IT SEEMED done and dusted, with Chris Froome set to enjoy a procession to Paris today in the yellow jersey of Tour de France winner. But the iconic climb of Alpe d’Huez, on the penultimate day of this year’s race, produced fireworks as Froome’s closest challenger threw everything he had at him.
Barring an accident, Froome will be crowned winner of the toughest Tour in years in Paris this evening. But it was almost too close for comfort as Nairo Quintana attacked repeatedly at the foot of the Alpe, eventually going clear to leave Froome with damage limitation.
Froome’s team-mates Wout Poels and Richie Porte initially responded to each of the Colombian’s accelerations, but Froome was suffering – he has been fighting a chest cough since the second rest day on Tuesday – and when Alejandro Valverde, Quintana’s team-mate, slipped clear they let him go. Valverde was third overall, but too far back to be a threat to yellow.
Quintana kept trying, and eventually the elastic snapped. Finally there was daylight between the little Colombian and the three Sky riders. Quintana had two team-mates ahead – as well as Valverde, Winner Anocona was a survivor of the early breakaway – and a two-and-a-half minute deficit to overturn. He hooked up first with Valverde, then with Anocona, who was outstanding in pacing his team-mate and fellow Colombian up the steep slopes, around the 21 hairpins, and through the narrow corridor left by a huge – and hugely excitable – crowd.
Quintana flew up the mountain, eventually dropping Anocona. He was now alone and closing on the lone leader, Thibaut Pinot, but the real race was between him and Froome. While Pinot took a memorable home win, Quintana ran out of mountain: he was second on the stage, 18 seconds behind Pinot and 1.20 ahead of Froome. It meant that Froome held on to the yellow jersey by 1.12: a tiny margin in a three-week, 3,360km race.
At 25, Quintana seems almost certain to be a future winner. “I wanted to go for the overall and the stage, but the time was not enough,” said Quintana at the summit. “I’ve learned a lot in this year’s Tour. We fought hard, and we did what we could. This gives me a lot of confidence that I can get the win in the future, with time. I think I lost the Tour in the first week.”
Quintana was almost two minutes down before the mountains even started, and although Froome gained time on him on the first mountain stage, to La Pierre Saint Martin, Quintana has since gained back all that and more.
“It was a bit close in the end but I think Chris has shown real mettle and what he is all about in this race,” said the Team Sky principal, Sir Dave Brailsford. “I don’t think many people get to see what we see every day. He’s a deserved winner and a credit to Britain. Chris is the most unbelievable competitor and polite, nice guy off the bike but on the bike he’s the most resilient character.
“He’s perfect for the job, as it were. He deserves more credit than he gets. The way he puts up with the abuse he gets, he’s so composed.”
Froome admitted there were moments when he feared the race was slipping away from him. “That probably was the hardest climb of my career,” he said. “There was a moment where I thought this could go the other way here. I was sitting behind my two team-mates and I was trying to gauge it as best I could.
“We were getting time checks every few minutes and it was comforting to see [Quintana’s lead] wasn’t jumping up but increasing by a few seconds.
“I was on my absolute limit; I felt I was dying a thousand deaths but being with team-mates makes it much more manageable.”
Of the suspicion and roadside abuse that has been an unfortunate feature of this Tour, and which continued yesterday, with Froome spat at again, Froome said: “I just see it as something that comes with the yellow jersey. I know I’ve done nothing wrong.
“It’s not going to take away from going into Paris tomorrow wearing yellow.”