LE-PUY-EN-VELAY, France (Reuters) – After narrowly averting disaster in the Massif Central, Chris Froome believes he is ready for the final stretch of the Tour de France with a handful of rivals breathing down his neck.
The Tour will hit its last mountain range, the Alps, with a couple of grueling stages on Wednesday and Thursday, and the defending champion still has the yellow jersey on his shoulders. He also has a virtual extra advantage in the form of Saturday’s final time trial in Marseille, a strong event for the British rider.
Things went pear-shaped for the three-time champion on Sunday when he dropped out of the main contenders’ group due to a mechanical problem. But he eventually powered his way back just before the top of the last climb.
“That was a huge save. I think I’m really, really grateful I’ve gone through yesterday,” Froome told reporters on Monday, the second rest day of the three-week race.
“If I hadn’t reached that front group by the top of that climb, I don’t believe I would have made it to the finish line in yellow.”
The Team Sky rider leads Italian Fabio Aru, who appears to be running out of gas, by 18 seconds, and French daredevil Romain Bardet by 23, with Colombian dark horse Rigoberto Uran in fourth place, 29 seconds off the pace.
Ireland’s Dan Martin is fifth 1:12 behind, and Froome’s own team mate Mikel Landa of Spain, who has been in ominously good form, lies sixth 1:17 off the pace.
Bardet believes Thursday’s mountain-top finish at the Col d’Izoard, 2,360 meters above sea level, will be key.
“I think that with the two consecutive stages in the Alps and the finish in altitude, there could be big gaps,” said Bardet, Froome’s runner-up last year.
The AG2R-La Mondiale leader has ridden…