Froome closes in on third title

Britain’s Chris Froome put the hammer down in his bid to retain the Tour de France title when he won the 18th stage, a 17km mountain time trial, to extend his overall lead to almost four minutes yesterday.

The Team Sky rider, aiming to become the first to retain the title since Miguel Indurain in 1995, clocked a best time of 30 minutes 43 seconds on a course featuring the punishing Cote de Domancy, a 2.5km climb at an average gradient of 9.4%.

He beat time trial specialist Tom Dumoulin by 21sec and Italian Fabio Aru by 33sec.

“I really didn’t expect to beat Tom today,” Froome said. “Pacing was key. “I started off steady and really controlled that first part, then gave it everything I had.”

Dutchman Bauke Mollema, who started the day 2:27 behind Froome in the general classification, lost 1:25 and trails the defending champion by a massive 3:52 going into two final stages in the Alps before Sunday’s parade to the Champs Elysees.

Froome’s compatriot Adam Yates is third, 4:16 off the pace, as the race to the podium is set to heat up with at least five riders still in the mix for second place.

Colombian Nairo Quintana, runner-up to Froome in 2013 and last year, had another tough day in the saddle, losing 1:10. The Movistar rider is fourth overall, 4:37 behind Froome.

On his heels is Frenchman Romain Bardet, 4:57 behind after finishing a surprise fifth yesterday, while Australian Richie Porte, fourth yesterday, is sixth, three seconds further back.

Froome started cautiously but finished strong to claim his second stage win in this Tour, raising his fist in celebration after crossing the line.

Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford said: “As always in the time trial the pacing strategy is critical, particularly in one like today where it was very easy, with that first steep ramp, to go out a little bit too hard and pay for it at the end.”

Froome was one of few riders using both a time trial bike and a rear disc wheel, which played a part.

Today’s 19th stage is a demanding 146km mountain trek with an uphill finish at Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc.

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