By Julien Pretot
CAMBRAI, France (Reuters) - Team Sky were expected to be shaken by their rivals on the cobbles in the Tour de France, yet their leading rider Chris Froome emerged as the huge favourite after the opening block of racing on Tuesday.
After a below-par time trial in the first stage, Froome was ahead of his main opponents in the second stage, where Nairo Quintana and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali were trapped behind a bunch split on Sunday.
On Monday, the 2013 champion claimed the yellow jersey by finishing second up the Mur de Huy in the third stage, again gaining ground on all his rivals.
Froome was said to be vulnerable on the cobbles that were sprayed over the course of Tuesday's fourth stage, but he resisted Nibali's attacks and even upped the pace himself in the finale.
Although traps still lie ahead, the most dangerous part seems to be over and Froome can look ahead to the mountains, where he is expected to be superior to the opposition, with the exception of pure climber Quintana.
Sky do not even have the burden of defending the yellow jersey after German Tony Martin of the Etixx-Quick Step team snatched it by winning Tuesday's stage.
"They are a strong team who will be willing to defend it, it's a very good thing," Sky's sports director, Nicolas Portal, told reporters.
The Frenchman was happy his leader made it through the first four days in one piece.
"The first three stages were clearly the most complicated, with so many things you could not control, crashes," he said.
Froome is second overall, 12 seconds behind Martin, and he now leads American Tejay van Garderen, who is third, by 13 seconds.
Spain's Alberto Contador is in eighth spot, 48 seconds behind Martin. Nibali is in 13th position, 1:50 off the pace, and Quintana lies 17th, 18 seconds further back.
"We avoided the crashes, the bunch-splitting winds, it's a perfect start to the Tour de France," said Portal.
Sky's priority will now be to stay safe in the peloton looking ahead to an important team time trial on Sunday before the first rest day.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Stephen Wood)