postcard villages.
The five-kilometer climb to the top of the Cote de Holme Moss, which split the peloton in half, was teaming with people on the narrow road, the majority of them there to support the 2013 champion.
"The crowds out there were incredible. Going up Holme Moss I had goose bumps all over. The support we've had from Yorkshire has just been out of this world," Froome, who trails Nibali by a mere two seconds in the overall classification, added.
The next two stages, Monday's high-speed run on to London from Cambridge and Tuesday's flat excursion across the Pas de Calais, will be tailor-made for the sprinters, and should not represent a major danger.
The fifth stage on the cobbles of Belgium and northern France, however, will be treacherous, especially for the lightweight favorites.
Froome will need his team working like clockwork on that stage, and for the long days to come in the Vosges mountains and the Alps, not to mention the Pyrenees.
Geraint Thomas did more than his fair share of work on Sunday, driving the peloton hard in the latter stages and he said the first two days had gone to plan.
"It was great racing. Those roads are really good and Jenkin Road at the end made it really interesting," Thomas said.
"For sure (the main contenders) all tested each other out. Everybody wanted to be at the front and then once one person makes a move everybody follows.
"We're riding well as a team and as a unit. I think we can be happy with how these first few days have gone."
(Editing by Julien Pretot)