Chris Froome is, for all intents and purposes, 14 miles from his fourth Tour de France title.
The British rider finished fourth — 20 seconds behind winner Warren Barguil — atop the Col d’Izoard in the final mountain stage Thursday.
More importantly, Froome and Romain Bardet finished together, while Rigoberto Uran was two seconds behind them.
Froome entered the day with a 27-second lead over Bardet and Uran for the yellow jersey in the three-week stage race that ends Sunday.
Froome lost four seconds of his overall race lead to stage third-place finisher Romain Bardet due to Bardet’s time bonus. But neither Bardet nor Uran could mount a successful attack on Froome as they rode together up the nine-mile, highest-category climb to the finish.
“I thought I was going to suffocate as I crossed the line,” Bardet said, according to The Associated Press. “I have no regrets. I did everything I could.”
Now, Froome leads by 23 seconds over Bardet and 29 seconds over Uran with three stages left. However, the overall standings should not be affected by Friday’s flat stage and Sunday’s ceremonial ride into Paris.
Bardet and Uran will try to gain time on Froome in a 14-mile individual time trial Saturday, but Froome is a stronger time trialist than Bardet and, at worst, similar to Uran. Plus, a short, 14-mile day is not much distance to make up the deficit.
“I tried to drop Uran and Bardet, but it was virtually impossible today,” Froome said, according to Cyclingnews.com, after attacking them with about a mile and a half left. “If everything goes well, I fancy my chances against the other guys in the time trial, but it’s still very close.”
Froome, 32, is trying to move within one Tour title of the career record of five shared by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
Froome has been the anchor of cycling’s most powerful team — Team Sky — for five seasons now. Every time the rail-thin Brit has reached the Champs-Élysées in that time, he has been wearing the yellow jersey. The only miss was when he abandoned on Stage 5 in 2014 after crashing three times in two days.
Bardet, 26, was runner-up to Froome in last year’s Tour by 4:05. His chances of becoming the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Hinault in 1985 — and ending the host nation’s longest victory drought — now appear very dim.
Uran, 30 and the 2012 Olympic road race silver medalist for Colombia, is trying to become the first South American to win the Tour.
Stage 19 on Friday is the longest of this year’s Tour at 138 miles.
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