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Romain Bardet

Chris Froome eyes fourth Tour de France title after last mountain stage

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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.”

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

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 AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard 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.

NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 6:10 a.m. ET, with NBCSN coming on air at 7:30 a.m.

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MORE: 10 Tour de France riders to watch

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.

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

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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Chris Froome loses Tour de France lead (video)

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Chris Froome lost the Tour de France yellow jersey to Italian Fabio Aru by uncharacteristically fading in the final kilometer of Stage 12 in the Pyrenees on Thursday.

France’s Romain Bardet, third in the overall standings, won the stage.

Rigoberto Uran and Aru were second and third, both two seconds behind. Froome, who entered the day with an 18-second lead on Aru, was 22 seconds back of Bardet in seventh place.

Aru now leads Froome by six seconds with nine stages left, culminating with the ceremonial ride into Paris on July 23.

“I just didn’t have the legs on the final [kilometer],” Froome said. “The race is certainly on now.”

The Brit Froome is trying to move within one Tour title of the career record of five shared by Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

But now Froome has relinquished the yellow jersey for the first time to a general classification contender in his six Tours.

The 27-year-old Aru, in his second Tour, will wear it for the first time in Friday’s Stage 13, adding to his collection of race leader jerseys from the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

Aru won the 2015 Vuelta, has finished second and third at the Giro and was 13th in his only previous Tour in 2016.

“It’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen to you in life, wearing the yellow jersey,” Aru said, according to The Associated Press. “Clearly, it won’t be easy to defend it.”

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

Tour de France Overall Standings
1. Fabio Aru (ITA)
2. Chris Froome (GBR) — +:06
3. Romain Bardet (FRA) — +:25
4. Rigoberto Uran (COL) — +:55
5. Dan Martin (IRL) — +1:41

Friday’s stage is the shortest mountain day in Tour history, half the length of Thursday’s trek into the Pyrenees.

Riders face three category-one climbs on the 63-mile day, with a 16-mile descent to the finish on Bastille Day, when French riders are always motivated to go for stage wins.

NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 7:30 a.m. ET.

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