Chris Froome ups Tour de France lead ahead of crucial climb (video)

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Chris Froome‘s lead in the Tour de France increased slightly as his closest challenger, Italian Fabio Aru, dropped to fourth place overall in Wednesday’s penultimate mountain stage in the Alps.

“We’re in a brilliant position,” Froome said on NBCSN.

Froome, eyeing his fourth Tour title in five years, led by 18 seconds over Aru going into Wednesday in the closest Tour de France in history.

But Aru struggled in Stage 17 and crossed 31 seconds behind Froome, fading over the final climb and failing to claw back on the descent to the finish.

Froome goes into Thursday’s crucial summit finish with a 27-second lead over Colombian Rigoberto Uran and Frenchman Romain Bardet. Aru is 53 seconds behind when counting Froome’s time bonus for finishing third overall Wednesday.

Primoz Roglic became the first Slovenian to win a Tour de France stage Wednesday. The former junior ski jumper won by 73 seconds ahead of the Froome-Uran-Bardet group.

Uran and Bardet, both chasing their first Tour titles, must snatch the yellow jersey from Froome either Thursday or in Saturday’s short, 14-mile individual time trial before Sunday’s traditionally ceremonial ride into Paris.

“I suddenly felt like I had much better legs than I had a week ago in the Pyrenees,” Froome said. “If that’s anything to go by, I’m confident in tomorrow.”

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Earlier Wednesday, green jersey leader Marcel Kittel crashed and abandoned.

Michael Matthews inherits the sprinters’ green jersey and should wear it through the end of the Tour, becoming the first Australian to do so since the last of Robbie McEwen‘s three titles in 2006.

Thursday’s Stage 18 features three categorized climbs, including the nine-mile, beyond-category Col d’Izoard at the finish.

NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 6:40 a.m. ET, with NBCSN coming on air at 7 a.m.

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