L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France (AFP) - Chris Froome all but sewed up his second Tour de France victory after holding off a stirring fightback by Nairo Quintana on Alpe d’Huez on Saturday.
“It really was a tough today but at the finish it was incredible, an incredible feeling and emotion,” said Froome.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot salvaged something from his disappointing Tour with victory on the 20th and penultimate stage but it was the battle between Froome and Quintana that really mattered.
Quintana finished second, 18sec behind Pinot, but Froome, who started the day with a 2min 38sec buffer, dug in to finish the stage fifth, just 1min 20sec behind Quintana.
The Colombian took six bonus seconds on the line but that still left him 1min 12sec short of overhauling Froome ahead of Sunday’s final stage which will culminate in Paris.
That was less than the minute-and-a-half Quintana had given up to Froome almost three weeks ago on the second stage when he was caught behind a crash in crosswinds.
“I gave everything right from the first week. We had some difficulties because I had crashed and I was alone in the wind. I lost 1min 30sec and that’s what lost me the Tour,” said Quintana.
Just as in 2013, Froome, 30, has fought off an Alpine comeback from Quintana to beat the 25-year-old Movistar leader to Tour success.
But Froome admitted he was worried.
“I knew I had a 2min 38sec lead to keep the jersey but at one point it was difficult because I realised he might win,” he said.
His Sky manager Dave Brailsford told ITV4 that it had been closer than they expected.
“It was a bit close in the end. I think after everything he’s endured, Chris has shown his real mettle,” said Brailsford.
The final battle took place on the 13.8km climb to the finish at Alpe d’Huez at the end of a 110.5km stage from Modane.
Sunday’s final stage to Paris is nothing more than a procession and barring an unlikely crash, Froome will be crowned Tour champion.
But Quintana, who was 3min 10sec behind following Thursday’s 18th stage, did not give up easily.
He had already attacked on the hors category Col de la Croix de Fer some 60km from the finish and briefly had Froome in trouble before a small lead peloton regrouped on the descent off that mountain.
But right from the foot of the climb to Alpe d’Huez Quintana launched the first of four attacks.
Froome’s Sky teammate Wouter Poels chased down the Colombian the first three times, but the fourth, Quintana got away.
From there it was a race against time as Quintana tried to hunt down Pinot for the stage win, while also aiming to claw back his deficit to Froome for overall success.
By the end, though, Quintana had come up short on both counts.
“It was the last day and I had to try, I had to go for it,” said Quintana.
“I thought we could get away on the Col de la Croix de Fer but it didn’t work.
“I tried again on the final climb and got some time but it wasn’t enough and I lost the Tour.” Froome said he expects Quintana to be back next year pushing him hard again.
“He’s young, he’s very strong and has a great mentality. He races hard, and at the right times,” said Froome.
“He’s got a great future and I think next year we’ll come back to do battle again.”