The stage is set

Chris Froome sur­vives last Alpine climb to hold the lead en­ter­ing fi­nal day of race.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JOHN LE­ICES­TER

alpe d’huez, france — Feel­ing like he was “dy­ing a thou­sand deaths,” Chris Froome started to think a sec­ondTour de France vic­tory might be melt­ing away like the patches of snow on sur­round­ing Alpine peaks.

Up ahead, al­ready out of sight on the 21 hair­pin bends lined by fren­zied spec­ta­tors, Froome’s big­gest ri­val at this Tour and those to come, Nairo Quin­tana, was fly­ing, out of his sad­dle, get­ting away.

Grimly, Froome clung on. Fol­low­ing the wheels of two team­mates who led him up cy­cling’s most iconic climb to the Alpe d’Huez ski sta­tion, he passed — barely — the last big test be­fore the three-week race rolls to its fin­ish in Paris on Sun­day.

This wasn’t the dom­i­nant Froome whose pow­er­ful per­for­mances in the Pyre­nees seemed, to some skep­tics, rem­i­nis­cent of dope cheats who did so much dam­age to the Tour. This was just a man, fight­ing pain, fight­ing the moun­tain, fight­ing to sur­vive.

“There was a mo­ment where I felt this could go ei­ther way,” the Bri­tish rider said.

“I was onmy ab­so­lute lim­its. I was dy­ing a thou­sand deaths.”

Quin­tana was out­stand­ing on the sto­ried as­cent, piling on speed in his last real op­por­tu­nity to un­seat the race leader. Over his ra­dio, Froome’s Team Sky up­dated him on the Colom­bian’s progress as he scythed through fans wav­ing flares and smoke bombs.

“We were get­ting time checks ev­ery few min­utes,” Froome said. “It was com­fort­ing to see it wasn’t sud­denly jump­ing by 30 sec­onds each time. It was slowly mov­ing up five, 10 sec­onds at a time.”

Thibaut Pinot won Satur­day’s Stage 20, the third French vic­tory of this Tour. But it was Quin­tana’s bold last as­sault and Froome’s te­na­cious de­fense that pro­vided the thrilling fi­nale to a spec­tac­u­lar race.

The 1-minute, 12-sec­ond lead Froome pre­served over Quin­tana will see him crowned the win­ner on the Champs-El­y­sees.

“An amaz­ing, amaz­ing feel­ing,” he said.

Froome es­sen­tially won this Tour on the first big climbs in the Pyre­nees in the sec­ond week when, closely fol­lowed by team­mate Richie Porte, he tri­umphed at the La Pierre-Saint-Martin ski sta­tion to give him a big time cush­ion. He picked that climb weeks ear­lier in train­ing as the place to make his move.

That decisive blow car­ried Froome through those moun­tains and the hilly Mas­sif Cen­tral re­gion on the way to the Alps and — with the ex­cep­tion of Quin­tana — re­signed other con­tenders to fight for sec­ond and third.

Ul­ti­mately, Quin­tana left him­self too much to do on the last of four days in the Alps. Just as in 2013, he will fin­ish run­nerup again to Froome.

Quin­tana said time lost in the first week cost him dearly.

Still, he said: “Sec­ond at the Tour de France isn’t half-bad.”

At age 25, Quin­tana’s fu­ture is ahead. He again will win the white jersey as the Tour’s best young rider.

Quin­tana’s Mo­vis­tar team­mate, Ale­jan­dro Valverde, will take third over­all, 5:25 back.

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