CERVINIA, Italy (AP) — Chris Froome effectively sealed victory in the Giro d’Italia on Saturday by holding his only remaining challenger in check up the final climb of the three-week race.
The four-time Tour de France champion takes a 46-second lead over defending champion Tom Dumoulin into Sunday’s mostly ceremonial finish in Rome and is poised to win his third consecutive Grand Tour, matching the achievements of cycling greats Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.
“It’s not finished yet but the battle is over,” Froome said. “It’s an incredible feeling, because two days ago I was in fourth place.”
Froome took the pink jersey a day earlier with an audacious 80-kilometer solo attack, moving him up from fourth overall and erasing more than a three-minute deficit.
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In Stage 20, Dumoulin attacked Froome multiple times on the last of three climbs of the 214-kilometer (133-mile) leg from Susa to Cervinia but in five attempts wasn’t able to gain any ground. After Dumoulin’s fifth attack, Froome responded with an acceleration of his own and dropped Dumoulin briefly.
Dumoulin again dropped back just before the finish and crossed six seconds behind Froome.
“The last two days he was too strong for me but I have no regrets,” Dumoulin said. “I gave everything I had.”
Spanish rider Mikel Nieve won the stage with a long, solo breakaway to celebrate his 34th birthday.
It was a bit of consolation for the Mitchelton-Scott team, whose leader, Simon Yates, lost the pink jersey a day earlier.
“After what happened yesterday, it was very important for our team to make it up with a stage victory,” Nieve said after his team’s fifth win of the race. “I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday.”
Robert Gesink finished second, 2:17 behind, and Felix Grossschartner came third, 2:42 back.
Froome crossed seventh alongside teammate Wout Poels and immediately shook hands with his fellow Team Sky member.
Thibaut Pinot had entered the stage in third overall but the French rider cracked on the penultimate climb and dropped far behind, enabling Miguel Angel Lopez to take the final podium spot, 4:57 behind Froome.
“This Giro is brutal, look at what happened to Pinot today,” Froome said.
Froome won the Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta last year and now can add a third straight Grand Tour title with the Giro.
Only two riders have ever won three or more consecutive Grand Tours. Merckx won four straight between 1972 and 1973 and Hinault took three in a row in 1982 and 1983.
Froome arrived at the Giro with big hopes but had not really been a threat after crashing in training before the opening time trial, losing time in a split on stage four, and injuring himself again in a second crash four days later. But he started to climb back up the standings by winning Stage 14 up Monte Zoncolan, one of the toughest climbs in Europe.
“I had some very, very tough moments so to come back and win yesterday and defend the jersey today is very, very special,” Froome said. “This was the biggest battle of my career.”
However, Froome is racing under the cloud of a potential ban after a urine sample he provided at the Spanish Vuelta in September showed a concentration of the asthma drug salbutamol that was twice the permitted level. It remains unclear when the International Cycling Union will rule on the case.
“I know inside that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Froome said.
Sunday’s concluding stage is a flat 115-kilometer (71-mile) leg of 10 laps around a circuit through the center of Rome. Without any hills, it’s highly unlikely that the overall standings will change.