TOUR DE FRANCE

OVER THE LAST MOUN­TAIN.

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JOHN LEICESTER AND SA­MUEL PETREQUIN

COL D’IZOARD, FRANCE — On the high­est moun­tain­top fin­ish of the 104th Tour de France, in a rocky moon­scape where the air thins, only the hardi­est or­gan­isms sur­vive. A few pine trees, tough old grasses, some stub­born flow­ers and, now join­ing that rare breed, Chris Froome.

Putting one hand on what would be his third straight Tour crown and fourth over­all since his first win in 2013, Froome emerged from the Alps on Thurs­day with the yel­low jer­sey fixed firmly on his shoul­ders. Hav­ing chewed his way through nearly 3,200 kilo­me­tres of French roads, just three stages now stand be­tween the Bri­ton and top spot on the Champs-Élysées podium in Paris on Sun­day night.

And one of those is a time trial race against the clock, a dis­ci­pline he ex­cels in — hav­ing pro­vided him with bronze medals at the Olympics of 2012 and 2016.

With op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­throne the three­time cham­pion quickly run­ning out, French rider Ro­main Bardet and his AG2R team again put pedal to the metal and tried to make Froome crack on the last huge climb of this Tour, pil­ing on the pace up the pun­ish­ing Col d’Izoard — the cul­mi­na­tion of Thurs­day’s Stage 18 and one of the tough­est tests in a three-week race that has pro­duced sur­prises aplenty.

Froome was in no mood to be at the re­ceiv­ing end of an­other one.

Fend­ing off Bardet’s at­tacks, and putting in a strong one of his own that ini­tially rat­tled yet didn’t shake off the sturdy French­man, he pre­served a cush­ion of 23 sec­onds over­all that, un­less dis­as­ter strikes in the shape of a crash or other mis­for­tune, should be enough for vic­tory.

“I wouldn’t say it’s quite won,” Froome said, be­fore con­fi­dently adding: “The tough­est part of the Tour is be­hind us.”

French rider War­ren Bar­guil tri­umphed on the Izoard’s bar­ren slopes, win­ning his sec­ond stage of the tour af­ter he at­tacked with six kilo­me­tres left to climb to the top. He also won Stage 13 on Bastille Day.

Bar­guil 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 kilo­me­tres left to the fin­ish, at an al­ti­tude of 2,360 me­tres, amid deserts of scree.

He is now guar­an­teed to win the polka-dot jer­sey awarded for points col­lected dur­ing the Tour on climbs — an even more im­pres­sive feat con­sid­er­ing he suf­fered a pelvis frac­ture in a crash in April and was struck by a car on a train­ing ride last year, frac­tur­ing his wrist.

Froome’s lead, while far smaller than at the same stage in the Tours he won in 2013, 2015 and 2016, is suf­fi­cient for him not to have to take un­nec­es­sary risks on the twist­ing and tech­ni­cal time-trial course in Mar­seille on Satur­day. His Team Sky should also be strong enough to con­trol the race on Fri­day’s stage out of the Alps through Provence, which isn’t tough enough to pro­voke a big shakeup in the stand­ings. And Sun­day’s ride into Paris is tra­di­tion­ally a pro­ces­sion be­fore only the sprint­ers con­test vic­tory at the end.

By beat­ing Froome in a fi­nal sprint to fin­ish third at the top of the Izoard, plac­ing be­hind Bar­guil and Ata­puma, Bardet clawed back four valu­able bonus sec­onds. That moved him up to sec­ond over­all, rel­e­gat­ing Rigob­erto Uran to third.

“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.”

Uran lost a bit of ground and a cou­ple of sec­onds to Bardet and Froome in the Izoard’s fi­nal ramp and now trails Froome by 29 sec­onds. Bardet and Uran are the only rid­ers within a minute of Froome, af­ter Ital­ian Fabio Aru again faded on that climb 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 and nearly two min­utes be­hind his ri­val.

Froome iden­ti­fied Uran as his “big­gest threat” in the clock-race.

CHRIS GRAYTHEN, GETTY IMAGES

Jhon Dar­win Ata­puma Hur­tado leads Ro­main Bardet and Christo­pher Froome to the fin­ish line in stage 18 of the Tour de France on Thurs­day. French rider War­ren Bar­guil won the stage.

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