ANNECY-SEMNOZ, France – Chris Froome has two hands firmly on the Tour de France trophy. All that remains is for the British rider to raise it above his head before cheering crowds in Paris on Sunday.
The Team Sky rider retained his big race lead Saturday in the penultimate stage to ensure he will become Britain’s second successive champion after Bradley Wiggins.
Only an accident or other freak mishap Sunday on the largely ceremonial final ride to the Champs-Élysées could stop Froome from winning the 100th Tour.
“It’s been an amazing journey for me; the race has been a fight every single day,” Froome said at the winner’s news conference which the Tour holds the evening before the final stage.
“This Tour really has had everything. It really has been a special edition this year.”
Froome, who clearly was superior and never really looked troubled in the three-week race, finished third Saturday in a dramatic Stage 20 to the ski station of Annecy-Semnoz in the Alps that decided the other podium placings.
Nairo Quintana from Colombia won the stage and moved up to second overall.
Joaquim Rodriguez from Spain rode in 18 seconds behind Quintana and moved up to third overall.
Froome’s lead is more than five minutes over both of them.
Froome said only when he passed the sign showing two kilometers (about a mile) to go on the final steep uphill did he allow himself to believe he’d won the Tour.
“It actually became quite hard to concentrate – a very emotional feeling,” he said.
Alberto Contador, who was second overall at the start of the day, struggled on that climb and dropped off the podium.
Saturday’s 78-mile trek was the last of four successive stages in the Alps and the final significant obstacle Froome needed to overcome before Sunday’s usually relaxed ride to the finish in Paris. That 82-mile jaunt starts in Versailles, at the gates of its palace.
Froome’s dominance at this Tour was such that this victory very well could be the first of several. At 28, he is entering peak years for a bike racer. He proved at this Tour that he excels both in climbs and time trials – skills essential for those who want to win cycling’s premier race. He also handled with poise and aplomb questions about doping in cycling and suspicions about the strength of his own performances. He insisted he raced clean.
This Tour de France was the first since Lance Armstrong was stripped last year of his seven wins for serial doping. Froome said the scrutiny he faced has “definitely been a challenge” but “100-percent understandable.”
Whoever won this 100th Tour “was going to come under the same amount of scrutiny, the same amount of criticism,” he said.
“I’m also one of those guys who have been let down by the sport.”
Froome first took the race lead and the yellow jersey that goes with it on Stage 8, when he won the climb to the Ax-3 Domaines ski station in the Pyrenees. On Sunday’s Stage 21, he will wear the yellow jersey for the 13th consecutive day.
Froome said the low point of his Tour was when he ran short of energy on the second ascent of L’Alpe d’Huez this week.
“A horrible feeling,” Froome said.
The highlight, he said, was when he powered away from his rivals on Mont Ventoux in Provence and became the first yellow-jersey wearer to win a stage on that mammoth climb since the legendary five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx in 1970.
“That was an incredible moment, incredible.”
Saturday’s stage did a big loop south of Annecy, through the mountains of Savoie between the lakes of Annecy and Bourget. This is cheese-making country, with lush Alpine pastures and dense, naturally cool forests.
Quintana’s win also secured him the spotted jersey awarded to riders who harvest the most points on mountain climbs. He also retained the white jersey as the Tour’s best young rider. The 23-year-old wiped away tears in his stage winner’s news conference.
“It was fabulous,” he said after winning on his national independence day. “It’s a very special day in Colombia – a big party and the whole of Colombia is celebrating.”
Quintana, who trains where his family lives at 9,200 feet in the Andes, said he was “very thankful” to all those in cycling who have fought doping. Training at such high altitudes encourages the body to create more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and that gives him a natural “advantage” over other riders.
With six miles still to ascend on the last and toughest of the day’s six climbs, Froome put on a devastating turn of speed that left Contador gasping. Froome, Rodriguez and Quintana then rode as a trio, leaving Contador further and further behind. Quintana rode away in the last stretch for his first stage win at his first Tour.
Contador placed seventh in the stage, laboring in more than two minutes behind Quintana. The two-time former champ ran out of legs after weeks of trying to keep up and pressuring Froome. He dropped to fourth overall, more than seven minutes behind the Briton who was born in Kenya and who hopes his win will inspire African cyclists to believe that they, too, can turn professional.
Of the 198 riders who started on the French island of Corsica on June 29, 170 have survived this far – meaning they could equal the Tour’s record for finishers, also 170, achieved in 2010.
Uniquely for the 100th Tour, Stage 21 will set off in the late afternoon, so the race will finish more or less as the sun is setting behind the Arc de Triomphe.
“The arrival on the Champs-Élysées will be immense,” Froome said.
Froome said he didn’t know how many more Tours he might win because “I’m just thinking about here and now,” but he added he would like to keep coming back to the Tour “as long as I can.”
Froome was runner-up last year, helping Team Sky teammate Wiggins to victory.