Britain’s Chris Froome on Thursday edged nearer to retaining his Tour de France title when he won the 18th stage, a 17km mountain time trial, to extend his overall lead to almost four minutes.
The Team Sky rider, aiming to become the first to retain the title since Miguel Indurain in 1995, clocked a best time of 30 minutes, 43 seconds on a course featuring the punishing Cote de Domancy, a 2.5km climb at an average gradient of 9.4 percent.
He beat time trial specialist Tom Dumoulin by 21 seconds and Italian Fabio Aru by 33 seconds.
“I really did not expect to beat Tom today, pacing was key. I started off steady and really controlled that first part then gave it everything I had,” Froome said. “I have got a great advantage now.”
Five-times Tour champion Eddy Merckx said the Briton already had the Tour sewn up.
“I cannot see any reason why he could not keep the yellow until Paris,” the Belgian said. “His rivals are just sitting in his teammates’ wheels. Nobody can beat him at this Tour.”
Dutchman Bauke Mollema, who started the day 2:27 behind Froome in the general classification, lost 1:25 and trails the defending champion by a massive 3:52 going into two final stages in the Alps before tomorrow’s parade to the Champs Elysees.
Froome’s compatriot Adam Yates is third, 4:16 off the pace, as the race to the podium is set to heat up with at least five riders still in the mix for second place.
Colombian Nairo Quintana, runner-up to Froome in 2013 and last year, had another tough day in the saddle, losing 1:10. The Movistar rider is fourth overall, 4:37 behind Froome.
On his heels is Frenchman Romain Bardet, 4:57 behind after finishing a surprise fifth on Thursday, while Australian Richie Porte, fourth on Thursday, is sixth, three seconds further back.
“I am happy it was a good time trial, I have got good sensations, it was pleasing,” Bardet said. “There are still two big stages left. I hope I will find a good terrain to attack.”
Froome started cautiously, but finished strong to claim his second stage win in this Tour, raising his fist in celebration after crossing the line.
“As always in the time trial the pacing strategy is critical, particularly in one like today where it was very easy, with that first steep ramp, to go out a little bit too hard and pay for it at the end,” Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford said.
“So you have to be brave on a course like that and hold a little bit back to start with so that you can get all your effort out over the course,” he said.
Froome was one of few riders to use both a time trial bike and a rear disc wheel, which played a part.
“We went for a very lightweight TT bike, disc wheels, I think Chris was one of the only riders to do a disc, but we spent a lot of time doing the math and the calculations and it looked like it came out right thankfully,” Brailsford said.
Yesterday’s 19th stage was a demanding 146km mountain trek with an uphill finish at Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc.
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