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Chris Froome leads Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
Sky rider waits for Wiggins at Peyragudes
In a Tour de France defined by the constricting strength of a single team, perhaps it was inevitable that its greatest drama would be provided by an internecine struggle, even if it was a battle that never truly began.
On the road to Peyragudes on Thursday, Chris Froome gave another stark demonstration of his superiority over the yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins in the mountains and another overt illustration of his role within the Team Sky hierarchy.
Three kilometres from the finish, as the road reared up for the final time towards the line, Froome surged to the front, pulling Wiggins clear of his remaining rivals, and it briefly looked as though the first and second-placed riders overall would simply cruise away from the rest of the field.
Gradually, however, a gap began to yawn open between Wiggins and Froome's rear wheel. Froome looked around and checked his pace accordingly, allowing Wiggins to latch back on. The scene would repeat itself three more times before the pair reached the summit, as Froome adjusted the tautness of the invisible elastic that was keeping Wiggins in touch.
Had Froome not been forced to soft-pedal to wait for his leader, he may well have taken his second stage win of the race, for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) held on to win by just 19 seconds over the Sky duo.
In the same mountain range where Greg Lemond was ordered to relent in favour of the maillot jaune of Bernard Hinault in 1985, however, Froome seemed a less reluctant domestique deluxe than the American had done, at least in his post-race comments.
"That was the plan today, to work for Bradley and to protect the yellow jersey," Froome said softly after reaching the summit.
While Froome has been the stronger on the climbs, his fellow countryman Wiggins will be the first to the top of the mountain to plant the flag as the first British winner of the Tour de France. If there is underlying discontent at playing Tenzing Norgay to Wiggins' Sir Edmund Hillary, the Sherpa looked to hide it at the finish.
"Everybody on the team is making a sacrifice," Froome said. "Cavendish is sacrificing every day. Everybody on the team is making a sacrifice every day for the yellow jersey. That's cycling, that's our job. We've all done our jobs."
Froome missed out on winning the 2011 Vuelta a España after Sky realised too late that he was a better option than Wiggins to do battle with Juan José Cobo. Set for another fourth Sunday on the second step of the podium, Froome was asked if he realised he might never have the chance to win the Tour again.
"Maybe, but would be a pity if it's true, but I'm 27 years old and I hope that there will be another chance in the future," he said politely, before adding: "One month before the Tour if you'd told me I'd be second with three days to go, I wouldn't have believed it, so I'm very happy with that."