French rider Warren Barguil triumphed on the barren slopes of the fearsome Col d’Izoard climb in the Alps, winning his second stage of the 104th Tour de France while Chris Froome successfully defended his overall race lead on Thursday, putting him within touching distance of a fourth Tour crown.
On the last day of climbing in the Alps, Froome lost a handful of seconds to French rider Romain Bardet, who moved up to second in the overall standings, relegating Rigoberto Uran of Colombia to third.
But Froome still leads Bardet by 23 seconds, a margin that the French rider looks unlikely to close before the finish Sunday in Paris. The last opportunity is in a time trial Saturday, but Froome excels at that discipline.
“I gave it all, I thought I was going to suffocate as I crossed the line,” Bardet said. “I have no regrets, I did everything I could.”
Froome was relieved to put the Alps behind him. The mountains can crack even the best riders, and with them over with, there remain no real obstacles to stop Froome clinching a third straight title. His first was in 2013.
While not huge, his lead is sufficient to mean that he doesn’t have to take unnecessary risks on the twisting and technical time-trial course in Marseille. Friday’s stage out of the Alps through Provence isn’t tough enough to provoke a big shake-up in the standings, and Sunday’s ride into Paris is largely processional.
“I’m happy that I went through the Alps without any major problem,” Froome said. “I normally find the Alps more difficult.”
Barguil set off in search of the Stage 18 victory when there were still six kilometers (four miles) left to climb to the top of the Izoard pass, a moonscape of scree and rockslides in thinning air at an altitude of 2,360 meters (7,743 feet).
He sped away from Froome’s group and gradually reeled in riders ahead of him on the hairpin bends and steep road — the last being John Darwin Atapuma of Colombia, with about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) left to ascend.
From there, Barguil labored on alone to win the first stage to finish at the summit of Izoard in the 114-year history of the Tour. Barguil also won in the Pyrenees on Bastille Day.
Only the hardiest pines survive at such high altitudes. And only the hardiest riders, too.
The climb showed again what was already becoming apparent on the first day of big Alpine mountains on Wednesday: that Froome is super-strong and only Uran and Bardet are capable of staying with him.
They are now the only riders within a minute of Froome overall, after Italian Fabio Aru faded again and continued his slide down the overall rankings.
Going into the Alps, Aru was second overall, breathing down Froome’s neck. He is now fifth overall, nearly two minutes behind Froome.
Bardet outsprinted Froome in the final ramp of the climb, and got four bonus seconds for finishing the stage in third place — behind Barguil and Atapuma.
As a consequence, Bardet moved a tiny bit closer to Froome overall, having been 27 seconds behind him at the start of the stage in Briancon.
Uran lost a couple of seconds at the top, and is now 29 seconds back from Froome in third place.
Barguil has recovered remarkably quickly from a pelvis fracture in a crash in April. He was also struck by a car on a training ride last year, fracturing his wrist.
“I had a lot hard luck. Luck is now on my side,” he said. “I had big problems, but I never gave up.”
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