Chris Froome protects Tour de France lead after Warren Barguil wins stage 18

Chris Froome survived the last big test on this years Tour de France as Team Skys race leader protected his advantage on a thrilling climb of Col dIzoard won by the Frenchman Warren Barguil

If weight of national expectation and volume of media hype counted for anything, Romain Bardet would have dislodged Chris Froome here and won the Tour de France. Instead he finished exhausted, close behind the stage win, Warren Barguil, after pushing himself rather than Froome to the limit and snatching a second place which is provisional before the time trial on Saturday.

Froome is now within an hotshot of winning a fourth Tour de France. As Bardet attempted to find breath to explain how hard he had tried and what it promised for the future, Froome mounted the finish pulpit perched on the Col dIzoard a panorama of Alpine peaks all around in the crystal clear air with the seem of a human who knew the worst was behind him.

The stage to Marseille on Friday is far from flat but not threatening, given that the wind is not expected to be strong. As for Saturdays time trial, on paper Froome is stronger at the discipline than either Bardet, who has to close a 23 sec gap, or Rigoberto Urn, who is now 29 sec behind. The big menace to the race leaders fourth Tour is a puncture or a crash on Saturday.

Behind Urn in third the gaps stretch away as the initial verdict of Wednesdays stage over the Galibier was largely recurred. Simon Yates hung on to seventh and the white jersey but Fabio Arus challenge for the podium came to an objective; the Italian slipped to fifth at 1min 55 sec and even fourth place appears beyond him. Mikel Landa was disconcertingly if impassively strong, and he may well be removed from fourth overall on to the podium on Saturday.

The 2,360 m-high Izoard, wrote the Tour organiser Jacques Goddet, is a terrible challenge which establishes the margin between the difficult and the terrifying. The challenge for Bardets AG2R team was to set a pace that would eliminate Froomes team-mates, which would at least set their leader in a position to see what the race leader had in him. Froome has certainly not been terrifying in this Tour there have been none of the extreme accelerations on mountain tops seen in other years but he has been a difficult nut to crack, apart from his costly 200 m at Peyragudes.

AG2R began constructing the pace on the Col de Vars, 50 km out, and by the time they were worn out 40 km afterwards the group around Froome and Bardet was reduced to about 15. However, is again, Landa was where he needed to be, and the Basque rider floated off the front of the Froome and Bardet group shortly after Barguil had leapt away in search of points to seal his victory in the King of the Mountains contest.

Skys plan was partly to set Urn and Bardet under pressure but also for Froome to join Landa. However, when the yellow jersey induced his move immediately after Bardet had put in an attack at three kilometres to go he was marked by Urn and the Frenchman as he tackled the brief downhill through the Casse Dserte, past the plaques to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.

I wanted to move before that descent, I dont know if that was the best time, Froome said. If Rigoberto had not reacted as fast as he did, I might have got away with it. Bardet tried again inside the final kilometre and persisted to the line with the time bonuses in his mind, just holding off Froome to take a four-second hour bonus and finish two seconds ahead of Urn. However, in terms of “the worlds biggest” scene and his hopes for overall victory, it was too little, too late.

Bardet has proved a mild anticlimax far away from a letdown but Barguil has finally come into his own in the past 10 days. A fellow member of the new French generation, Barguil should now join his fellow Bretons Bernard Hinault and Louison Bobet as a win of the polka dot jersey. He has sealed that posture with maybe the two most prestigious mountain stage wins of the race, victory here coming after the Bastille Day victory in Foix.

When he sprang out of Froome and Bardets little group, the last remnants of a classic mountain escape were still between him and the stage win. The breakaways had numbered 54, a third of the field, including the majority of members of the UAE and Direct Energie squads Thomas Voecklers presence was inevitable.

They gained eight minutes at one stage, and UAEs Colombian Darwin Atapuma was hanging on to a 1min 15 sec leading at five kilometres to run. The Tour is the most Darwinian of sports events, however, and the races law of natural selection was as implacable as usual. Atapuma was mopped up with one kilometre remaining, surviving to take second and the most aggressive rider prize.

In the bad old Armstrong era when the French were often the whipping boys of the Tour, the red race number awarded to the combatif du jour was one of the few succour prizes available to the home riders. Thanks to Bardet and Barguil, and the others who have contributed to a French tally of five stage wins, those days are a mere memory, even if, as Bardet will probably have to accept, the overall title remains as elusive as ever.

Results from stage 18

Brianon-Col dIzoard, 179.5 km

1. Warren Barguil( France/ Team Sunweb) 4:40: 33 2. Darwin Atapuma( Colombia/ UAE Team Emirates) +20 3. Romain Bardet( France/ AG2R La Mondiale) 4. Chris Froome( Britain/ Team Sky) 5. Rigoberto Urn( Colombia/ Cannondale-Drapac) +22 6. Mikel Landa( Spain/ Team Sky) +32 7. Louis Meintjes( South Africa/ UAE Team Emirates) +37 8. Daniel Martin( Ireland/ Quick-Step Floors) +39 9. Simon Yates( Britain/ Orica-Scott) +59 10. Alberto Contador( Spain/ Trek-Segafredo) +1:09 11. Nairo Quintana( Colombia/ Movistar Team) +1:17.

General classification after Stage 18

1. Chris Froome( Britain/ Team Sky) 78:08: 19 2. Romain Bardet( France/ AG2R La Mondiale) +23 3. Rigoberto Urn( Colombia/ Cannondale-Drapac) +29 4. Mikel Landa( Spain/ Team Sky) +1:36 5. Fabio Aru( Italy/ Astana Pro Team) +1:55 6. Daniel Martin( Ireland/ Quick-Step Floors) +2:56 7. Simon Yates( Britain/ Orica-Scott) +4:46 8. Louis Meintjes( South Africa/ UAE Team Emirates) +6:52 9. Warren Barguil( France/ Team Sunweb) +8:22 10. Alberto Contador( Spain/ Trek-Segafredo) +8:34.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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