Froome stays upright to join Tour elite
British rider and his dominant Sky team ready for Paris coronation after bruising final Alpine test
As the finish line on Place de l'Office du Tourisme beckoned, Chris Froome's face broke into a broad grin of relief.
Like the other survivors of this relatively short but extremely tough Alpine stage, he was soaked to the skin, and like many others he was carrying abrasions and bruises from a recent crash to remind him of the risks he had run on the four major descents.
The Kenyan-born Briton's relief was understandable: after negotiating the 20th stage his third Tour win in four years was in the bag.
Froome can expect to join a very small elite group of cyclists this evening on the Champs-élysées. Apart from the five-time winners Hinault, Merckx, Indurain and Anquetil, only three men can boast three victories in the world's toughest bike race: Greg LeMond, Louison Bobet and, back in the heroic era, Philippe Thys of Belgium.
There were no attacks on the yellow jersey during the 146 kilometres, merely a little jockeying for the minor placings - the Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez moved from 11th to seventh after a late attack - but for most mere survival in the hellish conditions down the final nerve-racking descent of the Col de Joux Plane was more than sufficient. After his crash the previous day Froome looked nervous and stiff on his bike, but all he had to do was remain upright.
The little circle of top-10 contenders who have clung on to the coat-tails of Froome and his Sky team-mates remained largely the same behind a constantly evolving contest for the stage win, which eventually went to the Basque Jon Izaguirre, who gave Nairo Quintana's Movistar team some reward in a Tour where they had largely disappointed.
Izaguirre was a member of the day's early escape group; in more propitious times he would have been there to act as support when Quintana or Alejandro Valverde attacked behind, but Movistar's hopes of victory had evaporated on Wednesday.
On the final Alpine stage, the big loser was last year's Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru, who slipped back relatively early on the Joux-Plane, lost almost 18 minutes and dropped down from sixth to 12th.
Great Britain's Adam Yates hung on to his fourth place overall behind Froome, Romain Bardet and Quintana, and with it the white jersey of best young rider. The 23-year-old from Bury had just one relatively minor off-day - Friday's stage to Saint Gervais - in the three weeks which looks to have cost him a place on the podium in only his second Tour de France.
The old saying at the Tour used to be that the riders could see Paris from l'Alpe d'Huez, as the Alpe was so frequently the final climb of the race.
Yesterday, barely a single chalet in Morzine was visible from the top of the Joux-Plane so thick was the cloud as the rain poured down, leaving the tarmac inch-deep in water and rivulets running off the fields.
But today's Tour finish on the Champs-élysées could be sensed, adding an extra frisson to the final descent to the ski resort. One slip and all would be lost.
This was a stage with a constantly evolving scenario as a lead group of a dozen fought out the lead between them, with the lead of the race changing as often as the weather, which switched every few minutes from chilly rain to warm sun as thunder rumbled around the Alps and the cloud cover moved up and down the mountain slopes.
Descending in the mountains calls for quick reactions and split-second changes of trajectory at the best of times; doing so in a cloud of spray is nightmarish, with every white line or join in the tarmac a possible pitfall.
On the descents, at times Froome and his Sky team-mates could be seen taking the hairpins at walking pace with their brakes locked. The British team controlled the race to perfection, with Geraint Thomas putting in a massive day at the coalface, leading the yellow jersey group up the Joux-Plane and negotiating the descent with Froome firmly tucked in his wake.
As the organisers had hoped, the destiny of the stage and the yellow jersey came down to the final climb and the last nine downhill kilometres. Uphill, the Joux-Plane is one of the toughest Alpine cols, because of the unremitting nature of the gradient; barely a few metres' respite in all its 12 kilometres, beginning in the town of Samoens, and ending up on a mountain ledge with glimpses of the houses looking like toys 1,300 metres below. The descent is worse, however, winding like a child's Scalextric track laid out over a steep hillside - down to the over and under loop in the final kilometre - with no decent camber on the tightly packed hairpins.
The surface varies from old and bumpy with the tarmac cracked by winter snow, and new and smooth, with pine-trees casting shadow, cast rocked, trees, barbed wire and concrete barriers to fall into it the tyres lose grip.
The descent did play a key role, but not in the fight for the overall standings. Izaguirre had timed his effort up the climb to perfection, catching the leading duo of Jarlinson Pantano, the Culoz stage winner, and the 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, who had gone ahead in the same support role as the Spaniard, and had made his bid for the stage win once he had been told that Aru was history.
On one of the first hairpins, Pantano came close to grief, being forced to take his foot out of the pedal to remain upright as his tyres lost adhesion; Nibali was behind him, Izaguirre in front, and so it stayed to the finish.
Sky's tour history
2010 17th (Highest placed rider)
A versatile squad of two climbers, four all-rounders and two Classics-type riders, rode as a strong unit early on but rapidly ran aground because the leader Wiggins was off form.
Squad: Wiggins, Barry, Boasson-Hagen, Cummings, Flecha, Gerrans, Lofkvist, Pauwels, Thomas
Again only two pure climbers given that Thomas was still a one-day specialist, this squad had to turn rapidly to hunting stage wins when Wiggins broke his collarbone.
Squad: Wiggins, Boasson-Hagen, Flecha, Gerrans, Knees, Swift, Thomas, Uran, Xandio
2012 1st (Wiggins)
Rogers as road captain, Porte and Froome as climbers, the point when Sky begin to find a winning formula. But the leadership is split three ways, Cavendish is short of support, and so a conflicted squad.
Squad: Wiggins, Boasson-Hagen, Cavendish, Eisel, Froome, Knees, Porte, Rogers, Siutsou
2013 1st (Froome)
Two pure climbers, with Kennaugh and Siutsou as back-up, plus five decent rouleurs for the team time trial. This is where the climbing model develops, with Porte and Kennaugh making an impact. But Thomas broke his pelvis and Kiriyenka dropped out early.
Squad: Froome, Boasson-Hagen, Kennaugh, Kiriyenka, Lopez, Porte, Siutsou, Stannard, Thomas
Eisel is brought in to help guide Froome through what looks like a treacherous first week, but the leader doesn't get there after breaking his wrist and once he is gone Team Sky loses focus.
Squad: Froome, Eisel, Kiriyenka, Lopez, Nieve, Pate, Porte, Thomas, Xandio
2015 1st (Froome)
Versatility is the key - Konig, Roche, Kennaugh, Thomas, all riders who can work on flat road and mountains - two pure climbers and Luke Rowe coming in alongside Stannard for the windy days.
Squad: Froome, Kennaugh, Konig, Poels, Porte, Roche, Rowe, Stannard, Thomas
Evolving again with five climbers meaning the mountain work can be shared around, Stannard, Kiriyenka and Rowe the core for the flat stages. Thomas's versatility means he is last-resort climber and reserve on the flat.
Squad: Froome, Henao, Kiriyenka, Landa, Nieve, Poels, Rowe, Stannard, Thomas
Sunday Indo Sport