CHORGES, France — Even when he expects to lose, Tour de France champion-in-the-making Chris Froome cannot help but win. He’s that strong, and he’s making it look easy.
On a day when the British rider was planning to save some energy for upcoming mountains, Froome still brushed aside the field and took his third stage win of this 100th Tour.
Alberto Contador, Froome’s Spanish rival still trying to make a fight of this one-sided battle, gave his all in Wednesday’s alpine time trial. Contador’s face contorted in a grimace of effort as he sprinted out of the saddle to the line, while spectators whipped up a thunderclap of noise by banging their fists on the barriers.
Froome, having set off behind Contador, sped in a few moments later. He, too, rode hard but looked more comfortable with his easy-on-the-eye pedaling style, perched on his saddle, legs pumping underneath him like pistons in an ocean liner’s engine room.
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Contador shook his head and shrugged his shoulders when television flashed that Froome beat his time by nine seconds. This was another opportunity lost for Contador to make victory for Froome in Paris on Sunday at least feel less inevitable.
“Froome is in impressive shape,” was the understated assessment of the 2007 and ’09 winner who was stripped of his 2010 victory for a failed doping test.
The last Tour champion — now ex-champion — to carry as many stage wins as Froome to Paris was Lance Armstrong. That was in 2004, when Armstrong won five stages and declared he’d be giving “no gifts” to his rivals.
Froome has repeatedly said he is riding clean — an assurance that only has limited value in the poisonous atmosphere of doubt that is a legacy of the Armstrong years.
In four days, as long as he gets through the Alps, Froome will be able to sip champagne in the saddle on the final ride to the Champs-Elysees, unusually staged in the evening this year. That would make it two victories in a row for Britain and for Team Sky, after Bradley Wiggins’ win last year.
Froome covered the 20 miles of Stage 17 in 51 minutes, 33.66 seconds. Contador’s gutsy ride bumped him up from third to second in the overall standings, though he is more than four minutes back from Froome. Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands dropped from second to fourth.