LE GRAND-BORNAND, France — Half the height of Mount Everest, climbed on a bike, in a single day. Even by Tour de France standards, Stage 19 was hard.
"At times, you just feel like you’re being tortured," was how American rider Andrew Talansky described Friday’s ordeal, arguably the toughest stage of this 100th Tour, which started with two monster climbs as riders were still digesting breakfast.
"You’re just like, ‘What is this?’ But you dig in and keep going."
The GPS mini-computer the Garmin rider carries on his bike did the sums: 4,419 metres ridden uphill — close to the height of Western Europe’s loftiest peak, Mont Blanc, and half of Everest, the roof of the world at 8,850 metres.
The riders also zoomed 4,239 metres downhill. Talansky’s gizmo showed he burned 5,670 calories during the six-hour suffer-fest.
And they call this "sport."
The difficulty of Stage 19 made Chris Froome "quite nervous." Once he got through it with his big race lead intact, the British rider finally started to allow his mind to fast-forward to the finish on Sunday.
Victory is so close he can almost taste it. The last Alpine stage on Saturday — 125 kilometres in the mountains towering above the limpid waters of Lake Annecy — won’t be enough for second-place Alberto Contador to puncture Froome’s cushion of more than five minutes. In all but name, the 28-year-old is champion of the 100th Tour and knows it.
"One more day to really stay concentrated and to stay up front and look after the yellow jersey and then looking forward to taking it to Paris," Froome said. "It’s going to be very hard for someone to take more than five minutes in 125 kilometres. But having said that, I don’t want to be complacent."
No, that can wait until Sunday evening — when Froome and the other survivors of this three-week, 3,404-kilometre clockwise trek around Western Europe’s largest country will clip their feet into the pedals for the final 133 kilometres to Paris.
Traditionally, that last stage is a relaxed lap of honour, at least until the pack hits the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees. There, Mark Cavendish and other sprint-finish specialists will battle for the bragging rights of the stage win on that leafy boulevard the French modestly call the most beautiful avenue in the world. The unique dusk finish for this 100th Tour, just as the sun sets behind the Arc de Triomphe, should be extra special.
While the top spot is taken, podium places next to Froome are still very much up for grabs. Just 47 seconds separate second-placed Contador from Joaquim Rodriguez in fifth.
Sandwiched between those Spaniards are Colombian Nairo Quintana, in third, and Contador’s Czech teammate Roman Kreuziger, in fourth. They are all more than five minutes behind Froome.
With Froome so dominant and his lead so large, Saturday’s penultimate stage might have been devoid of all suspense were the battle for podium places not so close and intense behind him. Places aren’t just for honour. There are financial incentives, too. Second-place prize is 200,000 euros ($263,000). Third gets half that. Froome will get 450,000 euros.
With a succession of six climbs, getting harder and ending with a steep uphill, Stage 20 offers a fine arena for the contenders to land their final punches. The last climb on Saturday is HC or Hors Categorie, meaning it’s considered too hard to classify. Riders can lose or gain big time on such ascents, but surely not the more than five minutes they would need to dethrone Froome, not unless he crashes or has a similar mishap.
Quintana, who is just 21 seconds behind Contador, wasn’t giving away his strategy,
"We have to wait and see how the stage develops. Sometimes you visualize it one way, and the stage doesn’t develop how you think it will. We’ll decide during the stage," he said.
"It’ll be a very difficult and challenging stage, we’ll have to be very alert."
Saturday will be Froome’s 12th day in the race leader’s yellow jersey. He took it in the Pyrenees and has worn it through Britanny, across to the Alps, in baking sunshine and, on Friday, a cold storm that doused riders up the day’s final climb.
The 204.5-kilometre trek from Bourg-d’Oisans wound past peaks so high that their snows have resisted the July sun. It started with two HC climbs and ended with two still tough Category 1 ascents before a long downhill to Le Grand-Bornand. The Alpine town swathed its church tower in cloth canary yellow like Froome’s jersey to welcome the riders.
Rui Costa won the stage — the Portuguese rider’s second of this Tour — with a solo breakaway on that final ascent to the Col de la Croix Fry, catching Frenchman Pierre Roland on the way up.
For the second stage in a row, Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal went on the early attack. Hesjedal and Spaniard Jon Izaguirre opened up a lead of more than seven minutes over the yellow jersey group once they went over the top of Col du Glandon.
As Hesjedal and Izaguirre reached the second HC of Col de Madeleine, the peloton was 10 minutes behind. Hesjedal forged ahead before being caught and overtaken by Frenchman Pierre Rolland.
Hesjedal ended up finishing the stage in 136th spot, but after taking Glendon and almost winning the Madeline climb he moved from 18th to seventh overall in the climber classification.
Hesjedal remained the top Canadian in the overall classification despite falling seven spots to 69th.
David Veilleux of Quebec City was the top Canadian in Friday’s stage, finishing 74th. He was 129th overall.
Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., was 162nd in the stage and 170th overall.
Froome braced himself for a big Contador attack that never materialized on any of Friday’s climbs, nor in the final downhill made especially hairy by the wet roads.
Having pushed Froome and his Sky team hard in the past weeks, Contador now seems largely spent. With Quintana breathing down his neck for second place, Contador chose Friday not to take risks.
"There was a moment when I wanted to attack and thought about it," said the 2007 and ’09 winner, who was stripped of his 2010 victory for a failed doping test. "But then I thought it was best to reach the finish line."
That suited Froome just fine.
"I am excited, but quietly excited," Froome said. "One final big effort, then we can start relaxing on the ride into Paris."