Froome in control, but behind, five riders in contention for podium finish in Paris

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Barring injury, illness, or an ill-timed mechanical incident, Chris Froome has won the 2016 Tour de France.

The defending champion took the maillot jaune on Stage 8 in Bagnères-de-Luchon, and has only increased his GC lead since then. Team Sky’s leader now sits 2:27 ahead of Dutch rider Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), and that margin will likely increase after Thursday’s uphill time trial on Stage 18.

And while the race for the overall victory at this year’s Tour has been anticlimactic — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) crashed on the opening stage, and was never a factor, while Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has not been at his best — the battle for the final podium in Paris is still wide open with three demanding days in the Alps remaining.

Removing Froome from the picture, this is where the next-best five riders sit on the general classification.

  1. Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo)
  2. Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), at 0:26
  3. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), at 1:00
  4. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), at 1:48
  5. Richie Porte (BMC Racing), at 2:00

What’s most important, however, is the direction each man is trending after 17 days of hard racing.

Wednesday’s tough summit finish at Finhaut-Émosson saw Porte on the attack, chipping away at the 1:45 he lost due to a puncture on Stage 2. The finish also saw Yates and Bardet taking time from Qutinana and Mollema.

Mollema, who sits second overall, was the biggest loser among these five riders, losing 40 seconds to Froome and Porte, 32 seconds to Yates, 29 seconds to Bardet, and 12 seconds to Quintana. After 16 stages of fantastic form, Stage 17 was the first sight of Mollema struggling on a climb.

“I did not have such good legs today,” said Mollema. “I felt it already on the second-last climb, and when the attacks started, I couldn’t follow. At two kilometers to go, I had to go my own tempo. My positioning wasn’t great before that, I knew I should be more towards the front, but you do what you can, and I couldn’t do more at that point. I did not have the legs I had the last weeks. It’s a pity, but I just kept fighting until the finish line so as not to lose too much time.”

If Mollema was the biggest loser in the fight for the podium, Porte was the biggest winner. The BMC Racing leader attacked just before the final kilometer, crossing the line in tenth place and moving up to sixth on the general classification. Only Froome could follow, demonstrating’s Porte’s superiority on summit finishes.

“I really want to be on the podium, so they’re the moves that you have to pull,” Porte said. “I felt strong today and I’m happy with how it all went… I know I need to have a good time trial and take some time. I think I’ve shown today that I’m climbing well, so I take confidence out of today.”

Yates, who has been the revelation of this Tour de France, also had reason to celebrate. It was his acceleration in the closing kilometer that saw Quintana lose contact with his GC rivals.

“I am pretty satisfied with my performance today,” said Yates, 23, who is also leading the Youth Classification of this Tour by 3:14 over Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida). “I managed to gain some time on Mollema and if a chance presents itself to take some seconds then I am going to try and do that. The closer we can get to the podium, the better, and I am happy with how today’s stage went.”

Like Yates, Bardet was pleased with his performance. A sixth-place finisher in 2014, and ninth overall last year, Bardet now sits fifth overall, and has his eye on moving up, though he knows it will not be easy.

“It was a good day,” Bardet said. “The final climb suited me well. I had decided to make my effort in the last kilometre. I knew that was the spot when the decision would be made. I’m glad of the way I’m tackling this last block. I managed the last climb perfectly. With Yates, we took some time in the last kilometres and it was the best way to make up for lost time. Tomorrow, it’s a TT that suits me, I love the Domancy climb. It’s a real mountain pass. It is a course on which you really want to enjoy yourself. For the GC I’m not making plans. We saw that there were quite a few attacks. I’m here to try and make the best of it.”

If Yates and Bardet were pleased, Quintana was not. The Colombian, a Giro d’Italia champion who has twice finished second behind Froome in his only Tour appearances, has struggled in the mountains, first on Mont Ventoux/Chalet Reynard on Stage 12, and again Wednesday on Stage 17.

However the Movistar leader, who also lost time to Mollema and Yates on the Stage 13 time trial, brushed off concerns, chalking up Wednesday’s time loss to “a bad day.”

“The body is fine, like in previous years,” Quintana said. “I feel well, it was just a bad day today. But my form is quite good and I hope physically to be even better soon like in my other races. There will be other stages.”

Quintana is correct — there are other stages, but not many. Three, to be exact, an uphill time trial, a summit finish at Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, and a final day in the mountains ending with the descent into Morzine after the hors categorie ascent of the Col de Joux Plane.

And while Quintana has come good in the final week of the Tour in his past two participations, and has stated that he is focusing on the Alps, he is no longer racing for the overall win. He’s racing for the podium, and he currently has two riders ahead of him, including one — Yates — who has shown, repeatedly, to be superior in the mountains.

Two of these five men will stand with Froome on the podium in Paris. At this point, it’s the most interesting battle left.

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