Chris Froome was “quietly excited” last night with the 100th Tour de France his to lose going into the final weekend of the race.
The Team Sky rider retained his overall lead on the dangerous mountain stage to Le Grand-Bornand and now only one significant hurdle – today’s 125km stage and its final hors categorie climb to Annecy-Semnoz – stands between him and a victory parade in Paris tomorrow evening.
“There’s still 125km to go tomorrow, but it’s going to be very hard for someone to make up more than five minutes on the general classification,” said Froome.
“Having said that, this is a day where the whole team has to stay alert, control that last stage with one final big effort, and then we can start relaxing on the ride into Paris.”
With time running out for his rivals Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana to claw back some of their deficit, attacks were expected over today’s five categorised climbs, a stage many riders considered the toughest on a Tour which has already featured Mont Ventoux and a double ascent of the Alpe d’Huez. But instead Froome comfortably covered the few feints thrown his way in increasingly wet weather and had a relatively drama-free day following yesterday’s sugar crash and time penalty on the Alpe d’Huez.
“I was happy to be able to follow those attacks,” Froome said. “The team did a really good job. Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard did the lion’s share of the work there, and it gives me a lot of pride to finish off the stage like that, and to be in this position going into the penultimate day.
“I certainly feel a big sigh of relief. I was quite nervous about it so I’m glad to put today behind us.”
Froome cut short his press conference, apologising but saying he was “pretty nailed” and needed to recover before today. Worse might be said of his rivals. They did not seem to have the energy to put him under pressure today with this brutal mountainous finish to the Tour – add on tomorrow’s stage and riders will have spent 170km going uphill in the final four days – taking a toll on the peloton.
“I am at a bit of a loss to explain it,” Sky team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said of the lack of attacks. “Yesterday everyone was on their knees. Today was all or nothing if someone wanted to risk it.”
But as comfortable as Froome looks tonight, Brailsford warned his man nothing was won yet.
“It’s like being 2-0 up in football and thinking you’ve got it sewn up,” he said. “It’s the worse score to have. You are lulled into a sense of confidence.”
There was no repeat of yesterday’s drama for Froome, even if he was reminded of it this morning by fans shouting “Don’t forget your lunch, Chris!” at the start in Bourg-D’Oisans.
Ryder Hesjedal, who has been eyeing the stage he dubbed ‘The Redonkathon’ before the Tour began, started the day with an audacious early attack before being reined in by Pierre Rolland, while the two hors categorie climbs that greeted the riders in the first 85km claimed a few victims, including two which could be significant come the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday.
Tom Veelers and Marcel Sieberg, key lead-out men for Mark Cavendish’s sprint rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel respectively, both abandoned.
While Froome was covering his rivals, Rui Costa raced clear to victory, his second stage win this week after stage 16 to Gap on Tuesday.
The Portuguese took over on the front on the final climb of the day and won from Andreas Kloden by 49 seconds, and more than eight-and-a-half minutes ahead of Froome.
Costa had overtaken Rolland on the final climb, the Col de la Croix as the weather closed in.
Rolland had led the way over the previous three categorised climbs to get back to within a single point of Froome in the King of the Mountains classification, although he will once again wear the polka dots tomorrow with Froome decked out in yellow.