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-Élysées, only 29 sec­onds sep­a­rate the top four rid­ers in the gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

De­fend­ing cham­pion and three­time 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 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.

He en­dured a bad day in the Pyre­nees dur­ing a gru­elling 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.

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. 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.

The col­lec­tive strength of the Sky Team was on dis­play Sun­day when Froome was forced to change his rear wheel in the fi­nal 40 kilo­me­tres 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 45sec­ond 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. “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 to now 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.

Here is a look at the other con­tenders: 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 me­tres 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. 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 14.1kilo­me­tre as­cent to the top of the moun­tain, at an al­ti­tude of 2,360 me­tres. 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 kilo­me­tres.


Race leader Christopher Froome of Great Britain, rid­ing for Team Sky, speaks to the me­dia on the sec­ond rest day of the 2017 Tour de France on Mon­day.

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