Chris Froome has virtually secured Tour de France victory. On his way to a runner-up place last year, Froome was key to helping teammate Bradley Wiggins become Britain's first yellow jersey champion.
Ahead of Sunday's 21st and final stage from Versailles to Paris, Britain's Froome defended his significant lead. The 28-year-old Sky Team captain finished third in Saturday's 125-kilometer (78-mile) stage through the mountainous town of Annecy-Semnoz in southeastern France, but still retained a five-minute lead over his nearest competitor.
"It's been an amazing journey for me," Froome said. "The race has been a fight every single day, with crosswinds, rain, mountains, good days in the mountains and bad days. It's really fitting for the 100th edition."
Froome had started as the race favorite and took command on stage eight with a stunning victory atop Ax-Trois-Domaines in the Pyrenees. He finished second on stage 11 and won stages 15 and 16, going into Saturday with a 5-minute, 11-second advantage, but despite appearing to have the legs for a third mountaintop stage win the emotions took over with 2 kilometers (about 1 mile) to race.
Froome would become only the second Brit to win the Tour de France. The first, Bradley Wiggins, won just last year.
'Last two K's'
The Kenyan-born Froome, who moved to South Africa as a teenager and took a British racing license only in 2008, took a runner-up place on the Tour of Spain in 2011. Although poised to win in Paris on Sunday, the 28-year-old admitted it will take a long time for his imminent victory to sink in.
"With about 2 kilometers to go when I was with [Nairo] Quintana and [Joaquim] Rodriguez I started thinking, 'Two K's to go now, I've got five minutes, this is it, it's pretty much wrapped up now," Froome said. "It was overwhelming and it actually became quite hard to concentrate in those last two K's."
Spain's Alberto Contador had begun the stage in second place at 5 minutes, 11 seconds back, but only 21 seconds ahead of Quintana, a climbing specialist from Colombia who turned pro last year. His inability to follow when Froome, Quintana and Rodriguez upped the pace early on the final 10.3-kilometer climb to the summit effectively ended his chances of claiming a podium place.
Contador, the Saxo team leader who won two Tours and also had his 2010 title stripped after he failed a drug test, has admitted that Froome has simply ridden too good a race.
"It is always better to finish second than 10th, but the objective was to finish first," Contador said. "This year it was impossible, there is one rider who is better than the rest."
As Froome transitions from support to champion and Contador explores life lower in the standings, Quintana claimed his first Tour stage, moving to second at 5:03 and virtually securing Colombia's first runner-up spot, 25 years after Fabio Parra's third-place finish. On Saturday, Quintana secured the King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey with an 11-point lead on Froome as well as the white jersey for the best young rider - all this in his first Tour.
"I never thought success on the Tour de France would come to me so quickly," Quintana said. "I'm only 23 years old and it's unbelievable to be sitting here today."
Rodriguez, the Katusha team leader, finished 17 seconds back, but moved up to third overall at 5:47. Having struggled to show his ambition at the start of the race, Rodriguez came fighting back into contention in an improved third week.
"I got better as the Tour went on and finished very strongly and I am happy with my work and with that of my team," the Spaniard said. "I did everything to win today. I didn't do it but I am happy to finish on the podium in Paris."
mkg/kms (AFP, dpa, AP)