Four riders bid for historically close Tour de France title

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LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) — The battle for victory will go down to the wire at the Tour de France.

With just six stages left before the three-week race reaches the Champs-Elysees, only 29 seconds separate the top four riders in the general classification.

Defending champion and three-time winner Chris Froome has an 18-second lead over Fabio Aru of Italy. Frenchman Romain Bardet, the runner-up to Froome last year, is 23 seconds back from the leader, in third place. In fourth, is Colombian Rigoberto Uran.

It’s an unusual situation ahead of an intense final week of racing that includes two Alpine stages in high altitude and a short time trial.

“It’s the hardest fought battle in terms of Tours de France I’ve done before,” Froome said during Monday’s rest day. “I’m just grateful I’m on the right side of those gaps.”

Froome has the strongest team and remains the favorite to win in Paris, despite some rare signs of weakness.

He endured a bad day in the Pyrenees during a grueling stage to the ski station of Peyragudes, when he lost the overall lead to Aru after wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey for seven days. But the Team Sky leader recovered in style two days later, when Aru was trapped at the back of the peloton in Rodez.

On a windy day in the south of France, Froome and his teammates showed their superiority by riding at the front when the peloton stretched out and managed to put 24 seconds into their leader’s closest rival.

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Froome’s main asset in the final stretch will be the strength of his teammates. Expect them to ride at the front in the mountains and to set a punishingly fast tempo – all designed to prevent others from attacking. If Froome is in form, he will be untouchable.

The collective strength of the Sky Team was on display Sunday when Froome was forced to change his rear wheel in the final 40 kilometers and got dropped.

“I was just standing there on the side of the road with my teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, trying to change wheels. I thought it was potentially game over for me,” Froome said.

But Kwiatkowski quickly handed over his wheel and Froome was helped back to the front by teammates Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka and Mikel Nieve, erasing a 45-second gap.

Mikel Landa, who looks strong enough to be a leader in another team, was riding at the front but waited for Froome to catch up and the pair worked together to finish with the main contenders.

Froome has also showed great composure and calm when in trouble. In danger of losing the coveted leader’s jersey, he did not panic while Bardet, Uran and Aru failed to join forces at the front.

“I think Chris was strong because he was calm. The temptation can be to go too hard too quickly, you panic a little bit, go really, really deep to get on too quickly and of course you just explode,” Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford said.

Froome’s rivals have now to find a way to unsettle and isolate him in the Alps before Saturday’s time trial in Marseille, where the British rider will have the upper hand in the race against the clock.

Here is a look at the other contenders ahead of Tuesday’s Stage 16 (7:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN) that will lead the peloton to the gateway to the Alps in Romans-sur-Isere.

FABIO ARU

Aru was the big winner in Peyragudes, where he took the yellow jersey for the first time after Froome cracked in the last 500 meters of the stage.

But he could not build on the momentum and was isolated in the finale of the Rodez stage, handing overall lead back to Froome after only two days in yellow.

The former Vuelta champion is paying the price for his Astana team’s weaknesses. The Kazakhstan-funded team has lost key members Jakob Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo in crashes, and Aru has to count on his own skills when in trouble.

He will ride on his favorite terrain from Wednesday when the race enters the Alps. His only option if he wants to succeed Vincenzo Nibali on the list of Italian winners of the Tour will be to attack.

“This is going to be a very tough final week and so not everything is lost,” Aru said. “There aren’t just a few seconds difference now between me and Froome, but there aren’t so many either. So the Tour is still wide open.”

ROMAIN BARDET

Bardet has made no mistake so far in his bid to become the first Frenchman in 32 years to win cycling’s biggest race.

The 26-year-old climbing specialist finished runner-up to Froome last year and wants to move one step higher on the podium.

“I’m waiting for an opportunity to create a time difference,” Bardet said.

A very attack-minded cyclist with a natural instinct for racing, Bardet is in superb physical shape. In Peyragudes, his lethal acceleration earned him the stage win. He will try to reproduce the move in the mammoth Stage 18 to the Col d’Izoard, which features a final 14.1-kilometer ascent to the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 2,360 meters.

