An attack from Nairo Quintana on La Toussuire that cut Chris Froome’s Tour de France yellow jersey margin to 2:38 over the Movistar rider became secondary to the Sky rider post-stage 19, with an earlier attack on the hors catégorie Col de la Croix de Fer from Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) enraging the maillot jaune.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory really,” Froome said of his thoughts on the Nibali attack before going on to explain the incident. “Going up the Col du Glandon the very last part, near the Croix de Fer, I had a mechanical problem with a piece of asphalt or small stone that got stuck between my brake calliper and my rear wheel, and obviously the rear wheel just jammed up. I had to stop to get it out before I could continue.”
Nibali, the defending Tour champion, went on to win the stage and move up to fourth overall, with Froome crossing the line 1:14 later in third place and Quintana second. Having started the day 8:04 in arrears to Froome, Nibali’s attack was never likely to land him the race lead, but the lack of respect shown to the yellow jersey appeared to be the larger issue at play for Froome.
An irate Froome explained that he told Nibali “exactly what I thought of him” in a heated exchange in the podium area. “I don’t think it was very sportsmanlike to attack at the one moment I had a mechanical moment, but that’s his decision and that’s how he chose to make the race,” he added.
“It seemed to me that Nibali had the whole climb to attack but chose the wrong moment when I had a mechanical to make his move. I’ve heard from other riders he turned and saw I had a mechanical and attacked,” he said.
“Obviously, in my opinion, it’s not sportsmanlike, it’s not in the spirit of the Tour de France and not what this race is about.”
A tranquillo Nibali defended his attack post-stage, unsure exactly what Froome took issue with.
“Before judging, you need to think and use your brain. We’re all nervous after the stage but he [verbally] attacked me. But I didn’t reply, I didn’t say anything,” Nibali said in his winner's press conference. “I won’t say the words he used because they’re too harsh and it’s not nice to say them. He was very angry but I don’t know what his problem was.”
A final day in the Alps
As the anger subsided from the Nibali incident and questions centred on the penultimate stage to Alpe d’Huez, a certain level of calmness came over Froome with the realisation that he is just one 13.8 kilometre climb from a second Tour victory.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow. It’s going to be an amazing stage. It’s the most iconic climb of Tour, and it’s the final test in terms of terms of the general classification. I imagine it will be an amazing atmosphere up there,” Froome said of Alpe d’Huez. “I am in a great position with a two-and-a-half minute advantage [over Quintana]. I can’t wait to get up there now.”
With a dominant stage victory on La Pierre Saint-Martin underlining Froome’s superiority over his rivals in the race, there is no need to take victory on the Alpe to validate his stint in yellow. However, if the opportunity arises to add his name to the list of 21 official winners, Froome said he would take it with both hands.
“It would be a dream to win tomorrow's stage, but at this stage, my focus is on the yellow jersey and keeping it on my shoulders at this stage,” he said.
The only rider who can realistically take yellow from Froome on the Alpe is Quintana. The 25-year-old Colombian put Froome into difficulty on the final climb of today’s stage to extract 30 seconds from his overall lead. In 2013 when the Tour made the double ascent of the Alpe, Quintana put 1:06 into Froome but will need to more than double that effort to pull off a final-day coup, leaving Froome with the simple task of following Quintana’s wheel when the inevitable attack for victory is launched.
With spectator behaviour thrust firmly into the Tour narrative of 2015, Froome was asked in the post-stage press conference whether he feels any trepidation ahead of the climb up the Alpe, which includes the notorious ‘Dutch corner,’ and whether fans could effect the overall outcome of the race rather then the riders' legs.
“Yes certainly, I think every rider is a little bit on their tip toes going up for tomorrow's stage, a little on edge wondering what will happen on the climb,” Froome said. “We know crowds have been up there partying for last couple nights. When we arrive tomorrow they will be fully into it. I think everyone’s a bit nervous about getting through there, but I hope it wont be too different from last year with great atmosphere on the climb, and the race wont be affected in anyway.”
For Froome, the nerves will be heightened by the knowledge that he starts the day effectively 110.5km away from securing his second Tour victory, erasing the memories of last year’s title defence that ended with a broken hand and wrist on stage 5.