Team Sky’s Froome hit the deck inside the last 15 kilometres of the 146km stage 19 from Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc and was forced to finish on team-mate Geraint Thomas’ bike, with his rivals looking to put him under pressure on the final climb on Mont Blanc as the rips in his yellow jersey revealed his scars.
But, while AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet claimed the first French stage win of this Tour to move up to second overall, several others crashed in a chaotic finish that shook up the general classification standings.
Adam Yates slipped from third to fourth having been dropped on the final climb, although the 23-year-old Briton retains the white jersey as the best young rider with one mountain stage left before the traditional parade into Paris.
Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema dropped from second to tenth overall after a crash cost him more than four minutes. Richie Porte launched a late attack hoping to boost his podium hopes, but blew up as he felt the effects of an earlier crash and rolled home after Froome, leaving him fifth overall. After all that, Froome now leads by four minutes and 11 seconds from Bardet.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who pulled clear of the ailing Froome in the last part of the climb, is third, a further 16 seconds back. Bardet’s second career Tour stage win came by 23 seconds from Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and his fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, of Movistar, with Quintana a further three seconds back.
Froome crossed the line ninth, 36 seconds behind Bardet, and the 2013 and 2015 winner was soon sporting heavy bandaging on his knee. “It is ironic as I was just trying to stay up front,” Froome said of the crash. “I was just trying to keep out of trouble but I think I just hit a white line on the road and lost my front wheel. I am okay – I’m lucky nothing is seriously injured. Just lost a bit of skin and I banged my knee a bit.
“Today is the kind of day when you feel grateful you’ve got about four minutes’ advantage so I could fall back on that a little bit. Today shows the Tour is never won until you get to Paris.”
Before the rain began, two-stage winner Tom Dumoulin, of Giant-Alpecin, hit the deck in a nasty crash. The Dutchman was in tears when he was forced to abandon the race, and his team’s confirmation of a fracture in his left wrist leaves his Olympic time trial hopes hanging in doubt.
Such has been Froome’s dominance that this Tour appeared over as a contest until the rain came as a reminder that everything can change in a flash.
The forecast for Saturday’s mountain finale from Megeve to Morzine is for more rain, which will make the technical descent to the finish line a potential game-changer.
“Tomorrow is going to be really hard and I am sure I will be a bit sore and stiff after today,” Froome said. “Hopefully I can rely on my team-mates for one last push to get through tomorrow’s stage.”