Perhaps nothing summed up Chris Froome's Tour de France quite like its final ascent, the Col de Joux Plane. Beneath leaden sheets of rain, he had no fewer than four Sky teammates for company at the head of the yellow jersey group, and nobody so much as dreamed of trying to disrupt their rhythm.
There would be no frissons on the treacherous descent to the finish either, no tests of Froome's resolve after his crash in similar conditions on the previous afternoon. Rather than plunging into Morzine, the Tour peloton was glad simply to slouch towards Paris. This race, after all, was already over as a contest, all resistance long since crushed.
Froome will carry a lead of more than four minutes onto the Champs-Élysées on Sunday afternoon, but while Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will stand alongside him on the podium, but ultimately, he was a man more troubled by circumstance than by rivals on this Tour.
The enduring images of excitement on this Tour will be of Froome running up Mont Ventoux in his cleats or riding in a bloodied jersey to Saint-Gervais, but the anticipated duel with Quintana never materialised. Nobody else, be it on form or on pedigree, was on the same level.
"It was unfortunate that Alberto Contador crashed on stage 1 and he wasn't part of this battle this year," Froome said in Morzine on Saturday evening. "It's important that we have a big battle but even though I've come here with a four-minute advantage, it feels like every day has been a new challenge, a new fight. I don't feel as if it's been any easier in that regard.
"I have seen Nairo obviously stronger in the past. At the Tours I won in 2013 and 2015, he pushed me right until the end. I feel like this year, he wasn't quite at his best for whatever reason. But I've no doubt he'll be back here with the same hunger to fight for victory next year."
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When Bardet stole away in the streets of Morzine to claw back six seconds on Froome at the end of stage 20, it was the first time that he had conceded so much of a second of his lead since he seized the yellow jersey on the descent of the Col de Peyresourde two weeks ago. The closest Froome ever came to losing ground was when he crashed at Mont Ventoux and the maillot jaune briefly looked set to pass to Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), but the commissaires opted to amend his time in light of what they decreed to be exceptional circumstances.
"I don't think the jury's decision should have been made according to what kind of margins someone is leading by, that's a bit crazy," Froome said, when asked if the decision had ultimately divested the race of suspense. "The jury took the decision because the race was stopped by external factors, and it was a fair decision. Every race and every scenario is different but that's why the jury is there, to make those decisions."
That would prove the only scare. The following day, Froome would put the yellow jersey beyond reach in the Ardèche time trial, and in the mountains of the third week, he was able to rely on the considerable help of his Sky guard. Wout Poels was the stand-out performer, but in truth, Froome seemed to have four or five of the best climbers in the race at his disposal. The Tour became a – very brisk – procession.
"I feel so privileged to be in this position where I've always had teammates around me in the race," Froome said. "Although we haven't won the team competition, we've had by far the strongest team in this here and I'm incredibly grateful for that."
Five years ago, in July 2011, a 26-year-old Froome raced the Brixia Tour rather than the Tour de France, and risked being deemed surplus to requirements at Team Sky by season's end. Nobody, not even Froome himself, could have imagined then that he would win three of the next five Tours. Remarkably, he has now equalled Greg LeMond, Louison Bobet and Philippe Thys in the record books.
"It would be my dream to keep coming back to the Tour de France for the next five or six years if I can, to be on the start line and give myself the best shot of fighting for victory again," Froome said. "I've now won it three times and I can't say the novelty is wearing off. It's such an incredible feeling and amazing event. It's the biggest honour there is in our sport and I hope I can be back again next year."
Froome's 2015 Tour win arrived against an often hostile backdrop, which included the yellow jersey announcing he had been doused in urine by a spectator on stage 14, and Team Sky claiming that Froome's power files had been hacked – a claim, incidentally, that has never been substantiated.
This time around, the atmosphere around Froome's tenure in yellow has been less tense than before. Like his manager Dave Brailsford, Froome credited his decision to undergo physiological testing at the GlaxoSmithKline Human Performance Lab last August, though there remain limits on how much information his team are prepared to put into the public domain.
"I think for quite a lot of reasons, I've put that to rest now. I've done a lot in terms of offering up my physiological data and trying to be open to people as much as I can while protecting a competitive advantage at the same time," Froome said.
"Things have been put into perspective for us, by the attacks in Nice and what's been happening. But credit to the French public, the race continued, and it's a strong sign that life goes on."
Tour de France stage 20 highlights video
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