Chris Froome is one successful ascent of the fabled Alpe d’Huez away from ensuring a third British winner of the Tour de France in the last four editions.
The 30-year-old Briton saw his lead eaten into on the 19th stage yesterday from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire yesterday but still takes a healthy advantage into the weekend.
Only one of those stages will prove decisive, today’s 110.5km route from Modane Valfrejus which culminates with the huge climb up Alpe d’Huez that involves 21 hairpin bends.
Survive any attacks from second-placed Nairo Quintana – who clawed back 32 seconds yesterday but still trails by two minutes 38 seconds – on a climb that invariably plays a definitive role, and Froome will slip his arms into the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees tomorrow afternoon after the final, ceremonial stage through Paris.
Should he do so, it would be a second Tour de France win for the Kenyan-born British cyclist in three years, Froome having succeeded Sir Bradley Wiggins, who made history as the British winner of the sport’s blue riband race back in 2012.
Froome was seething with defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, yesterday, as the Tour de France leader set up a duel for overall victory up Alpe-d’Huez with Quintana.
Nibali (Astana) was determined to rescue some consolation from his title defence ending poorly and surged to victory on yesterday’s 138-kilometre 19th stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire.
Froome felt the Italian’s initial acceleration was exploiting the Team Sky leader’s mechanical problem, but Froome fought back and limited the damage on the concluding climb to Quintana (Movistar).
Nibali won by 44 seconds from the Colombian, with Froome one minute 14, seconds adrift
The history between Froome and Nibali – the pair had a heated discussion on the Astana team bus after stage six to Le Havre as the Italian erroneously felt Froome was culpable for a crash –darkened as the pair had a finish-line exchange.
“I told him exactly what I thought of him,” said Froome.
“I felt very specifically the moment he attacked in the mountains today it was almost as if my mechanical provoked his attack.
“A piece of asphalt or small stone got stuck between my brake calipers and my rear wheel. The rear wheel just jammed up. I had to stop and get it out before I could continue.
“I’ve heard from other riders that he turned, could see I had a mechanical and then attacked.
“In my opinion it’s very unsportsmanlike, it’s not in the spirit of the Tour de France and it’s definitely not what this race is about.”
Froome felt the danger was not Nibali, who was more than eight minutes adrift at the start of the day, but those riders whose positions he was threatening.
Nibali moved up from seventh to fourth overall as a result of the win.
“I won’t even tell you the words Froome said to me at the finish. They’re too harsh to repeat,” said Nibali.
Froome was not aware of the television footage which appeared to show a roadside spectator spitting on him. He has been subject to innuendo, abuse and interrogation in this Tour and was doused in urine during stage 14 to Mende.
The 2013 champion, who was the target of a rude gesture from another fan as he chased back to the bunch following his mechanical, added: “That’s appalling behaviour.
“You can’t come to a bike race to spit at someone, or to punch them or to throw urine at them. That’s not acceptable at any level.”
Alpe-d’Huez is where the Tour will be won – tomorrow’s final stage is a procession and usually won by a sprinter – and often has an atmosphere which ranges from joyous to over-zealous and hostile after days of waiting.
“Every rider is a little bit on edge about what is going to happen up on that climb,” Froome said.
“Hopefully it won’t be too different to last time (in 2013), it’s a great atmosphere up on the climb and the race isn’t going to be affected in any way.”
Quintana, runner-up to Froome two years ago, vowed to go for glory.
“I’ll try again tomorrow from further out. Let’s see how strong he is then,” said Quintana said.
Woet Poels was the only Team Sky colleague to provide strong support for Froome as Geraint Thomas’ own podium challenge came to an end as he fell from fourth to 15th place, losing 22:00 to Nibali on the stage.
“”I was just empty,” the 29-year-old from Cardiff said.