ANNECY-SEMNOZ, France: Britain’s Chris Froome virtually secured overall victory in the 100th Tour de France Saturday after a thrilling penultimate stage won by Colombian climbing specialist Nairo Quintana.
Ahead of Sunday’s 21st and final stage from Versailles to Paris, which is usually only disputed by the spinters, Froome defended his significant overnight lead over his rivals on the final day in the mountains.
“It’s been an amazing journey for me. 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 … it’s been a special edition.”
Kenyan-born Froome, who moved to South Africa as a teenager and took a British racing licence only in 2008, underlined his Grand Tour credentials with a runner-up place on the Tour of Spain in 2011.
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.
Having been the form stage racer in the peloton this season, Froome started as the race favourite and took command of the race on stage eight with a stunning victory atop Ax-Trois-Domaines in the Pyrenees.
After a second place finish on the stage 11 time trial, further wins came on the Mont Ventoux (stage 15) and the stage 16 time trial to Chorges.
It ultimately left Froome with a 5:11 advantage going into Saturday’s final day in the hills, but despite appearing to have the legs for a third mountaintop stage win the emotions took over with two kilometres to race.
“With about two kilometres to go when I was with 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,” said Froome.
“It was overwhelming and it actually became quite hard to concentrate in those last two k’s.”
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.
“The journey I’ve taken to get here, from riding on little dirt roads on a mountain bike back in Kenya to be here in yellow on the Tour de France, it’s difficult for me to put into words,” he added.
“This is an amazing feeling.”
Spain’s Alberto Contador began the stage second overnight at 5min 11sec adrift but only 21secs ahead of Quintana.
His inability to follow when Froome, Quintana and Rodriguez upped the pace early on the final, 10.3 km climb to the summit effectively ended his chances of claiming a podium place.
The Saxo team leader, however, admitted Froome was simply too good.
“It is always better to finish second than 10th, but the objective was to finish first. This year it was impossible, there is one rider who is better than the rest,” said Contador.
As well as virtually securing Colombia’s first runner-up spot on the race, 25 years after Fabio Parra’s third place finish in 1988, 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.
The 23-year-old Colombian, who grew up at an altitude of 2800 metres and used to cycle over mountain passes to get to school, only turned professional last year.
“I never thought success on the Tour de France would come to me so quickly. I’m only 23 years old and it’s unbelievable to be sitting here today,” said Quintana, who broke down in tears while talking to reporters.
Rodriguez came over the line 17sec adrift, but despite missing out on victory, the Katusha team leader’s efforts moved him up to third overall at 5:47.
Having struggled to show his ambitions of a podium finish 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,” said the Spaniard.
“I did everything to win today. I didn’t do it but I am happy to finish on the podium in Paris.”