MARSEILLE (REUTERS) - The only crumb of comfort for those desiring the yellow jersey Chris Froome will almost certainly wear to Sunday's prize-giving in Paris is that the British rider says winning the Tour de France is getting harder.
Barring a calamity on the champagne-sipping celebratory ride from Montgeron to the Champs-Élysées, the 32-year-old captain of the Team Sky armada will claim a third consecutive Tour win and a fourth in five years.
No longer does it seem wrong to mention Froome in the same breath as the likes of Spain's Miguel Indurain, Belgium's Eddy Merckx or French duo Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil - all of whom won the race a record five times.
Born-racer Froome freely admits he is no student of the sport's heritage - his only concern is pedalling faster and longer than anyone else in the peloton.
But while he doesn't own the "Cycling Greats" box set, he knows exactly what they sacrificed to dominate.
"I certainly have a new-found appreciation for just how difficult it was for those guys to have won five Tour titles, it certainly isn't getting easier and this year was the closest race of my Tour de France career," he said.
"I've never been one to try and be like someone else. As everyone knows I have my own unique style on the bike. But I have respect for all those guys because I know how hard it is."
Froome did not win a single stage on this year's Tour and arrived in Marseille for Saturday's time trial with a slender 23-second lead over France's great hope Romain Bardet.
As it turned out Bardet was cooked and suffered a nightmare ride through the old port city and was only just spared the humiliation of being caught by Froome before the finish line at the Velodrome soccer stadium - despite the yellow-jersey holder rolling off the start line two minutes later.
AG2R La Mondiale's Bardet, who slipped to third behind Cannondale-Drapac's Rigoberto Uran on Saturday, did push Froome hard throughout the three weeks though and has vowed to come back stronger next year to dethrone the Briton.
Froome's 54-second advantage over Uran looks comfortable - he gained 76 seconds on the Colombian in the time trials of Duesseldorf and Marseille and actually leaked time in the mountains, especially in the Pyrenees.
With such a mighty team around him, Froome was able to largely control the race but he knows it was close. "It doesn't diminish it by not winning a stage," Froome, who managed at least one stage victory in 2013, 2015 and 2016, told reporters. "The tactic was for a three-week race, just chipping away and not trying to blow the race apart on one stage.
"Was a case of making sure there weren't any massive losses on any days. I suffered in the Pyrenees and lost 25 seconds to Peyragudes. I'm just grateful that it wasn't any worse because normally a bad day in the mountains you can lose three minutes."
"Every Tour is hard, it's difficult to say which was the hardest, every year you suffer."
"But this was definitely the closest."