Chris Froome (Team Sky) is one stage away from a second Tour de France victory despite conceding 1:28 to Nairo Quintana on stage 20's summit finish on Alpe d’Huez, who he now leads the general classification by 1:12. Sunday’s 109.5km procession into Paris is all that is left for Froome to negotiate before officially being presented on the podium in the yellow jersey.
Froome will become the 13th double winner in the history of the race alongside the likes of Laurent Fignon, Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Alberto Contador, having also won the 2013 edition of the race ahead of Quintana.
“What can I say, it’s an amazing, amazing feeling to still be here in yellow this evening, we have to get to Paris tomorrow with no issues, but from the racing side of things, that’s done now,” Froome said during his post-stage press conference with a hint of emotion in his voice. “We faced all challenges over almost three weeks of racing. Massive thanks to teammates for the work they’ve put in over the last few weeks. I think of little points along the way, chipping away getting yellow and the final advantage I have to day, it’s them I have to thank for this position.
“To win the Tour once was a dream, to come back and do it a second time is more than I ever could imagine.”
An aggressive fourth and final day of racing in the Alps was initiated by Movistar, that started the day with Quintana and Alejandro Valverde in second and third place overall with the ambition of claiming yellow by day's end. The attacks on Froome’s yellow jersey from Movistar started on the Col de la Croix de Fer, isolating the Sky rider before his teammates re-joined the 30-year-old on the valley road on the run in to the 13.8km ascent of the iconic Alpe d'Huez.
Froome was unable to respond to a battery of attacks by Quintana on the 21-hairpin climb, explaining that he preferred to ride at his own tempo than dipping into the red zone and risk losing his yellow jersey on the final climb of the race.
“I won’t lie if I say that there were a few moments when I thought that this was going to be tough,” he said of the final ascent. “We were getting time checks every few minutes and it was comforting to see that it wasn’t jumping up really quickly. It was manageable especially with the way that Richie and Wout Poels were pulling up the climb. I was on my limit I thought I was dying a thousand deaths. Having teammates make it easier and I was able to limit my losses.”
Comparisons between his 2013 triumph and this year’s success were inevitable in the post-stage press conference considering Quintana was again the rider who provided the greatest challenge to yellow. Asked which victory was more satisfying, Froome explained the unique facets of both Tour’s were special in their own way.
“It’s hard to compare one Tour to another as both are incredibly special, I feel as if this year, a second time for us as a team we have been up against with so much going on in background, away from the race, which could have taken the focus away from what we needed to achieve in terms of racing, as a group, it brought us closer together as a team,” he said of his two victories. “I didn’t come to Semnoz on stage 20 in the 2013 Tour feeling like I would lose the yellow jersey, it’s a huge relief today because there were moments that I was in difficulty on the first climb already and the last climb.
“I just want to thanks the guys for putting up with the rubbish over the last few weeks and putting up with the task at hand. We are going to have a good reason to celebrate tomorrow night.”
Between 2007 and 2014, Contador was the only rider able to claim multiple victories. Froome equals the Spaniard’s record of winning twice in three years to suggest he is the now eminent Tour rider of the peloton but hastened to add Quintana as potentially his new main rival in years to come.
“I see Nairo being one of those guys to give me a hard time in the next few Tour de Frances. Of course he has age on his side, he’s five years younger than me. I don’t know how long we’ll have Alberto Contador, he says that he wants to continue for one more year. There will always be young riders coming up and I see Nairo being one.”
Pre-Tour, Froome’s bike-handing skills were called into question with the pavé of stage 4 regarded as an impediment to his overall ambitions after his withdrawal on the cobbled stage 5 of last year’s race, despite not even seeing a sector of pavé. However, he emerged from the cobbles to Cambrai with a lot of self-confidence.
Throughout the Tour, Froome has overcome incidents with unruly crowds, insinuations and innuendo regarding Sky’s performances on the bike that saw the team release Froome’s stage-winning data from La Pierre-Saint-Martin.
Reflecting on the tribulations of his two week stint in yellow, Froome explained that it was never a burden to lead the race as teammate Bradley Wiggins felt in 2012.
“No it’s an absolute honour to wear yellow in Tour,” he said. “It’s every cyclist's dream to wear yellow. That’s what I was focused from last year to get myself back into this position, so no way was it a burden.
“I see it as something that comes with the yellow jersey, I know I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve done nothing to deserve it, it's nothing I take personally, it's something circumstantial,” he added of disrespect shown to the yellow jersey. “It’s not going to take away from going into Paris tomorrow wearing yellow.
On the windswept stage 2 from Utrecht to Zealand, Quintana was caught out in the crosswinds and lost 1:28 minutes to Froome. The 25-year-old also lost 1:04 minutes on La Pierre-Saint-Martin but explained he lost the Tour in the first week.
Dismissing hypothetical questions over how the race would have played out minus the stage 2 echelons, Froome revealed that he saw La Pierre-Saint-Martin as the decisive climb of the Tour where he would lay the groundwork for victory.
“I think I’ve made it very clear that I had chosen that stage to make my move three weeks before,” he said. “When I went to see La Pierre-Saint-Martin in the recon, I was with Nicolas Roche and Nicolas Portal and I said that I would attack here and I did exactly that in the race. Nairo Quintana said he wanted to attack in the Alps, and he did, my tactic was to try and hang on. I think it’s quite straightforward.
“I hoped that by the time I reached the Alps, I’d have an advantage I could defend and that’s how it worked out in the end and we can be pretty happy with that.”
Fifth place on Alpe d'Huez today was enough for Froome to claim the king of the mountains and yellow jersey double that previously has been achieved by Bartali, Coppi and Eddy Merckx. Having his name in the record books of the sport though is not the driving force behind Froome’s decision to live his life as a professional cyclist, explaining the pure pleasure of riding a bicycle and racing as his raison d'être.
“For me, that’s what it's all about, that’s the side of cycling that I love, the sacrifices the hard work,” he said of what drives him. “That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. I am not going for specific Tour titles, fame or some kind of awards.
“What gets me out of bed in the morning, is I love riding my bike, pushing my body to limits, I love the freedom cycling gives you. As long as my body allows me, I’ll set the goal to do this at 35, 36 or 38 maybe, who knows? If I can carry on, I will definitely try.”