The Alps behind him, Froome has one hand on Tour win No. 4
COL D'IZOARD, France (AP) -- On the highest mountain-top finish of the 104th Tour de France, in a rocky moonscape where the air thins, only the hardiest organisms survive. A few pine trees, tough old grasses, some stubborn flowers and, now joining that rare breed, Chris Froome.
Putting one hand on what would be his third straight Tour crown and fourth overall since his first win in 2013, Froome emerged from the Alps on Thursday with the yellow jersey fixed firmly on his shoulders. Having chewed his way through nearly 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) of French roads, just three stages now stand between the Briton and top spot on the Champs-Elysees podium in Paris on Sunday night. And one of those is a time trial race against the clock, a discipline he excels in - having provided him with bronze medals at the Olympics of 2012 and 2016.
With opportunities to dethrone the three-time champion quickly running out, French rider Romain Bardet and his AG2R team again put pedal to the metal and tried to make Froome crack on the last huge climb of this Tour, piling on the pace up the punishing Col d'Izoard - the culmination of Thursday's Stage 18 and one of the toughest tests in a three-week race that has produced surprises aplenty.
Froome was in no mood to be at the receiving end of another one.
Fending off Bardet's attacks, and putting in a strong one of his own that initially rattled yet didn't shake off the sturdy Frenchman, he preserved a cushion of 23 seconds overall that, unless disaster strikes in the shape of a crash or other misfortune, should be enough for victory.
"I wouldn't say it's quite won," Froome said, before confidently adding: "The toughest part of the Tour is behind us."
French rider Warren Barguil triumphed on the Izoard's barren slopes, winning his second stage of the tour after he attacked with six kilometers (four miles) left to climb to the top. He also won Stage 13 on Bastille Day.
Barguil gradually reeled in riders ahead of him on the hairpin bends and steep road - the last being John Darwin Atapuma of Colombia, with about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) left to the finish, at an altitude of 2,360 meters (7,743 feet), amid deserts of scree.
He is now guaranteed to win the polka-dot jersey awarded for points collected during the Tour on climbs - an even more impressive feat considering he suffered a pelvis fracture in a crash in April and was struck by a car on a training ride last year, fracturing his wrist.
"I had a lot hard luck. Luck is now on my side," he said. "I had big problems, but I never gave up."
Froome's lead, while far smaller than at the same stage in the Tours he won in 2013, 2015 and 2016, is sufficient for him not to have to take unnecessary risks on the twisting and technical time-trial course in Marseille on Saturday. His Team Sky should also be strong enough to control the race on Friday's stage out of the Alps through Provence, which isn't tough enough to provoke a big shake-up in the standings. And Sunday's ride into Paris is traditionally a procession before only the sprinters contest victory at the end.
In short, Froome is 95 percent of the way there.
"I'm happy that I went through the Alps without any major problem," the 32-year-old Froome said. "I normally find the Alps more difficult."
By beating Froome in a final sprint to finish third at the top of the Izoard, placing behind Barguil and Atapuma, Bardet clawed back four valuable bonus seconds. That moved him up to second overall, relegating Rigoberto Uran to third.
"I gave it all, I thought I was going to suffocate as I crossed the line," Bardet said. "I have no regrets, I did everything I could."
Uran lost a bit of ground and a couple of seconds to Bardet and Froome in the Izoard's final ramp and now trails Froome by 29 seconds. Bardet and Uran are the only riders within a minute of Froome, after Italian Fabio Aru again faded on that climb and continued his slide down the overall rankings. Going into the Alps, Aru was second overall, breathing down Froome's neck. He is now fifth and nearly two minutes behind his rival.
Despite the odds stacking in Froome's favor, Bardet isn't ready to concede defeat.
"It's still possible," he said. "I'll try to finish in a beautiful fashion."
But the reality is that Bardet is not the time-trial force that Froome is.
Froome identified Uran as his "biggest threat" in the clock-race and will be watching the Colombian most closely.
"It's still a close race," Froome said. "But we're in a good position."