Chris Froome has admitted that he thought his Tour de France title defence was done when he had to stop and replace a broken wheel on stage 15 of the Tour de France. A broken spoke forced Froome to stop and take the wheel of his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski on the important penultimate climb of the day.
Rival team AG2R-La Mondiale had already put the hammer down at this point and there were no 'gentlemen's' rules in play with the race already well and truly on. Froome had to rely on a big team effort to get him back into the group of favourites before the top of the first category Col de Peyra Taillade.
"I knew then that this could be the end of my fight for my yellow jersey," Froome told reporters outside his Puy-en-Velay hotel ahead of a rest day training ride. "There were a good five or 10 minutes there that I thought just knowing the pace that AG2R was setting going into the climb and I was standing on the side of the road with my teammate Kwiatko on the side of the road trying to change wheels, I thought that was game over for me.
"If I purely reflect on yesterday that was a big save. I'm really grateful that I got through yesterday. It was really touch and go. If I didn't make it to that front group by the top of that climb, I don't think I would have made it to the finish line in yellow."
Helped on the last leg by Mikel Landa, Froome was able to bridge over in the nick of time and came home with the main bulk of favourites, with only Dan Martin gaining any time in the top 10. There are still a number of challenges to overcome in the final week, including the mountain stages on Wednesday and Thursday, to Serre-Chevalier and the Col d'Izoard.
Froome will be most looking forward to the time trial. It may be an opportunity to further enhance his cushion over his rivals, but it is also a safety net if he has another difficult day in the mountains like he did on stage 12 to Peyragudes. Despite his difficulties on Sunday, Froome believes he is going into the final six stages in his best form yet.
"I'm certainly not going to give any seconds away for free, but as I had a bad day in the Pyrenees, I could have a bad day in the Alps. I'm feeling better and better as the race goes on. Even with yesterday's stage, I felt pretty good, and hopefully, that's a sign of timing things well and coming into the Tour really fresh. I hope that this third week I'll be at my best.
On the right side of the gaps
It has been a very close Tour de France, in fact, the closest ever at this point. In the three Tours de France that Froome has won the smallest gap he has had going into the final week was the 2:27 he held over Bauke Mollema in last year's race. His lead has been on the same diet as the Team Sky riders and this year it is an altogether much skinnier lead of 18 seconds over Fabio Aru (Astana). Back to Landa in sixth place, that gap stretches to just 1:17. Froome says that he's not surprised it is so close going into the last week of racing.
"When I came here, I knew that it would be the biggest challenge of my career and the hardest fought battle in terms of the Tour de France as I've done before," he said. "This is what we expected, and at the moment I'm just glad that I'm on the right side of those gaps and I'm not trying to make up time on any of my rivals at this time."
In theory, there are six riders that could go home with the final maillot jaune, but there are those that pose more of a threat to Froome's knife-edge lead than others. Froome believes that it is the three riders immediately behind him in the GC that are the biggest threat, with Rigoberto Uran a particularly interesting challenge considering his time trialling ability.
"Each rival presents a different threat. If you look at Fabio Aru, he won the first mountain top finish on Planche des Belles Filles. He perhaps didn't have the best day a couple of days ago, but he's been strong in the third week before, and we'll have to see how he goes," said Froome. "Romain Bardet has always been strong in the last week, and he has the team to back him up. So, of course, as we saw yesterday, he put me under a lot of pressure yesterday and we really had to use the whole team to keep control of the situation.
"Rigoberto Uran, maybe more of a dark horse who slips under the radar a little bit. He's probably the strongest time triallist of this group of GC riders. With Marseille in mind, he's a big threat as well."
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