BRIANCON, France — Chris Froome, mild-eyed under the brim of his ball cap, moved along the line of television cameras after Thursday’s Stage 18 of the Tour de France and concluded several sound bytes the same way.
“Looking forward to the time trial now.”
“Looking forward to the time trial in Marseille.”
And then in French: “On attend le contre-la-montre.”
It wasn’t a mere bilingual pleasantry. In each of his previous winning Tour campaigns in 2013, 2015 and 2016, Froome headed into the last weekend with another mountain to climb rather than the privilege of starting last and staring at open road in the solo discipline at which he excels.
If things go according to form Saturday, Froome will extend his current lead over the men closest to him: France’s Romain Bardet and Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran, 23 and 29 seconds shy of his pace, respectively.
The podium deck is likely to shuffle behind Froome. Uran should pass Bardet on the technical 14-mile course that is interrupted by one hill of note, and finishes in the cauldron of the Orange Velodrome, where sunny, 80-degree conditions are forecast. Froome’s Spanish teammate Mikel Landa could leapfrog into the top three as well.
This is also the first time Froome will enter a final Saturday in the yellow jersey without a stage win. He dismissed that goal as an extra frill, and it’s also true that it isn’t a complete surprise given the lack of summit finishes and time-trial mileage on this year’s course.
But Froome is well aware he hasn’t been able to impose his individual will on the race as he has in past years and had to rely more than ever on his well-drilled Sky teammates. On the steeps of the Col d’Izoard, as Bardet’s AG2R team set the pace for the leaders’ group, Sky’s Polish domestique Michal Kwiatkowski shelled himself so hard that he ended his effort by setting his foot down and coming to a complete stop.
Landa took over and chauffeured Froome for a stretch with air before he attacked on his own. The plan was that Froome would drop his rivals in a desolate, rocky area near the top called the Casse Déserte, bridge up to Landa and ride to the finish together. But the obdurate Uran, who had been without the benefit of a teammate for much of the climb, shut down the move.
“I don’t know if it was the right time,” Froome said. “Maybe I could have waited for the final two kilometers, but I think this is bike racing, you have to risk a bit to win. I felt good at that moment, and it was a good moment to go. If Uran hadn’t reacted as fast as he did, I might have got away with it.”
He also acknowledged what has been obvious — that Landa may not end his career in the service of other riders.
“I think today he showed again on such a tough summit finish, being able to be there in the last few kilometers, setting the tempo, he’s got the engine to be there with the best in the world,” Froome said. “So I imagine he’s certainly capable of coming back here to contest for the overall victory in the future.”
With the Alps last on the road map, Froome couldn’t afford to have a bad day there, as has happened randomly yet consistently before — notably when he was sapped by a bronchial infection before the final duel on Alpe d’Huez two years ago and suppressed his urge to cough in front of his pursuers.
But mountain ranges don’t play favorites. Froome had a bad day on an absurdly vertical finish in the Pyrenees and bad-luck mechanicals on a couple of occasions. If Froome defends his title, it may not end up being his closest margin — Nairo Quintana clawed to within 1 minute, 12 seconds in 2015 — but this year’s race that tensed and tightened midway through, with multiple actors who created a different kind of stress for him.
There is a cliché that says the Tour can’t be won in the first week. Yet after the wheels and analytics stop spinning, Froome may well have done what was needed on the first day in the time trial on the rain-slicked streets along the Rhine in Dusseldorf, Germany when he finished the day sixth and distanced his prospective challengers by half a minute or more.
He’ll have a chance to bookend that all alone Saturday and put another Tour on the shelf.