Chris Froome on verge of winning second Tour de France in three years

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

ALPE D'HUEZ, France -- Chris Froome, in his words "dying a thousand deaths," grimly hung on against a flying final attack from his main rival Nairo Quintana on the last Alpine climb on Saturday to virtually seal his second Tour de France victory in three years.

Quintana was outstanding on the final ascent to the Alpe d'Huez ski station in what was the Colombian's last real opportunity to unseat Froome.

Piling on bursts of speed on the steep road teeming with frenzied spectators, the Movistar rider ate into the race lead that the Team Sky leader carefully pieced together over the previous 19 stages.

Thibaut Pinot won Stage 20, for the third French victory at this Tour. But all eyes were on the battle behind the FDJ team rider for the overall race.

Lacking his usual explosive power, Froome gritted his teeth up the 21 hairpin bends as his advantage started to melt away, and he looked to limit the damage. Only at the end, in a final sprint, did Froome go top speed.

"I was dying a thousand deaths," he said. "There was a moment where I thought this could go the other way."

Over his radio, his Team Sky kept him updated on Quintana's progress. He was comforted that Quintana's lead up the mountain grew not by huge leaps but instead by "5-10 seconds at a time."

The tenacious defense was enough: The 1 minute, 12 seconds he still has over Quintana will see Froome crowned the winner on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.

Froome essentially won this Tour on the first big climbs in the Pyrenees in week two when, closely followed by teammate Richie Porte, he triumphed at the La Pierre-Saint-Martin ski station to give him a big cushion at the top of the standings. He picked that spot weeks earlier as the place to make his move.

That sledgehammer blow carried Froome through the rest of those mountains and the hilly Massif Central region on the way to the Alps, and dealt a heavy psychological blow to other contenders.

With the sole exception of Quintana, they all but resigned themselves to fighting for second and third place.

Ultimately, Quintana left himself too much to do on the last of four days in the Alps. Just as in 2013, he is set to finish runner-up again to Froome.

Quintana said the time he lost in the Tour's first week cost him dearly.

Still, he said: "Second at the Tour de France isn't half-bad."

Their engrossing, developing rivalry is box office for the sport after the ravages wrought by Lance Armstrong's era of systematic doping and lying.

At age 25, Quintana's future is ahead. He again will win the white jersey as the best young rider at this Tour.

At 30, Froome has time to add to his soon-to-be two Tour wins and says he sees himself competing for at least another six or seven years.

But from the evidence this time, Quintana is getting closer to finding Froome's breaking point. In 2013, Froome finished with a lead of 4 minutes, 20 seconds. This Tour wasn't so comfortable.

"Nairo pushed me all the way to the end, literally," Froome said. "We'll be back for the rematch."

On the final climb, with Quintana scything through yelling fans higher up the mountain, Froome clung to the lifeline of his teammates Porte and Wouter Poels, who looked behind to make sure Froome was still on their wheels.

"They saved it for me," Froome said.

Barring further loss of time by Froome on Sunday's largely ceremonial ride into Paris, which is very unlikely, his winning margin will be the smallest since Carlos Sastre beat Cadel Evans by 58 seconds in 2008.

Quintana's Movistar teammate, Alejandro Valverde, will take third overall, 5:25 back.

Froome, his voice as rough as sandpaper, said at his winner's press conference he's been battling a cough and "been struggling" in the Alps.

Although unintended, those first signs of vulnerability by Froome shot holes in the idea -- advanced by skeptics -- that his dominant riding in the Pyrenees was somehow fishy. That reflected the climate of suspicion that prevails in the post-Armstrong era, despite tighter drug testing.

Froome has had to defend himself against repeated questions about doping, and how he generates such power. He did so with calm and patience, insisting that cycling has moved on from the "Wild West" Armstrong era.

But after a spectator threw urine at him on Stage 14, the mild-mannered Froome showed a steely side, blaming "very irresponsible" commentators for turning public opinion against him.

Some spectators also spat at him -- including, he said, on Saturday's final climb.

"There's been so much going on in the background," Froome said. "I've done nothing wrong. I've done nothing to deserve this."