“I’m not thinking about the time trial,” Bardet said. “We’ll check the situation after the Izoard. I’m going to ride two Alpine stages as if they were classics.”

RIGOBERTO URAN

Twice a runner-up at the Giro, the Colombian from Cannondale-Drapac is now a serious contender for the overall win in France.

“We knew Rigo was super good and capable of winning mountain stages, and that he was capable of being in the top five overall,” said Jonathan Vaughters, manager of Uran’s Cannondale-Drapac team. “But that he was going to be 29 seconds behind? No.”

An excellent climber with good downhill skills, Uran has taken advantage of the very mountainous route in 2017. He made headlines during the first week when he won a stage in Chambery despite riding on a faulty bike, unable to change gears for the final 23 kilometers.

Uran, a former Team Sky rider, finished second at the Giro in 2013 and 2014 after winning the Olympic silver medal in the road race in London in 2012. He decided not to compete at this year’s Giro to arrive in perfect shape at the Tour, a good strategy so far.

Vaughters said Uran will not be content with a podium finish in Paris.

“That’s not really Rigos’s mentality, he is a kind of all-in guy,” Vaughters said. “For me, if we risk everything and he ends up in fifth place because we rolled the dice and it went the wrong way, c’est la vie.”

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Nate Holland still motivated by repeated Olympic heartbreak

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At 38 years old, Nate Holland knows PyeongChang would likely be his last chance to add an Olympic medal to a trophy case already blinding with seven X Games snowboard cross gold medals.

“I’m not there to get top 10 and go check out a hockey game,” Holland said last month. “I’ve had three Olympics that I’ve done that.”

Holland entered all three Olympics since snowboard cross debuted as the reigning X Games champion. A medal contender, if not the favorite.

He washed out each time. In the quarterfinals in Torino. In the four-man final in Vancouver. In the first elimination round in Sochi.

“There’s something about these five rings that give me a lot of drive, ambition and joy,” Holland said on NBC after his 2014 disappointment, “but they do cause a lot of heartbreak.”

Some snowboarders are ambivalent about the Olympics. Not Holland.

He remembers watching the 1988 Calgary Winter Games growing up in Idaho, a decade before snowboarders were let in. After snowboard cross was added in 2003, a motivated Holland made the subsequent World Cup team and reached the podium.

Holland chalked up a 14th-place finish in Torino in 2006 to being “young and reckless.” The miss that sticks with him to this day is Vancouver 2010, when he was the only finalist not to earn a medal.

“That’s probably the No. 1 memory of racing is that feeling of failure when I got to the bottom,” he said. “Out of a four-man heat, they’re ushering me off, pushing me out of the finish corral.

“Dude, you gotta leave. What are you doing here still? We’ve got to do a podium ceremony.”

“I’m still out of breath. My heart rate’s at 180 still.”

“What’s going on? No, dude, you need to leave. Thanks for coming, goodbye.”

“Those are motivating factors in the gym when all I want to do is go home and go change some diapers,” Holland said.

Holland and wife Christen (who commissioned that trophy case as a Christmas gift) welcomed daughter Lux on Nov. 1, 2015. Lux is already riding on her own three-foot Burton board. In Uggs.

“Thank God for FaceTime,” Holland said. “I’m able to call every day when I’m in Europe and have breakfast with my daughter.”

Her dad is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic snowboarder in the sport’s two-decade history and the oldest medalist from any country.

“Some say I’m too old,” Holland says. “I say BS.”

Holland is realistic, though. The man who used to ride by the motto “wreck or win” has become more calculated and listens to his body. The Advil doses are more frequent. He enjoys the spa.

“I come back every year and there’s definitely some question in my mind whether I’m fast,” said Holland, whose detailed injury history included coming back from a December 2013 broken clavicle to win X Games and make the Olympic team. “Every year, I give myself a little pat on the back. I’m like, all right, I’m still in that group. I’m not sitting three seconds out.”

Holland was the fastest at the PyeongChang venue on Feb. 27, 2016, winning the Olympic test event.

He may have picked up nuances on the new Olympic course that the riders half his age have not, but Holland also hasn’t made a World Cup podium since. Snowboard cross was cut from the X Games after 2016.

