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Uneasy Froome keen to extend Tour lead before TT

LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AFP) — Chris Froome admitted on Monday he wouldn’t feel serene during Saturday’s time trial in Marseille in the penultimate Tour de France stage unless he can take more time out of his rivals beforehand.

Stage 20’s race against the clock will be the last opportunity for contenders to chase the yellow jersey.

And even though Sky’s Froome is widely considered a better time-trialist than his rivals, and he currently leads the race by 18 seconds from Fabio Aru, the Briton said he’d want more of a buffer to feel genuinely secure.

“I wouldn’t be sleeping easy [if that’s the advantage on Saturday]. We always knew it was going to be a close race and that’s exactly what it is,” said the 32-year-old reigning champion. “This was to be expected and I knew that every stage, every single second is going to count.”

Three riders currently sit within 30 seconds of Froome. Astana’s Aru is at 18, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) at 23 and Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) at 29. Fourth-placed Dan Martin only 1 minute, 12 seconds further back.

But Froome fears Urán most. The Colombian is usually the best time trialist of the Brit’s closest competitors.

“Each rival presents different threats. If you look at Fabio Aru, he won the first mountaintop finish on the Planche des Belles Filles.

“Perhaps he didn’t have such a good day a couple of days ago, [but] he’s been strong in the third week [of a grand tour] before. We’ll have to wait and see how he goes.

“Romain Bardet has always been strong in the last week of a grand tour and he also has the team to back him up, as we saw yesterday — he put me under a lot of pressure yesterday and we really had to use the whole team just to control that situation.

“Rigoberto Urán may be more of the dark horse who just slips under the radar a little bit.

“He’s probably the strongest time-trialist of this group of GC riders, so with Marseille in mind he’s a big threat.”

‘The end of yellow’

This Tour has been far from smooth sailing for Froome. He crashed in the first week and has had two mechanical problems at crucial times in mountain stages.

He admitted that when he had such a difficulty on Sunday, and had to stop to get a spare wheel off teammate Michal Kwiatkowski while his rivals rode off up the road, he feared a fourth Tour victory was slipping away.

“I think it dawned the second Ag2r put the hammer down yesterday, and I was standing still on the side of the road with Kwiato [Kwiatkowski] trying to change my back wheel, I knew then already that this could be the end of my fight for the yellow jersey.

“So I’m just incredibly grateful obviously the way my teammates responded under pressure there and that I had the legs to get back to that main group by the top of the climb.

“Had I not got there, that could have been the end of the race for the overall for me.”

Beyond the racing itself, some fans booed and jeered Froome in stage 15. Sunday’s race passed through Bardet’s home region, the Auvergne.

“I heard that Froome was abused at times. I’m really sorry. He’s a champion who should be respected, who I respect as a rival and who doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment,” Bardet said.

After Monday’s rest day and a transition stage Tuesday, the race for yellow will be on in stage 17. A classic ride across some of the Alps famous climbs — Col de la Croix de Fer, Telegraph, and Galibier — the 183km race will finish in Serre-Chevalier.

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