By James Dao
New York Times News Service
ANNECY-SEMNOZ, France: On the next-to-last stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, Chris Froome of Sky Procycling maintained a commanding lead over his challengers, all but assuring that he would win the 100th Tour when it finishes in Paris today. He would become the second British rider in succession, and the second one ever, to win cycling’s premier race.
Froome was third on the mountaintop finish in this ski resort, retaining a lead of 5 minutes 3 seconds over Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who won the 125-kilometer stage (about 78 miles) and moved into second place past Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff, who dropped into fourth.
The stage confirmed the dominance Froome has had in professional cycling all year, when he won all but one of the stage races he entered and three stages at this Tour. This would be his first Grand Tour victory.
In a news conference, Froome, 28, described the way he felt as Quintana was pulling away in the final miles of the stage and his own legs were going rubbery. He was overtaken by a sense of elation, and relief, that victory would at last be his.
“I’ve actually done this, I’m in yellow, this is the last day of g.c. and nobody is going to take it away from me,” he recalled thinking, referring to the general classification, the group of contenders for the overall victory. “It was a very emotional feeling.”
In winning his first stage of the Tour, Quintana impressively pedaled away from Froome and Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, two of the best climbers in the sport. In doing so, he assured himself of winning not only the white jersey for best young rider, but also the polka dot jersey for best climber. Rodriguez should finish the Tour in third place.
Quintana, a 23-year-old Colombian who turned professional last year, was one of the revelations of this Tour, and his one-on-one battles against Froome in the mountains will be among its enduring images. After the race, Quintana dabbed tears from his eyes as he spoke to reporters.
“I never imagined for a second that I could be in the situation I am in today,” he said.
Froome was born and reared in Kenya, learning to ride in the hills around Nairobi, then racing while attending school in South Africa. After performing well in African races, he quit college to accept an offer to ride with a small team in Europe. The next year, 2008, he turned professional, and he rode his first Tour de France in 2009.
His ascent was slowed in part by a battle with bilharzia, a parasitic infection he contracted during a trip to Africa. The parasite remains in his system, causing abdominal pain and diarrhea when it flares and requiring him to take medication periodically. Froome said that he was not taking the medicine during this Tour.
A second-place finish in the 2011 Vuelta a Espana confirmed that he was a contender - to the cycling world and to himself.
“That gave me a lot of confidence and belief in myself that actually I do belong in this group of riders at the front,” Froome said. He also finished second in last year’s Tour, behind his teammate Bradley Wiggins.
A British citizen, Froome spoke warmly of Africa on Saturday, saying he hoped his performance would inspire young African riders and describing the happiness he felt when customs agents in Kenya recognized him.
Froome first put his stamp on this Tour in Stage 8, when he accelerated away from Contador and then Quintana on the finish of Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees. He did the same in Stage 15 on Mont Ventoux, a bruising 13-mile climb.
Froome was equally impressive in the individual time trials, finishing second by 12 seconds to the world champion time trialer, Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, then winning a shorter mountain trial on Stage 17. Tall and gangly, Froome is not a thing of beauty on the bike. His long arms flap and his face frequently contorts with effort. Yet he has proved to be more durable, and usually more powerful, than his more stony-faced rivals.
“He isn’t a stylish and smooth rider like other Tour winners,” said Jonathan Vaughters, chief executive of Slipstream Sports, which owns the Garmin-Sharp team. “But that’s sort of the same with the Kenyan marathoners. They don’t always look efficient, but they are.”
If he has a vulnerability, other riders say, it lies in his bike handling in crowds and on descents. He nearly crashed into Contador during a tricky descent into Gap on Stage 16. But during a possibly worse downhill between dual ascents of Alpe d’Huez on Stage 18, his team kept him safe near the front of the peloton.
Because the Tour is so arduous and long — 2,115 miles over 21 stages — holding the leader’s yellow jersey into Paris requires not just winning stages, but also doing well enough everywhere else. His dominance of this race caused some anti-doping watchdogs to raise the possibility that he might be using performance-enhancing substances. Froome has repeatedly denied the suggestion.