Never has a Tour de France of such tight margins felt so devoid of suspense. Chris Froome (Sky) carries a lead of just 23 seconds over Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and 29 over Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) into the final weekend, but save for accident or incident, it seems unthinkable that the yellow jersey could change hands in Saturday's 22.5-kilometre time trial in Marseille.
In that light, stage 19 from Embrun to Salon-de-Provence – at 222 kilometres, the longest of the race – had the feel of a promenade before the anticipated procession along the Marseillaise seafront. Froome, certainly, enjoyed a relaxed afternoon at the head of a peloton that crossed the finish line more than twelve minutes down on winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data). His ease on the stage was such that he could even exchange a high five with Didi 'The Devil' Senft, whom he rather charitably described afterwards as a "legend of the Tour."
"Today was one of those days, especially for us GC guys who have been full gas in the Alps for the last few days, where we could just sit on the wheels a bit and regain some energy," Froome said in a press conference for the written press that, as has regularly been the case on this Tour, was limited to a mere three questions.
"We've got a difficult stage tomorrow in Marseille. I'm certainly grateful for today's transitional stage, a less crazy stage. Thanks to my teammates for controlling the race the way they did. I think everyone was quite happy to sit back and let us take the peloton to the finish."
Over the course of eight mountain stages on this Tour of fine margins, Froome has conceded 18 seconds to Bardet and 12 to Uran, (or 20 and 22 seconds, respectively, when one factors in time bonuses). In the rain-soaked opening time trial in Düsseldorf, however, Froome put 39 seconds into Bardet and 51 into Uran in the space of just 14 kilometres, hence his self-assurance ahead of the penultimate afternoon's test in Marseille. From every angle, the Tour is Froome's to lose.
"I think I have to treat it like any other time trial that I have done before, I have to do everything right," Froome said. "I'm not going to go out there and take any big risks, which is the same as in Düsseldorf. I'm not going to take any risks in the corners. When I can push, I'll push. But it's certainly not a course where I'll go out looking to risk everything. I'm obviously in a fantastic position now and I'd much rather be in this position than the position of second, third or fourth, having to make up time on somebody else. So that gives me a lot of confidence."
In the aftermath of the opening day time trial, FDJ coach Fred Grappe raised questions about the legality of Team Sky’s ‘vortex generators’ skinsuits, estimating that the dimpled panels on the shoulders and upper arms might have gained users between 18 and 25 seconds in the test. Although the UCI has ruled that the Sky skinsuits remain legal for the Marseille time trial, Froome will be obliged to wear a yellow skinsuit provided by the race organisation and their clothing supplier, Le Coq Sportif.
"It's a huge honour to be in the yellow jersey at this point," said Froome. "I wouldn’t want to be in any other position right now, and have to make up time on the leader of the race. I’ve ridden in the skinsuit provided by the organisers almost every year that I’ve won the Tour and it hasn’t been a problem. At the end of the day, it’s all about the legs."
After collecting the 57th yellow jersey of his career in Salon-de-Provence on Friday afternoon, Froome appeared briefly on the Vélo Club post-race television show in the company of Eddy Merckx, a man he might even place in the same august bracket as Didi the Devil.
Invited by the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team to follow the stage, Merckx had earlier told RTBF that he had been disappointed by what he deemed to be overly-defensive riding from the main contenders. "This Tour lacks prestige," Merckx said. "I'd have liked to have seen Froome win a stage in the mountains. If he doesn't win a stage, that will leave a bitter taste."
Merckx tempered his words slightly when he met Froome, though the sentiment remained. "I hope he wins the time trial, it would bring more prestige to the Tour," he said.
The current maillot jaune, for his part, seems to have no qualms about becoming the seventh man to win the Tour without landing a stage along the way. "I don't need to win the time trial," Froome said. "I need to make sure I don't lose the race."
Froome provided a courteous answer, too, when asked if he feared that Uran or even Bardet could wrest yellow from him in the time trial. Merckx can afford to be blunter. He simply shook his head.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.