Sky rider moves another step closer to Tour de France victory
Chris Froome (Sky) inched closer to a Tour de France victory that has appeared inevitable for nigh on two weeks when he comfortably defended his yellow jersey over five mountain passes on the road to Le Grand-Bornand on Friday.
Such has been Froome's dominance at this Tour that his one crisis to date – the dreaded fringale on Alpe d'Huez – could scarcely be turned into a drama, for even in his weakened state, he still divested the race of further suspense by adding more time to his overall lead on Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
Saxo-Tinkoff were again aggressive in setting the pace on stage 19 to Le Grand-Bornand but Contador never followed through with the anticipated fireworks on the final climb of the Col de la Croix-Fry, and Froome finished safely alongside Contador, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) to maintain his buffer of 5:11 with just two days remaining.
"I'm really relieved to have this stage behind me," Froome said. "I was quite nervous about it and it was very tough to be there. There was more than 4,500 metres of climbing, it was a very hard day and the objective was to remain on the wheels and stay in control."
Criticised for their capitulation in the face of Garmin-Sharp and Movistar's collective forcing on a similarly demanding day in the Pyrenees, Sky held firm through the early exchanges on Friday, with Geraint Thomas setting tempo for Froome on the Glandon and Madeleine.
By the time the yellow jersey group reached the base of the Col de la Croix-Fry, however, Froome had only Richie Porte left for company, but the Sky pairing were untroubled by Saxo-Tinkoff's forcing, while Froome himself was able to cover the accelerations of Rodriguez and Quintana near the summit.
"It was a tough stage today but Chris had a good day. He recovered from his hunger flat yesterday and I think he's in a good position," Porte said on crossing the finish line.
For his part, Froome reluctantly acknowledged that it is nigh on unthinkable that he could find a way to fritter away an advantage in excess of five minutes on the final mountain stage to Semnoz on Saturday.
"Having five minutes of an advantage is a really good position to be in but let's not be too complacent," he protested. "It would be very hard for anybody to take five minutes on me in the last stage, but I will need to stay focused. There'll be one final big effort and then we'll be able to relax a little."
While the attacks on his yellow jersey will end atop Semnoz on Saturday afternoon, Froome must be aware that the debate surrounding his performances will continue to endure. His Sky team released selected performance data from the past two years to L'Équipe on Thursday and Froome said that he accepted the scrutiny.
"I'm completely understand that it's normal to be in this position with the yellow jersey and I accept that I'm put under this level of scrutiny," Froome said. "It comes with the yellow jersey and I think it would be the same for whoever held it."
While wearers of the yellow jersey normally talk dreamily about the inspirational effects of the famous garment, it was interesting that Froome admitted to occasional struggles for motivation as he draws closer to Paris with a sizeable margin of safety.
"Mentally, it's hard to keep that up, it's hard to wake up every morning still motivated and hungry to look for more seconds," he said. "I think I've had yellow since stage 8, it's a long time. The biggest challenge has been staying mentally fresh every day when there was so far to go in the Tour."