Tomorrow evening, Team Sky will lead Chris Froome onto the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris as champion-in-waiting of the 100th edition of the Tour de France. Froome finished third in today’s 20th and penultimate stage of the race, which was won by Movistar's Nairo Quintana.
Quintana is set to secure the runner's-up spot occupied by Froome 12 months ago and also to clinch both best young rider's white jersey and the polka dot jersey as King of the Mountains as he overhauled Froome in that classification today.
Quintana was one of three riders who fought it out for the stage win on the Hors-Categorie climb at Annecy-Semnoz - the others were Froome and Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez.
The Spaniard finished second today, and moves to third overall, with Saxo-Tinkoff's Alberto Contador, who had started the day second on General Classifcation, 5 minutes 11 seconds behind Froome, dropped early on that final climb and losing more than 2 minutes to his rivals. He now lies fourth.
This time last year, Froome finished as runner-up to his team mate, Bradley Wiggins, the first British rider to win the yellow jersey. Tomorrow, Froome will be the second as he takes to the top step of the podium, and what’s more, he will be the first winner of the race born in Africa.
At 125 kilometres, today’s third and final day in the Alps was the shortest road stage of this year’s race, but it featured six categorised climbs, the last two being the Category 1 Mont Revard, the summit coming 46.5 kilometres from the end, and the Hors-Categorie finish at Annecy-Semnoz.
The three riders who would contest the stage win, and who barring misfortune will occupy the steps of the podium in Paris tomorrow, had got away from their rivals early on during that final climb as the remnants of the day’s break, including RadioShack-Leopard’s Jens Voigt, who had burst clear earlier and spent almost half the stage out in front on his own, were swept up.
With the road starting to rise from a couple of kilometres before the final climb of 10.7 kilometres officially began, Team Sky, able to take things relatively easy until now thanks to Movistar taking on the earlier pacesetting to keep the break in check, moved to the front of the group and began to eat into Voigt’s advantage, which stood at little more than a minute as the ascent started.
With Movistar also coming to back the front, one by one the remaining escapees were swept up as even with 10 kilometres to go, the lead group had been whittled down to a handful of riders, among them Froome, his team mate Porte, Contador, Quintana plus his Movistar colleague Alejandro Valverde, as well as Rodriguez.
Voigt was caught with 8.5 kilometres remaining, and now it was Porte who went to the front, Froome on his wheel. Immediately, Rodriguez attacked, Quintana following him.
Froome for a moment looked in trouble but suddenly put in a huge burst of acceleration to bridge across to the pair in front, then another that briefly seemed to leave Quintana and Rodriguez unable to respond.
Within moments, they had rejoined him, forming the trio that would fight it out for the stage win, but Contador, who has worn the yellow jersey in Paris on three occasions – his 2010 title would later be taken away from him after his positive test for clenbuterol – was nowhere to be seen.
Despite the assistance of team mate Roman Kreuziger the Spaniard, expected to have been Froome’s closest rival prior to the race beginning, does not now have even the consolation of a podium place.
The racing had been explosive from the start of the stage as Pierre Rolland of Europcar sought to overhaul Froome in the mountains classification and succeed team mate Thomas Voeckler, who won the contest last year.
Rolland, wearing the polka dot jersey today by virtue of Froome being in yellow, spent most of the day as virtual leader of the classification as he swept up points, but as well as competing on the five summits ahead of the final climb, he had to make sure he finished high on the stage.
Ultimately, his efforts would be in vain as the overall contenders shot past him early on in the final ascent, and the double points on offer on that summit finish, meant Froome’s nemesis - for the mountains classification at least - turned out to be Quintana, who has a lead of 11 points.
After Rolland’s initial move, three other riders including Voigt joined him, and on the day’s second climb, the group had swelled to ten, but it was never allowed too much leeway and was always doomed, as was Voigt’s attack from 62 kilometres out.
Whether the 41-year-old German will ride another Tour is open to question – his legions of fans will be hoping his legs will obey the order to “shut up” for another year – but his efforts today were rewarded with the combativity prize.
One other jersey was mathematically decided today, the points classification, although it has long been clear that Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, who won it last year, had it firmly in his grasp.
All that remains now is what promises to be an exciting and spectacular final stage into Paris tomorrow, with British champion Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step looking to secure a fifth final-day win in a row. André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol, and Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel, will be foremost among those vying to be the first to beat him on the Champs-Elysées.
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