If Holland can’t crack the top three at any of the four Olympic selection events in December and January, he might be left off the U.S. team.

Holland said he won’t work any harder this winter than he did in 2006, 2010 or 2014. Each time, he felt satisfied with what he put in. What he left the Olympics with — Team USA clothes, maybe some hockey ticket stubs — is what’s unfulfilling.

“You want something that you can’t have,” he said. “I don’t have an Olympic medal, and I’m really passionate about it.”

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Tour de France route for 2018 unveiled

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PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Chris Froome can expect a stern challenge from Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in next year’s Tour de France.

Froome is chasing a record-equaling fifth victory to move level with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain.

Froome and Dumoulin won the three Grand Tours last year, with Froome adding the Spanish Vuelta and Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia.

The 105th edition of the Tour features a hilly 31-kilometer (19-mile) time trial through the Basque country on the penultimate day.

Froome is a specialist, but Dumoulin is the reigning world time trial champion.

The 32-year-old Froome is still in his prime, while the 26-year-old Dumoulin is approaching his.

“A contest between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders with similar qualities, wouldn’t displease me. It would force one of the two to try something different to surprise the other,” Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. “We’re looking at a new generation that wants to entertain. I think that if Christopher Froome is up against Tom Dumoulin, they will want to do that. They will be more or less equal in the time trials. That’s something very exciting.”

The race starts on July 7 — a week later than usual because of the soccer World Cup in Russia — and opens with a flat 117-mile route for sprinters from Noirmoutier-en-l’ile to Fontenay-le-Comte in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic coast.

With the time trial returning after being omitted the last two years, Froome’s Team Sky will be confident of creating early time gaps on Stage 3 — 21.7-mile route starting and ending in Cholet in Western France.

But Sky faces tough competition, because Dumoulin’s Sunweb team is the reigning TTT world champion.

The Tour route, which goes clockwise, features 25 mountain climbs — ranging from the relatively difficult Category 2 to Category 1 and the daunting Hors Categorie (beyond classification).

Eleven are in the Alps, four in the Massif central region and 10 in the Pyrenees.

The difficult climbs start on Stage 10, the first of three straight days of grueling Alpine ascents.

But organizers have preceded that with a tricky ninth stage that could shake up the peloton.

It takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, with nearly 13.6 miles altogether.

The Roubaix cobbles may perhaps trouble Froome, although Prudhomme thinks the British rider can handle anything.

“The leaders of the Tour have the ability to adapt. We’ve seen that Chris Froome has a range of abilities much wider than people said,” Prudhomme said. “He’s intelligent and hard-working. He keeps on winning in a different manner than in previous years.”

Even though Froome will be 33 on next year’s Tour, Prudhomme still thinks he can improve.

“I don’t think we’ve seen everything that Froome has to offer,” Prudhomme said. “He is strong in areas we didn’t think he was.”

The cobbles are followed by a rest day on July 16, and Froome had better make the most of it because the Alps start brutally the day after.

Stage 10 on July 17 has four difficult climbs on a 98.6-mile route from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. They include a punchy ascent of Montee du plateau de Glieres, featuring for the first time.

“Six kilometers with an 11.2 percent gradient is monumental,” Prudhomme said.

The third day of Alpine climbing begins with Col de la Madeleine, then Croix de Fer (which translates as the ominous-sounding Iron Cross) and ends with an ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez: three of the Tour’s most well-known.

Dumoulin is not in Froome’s class as a climber, but is not so easy to drop. Whether he can hang in with Froome all the way to the Pyrenees, however, will prove crucial to his chances.

The three tough days of climbing in the Pyrenees starts with Stage 16 on July 24: a daunting 135-mile route from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that follows the second rest day.

Stage 17 is short at 40 miles but cruel, with three consecutive nasty climbs, ending with an attack up Col de Portet.

Stage 18 is relatively flat but the next day’s third and final day of climbing on Stage 19 has four ascents and then ends with a potentially treacherous 12.4-mile descent that will test the concentration of tired riders.

Whoever is freshest after that will have a better chance of challenging Froome in the time trial.

The 21-stage race ends with its customary processional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.

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