Froome wins Tour No. 4 with marginal gains, great teammates
PARIS (AP) In many ways, winning a fourth Tour de France title was all about making the most of marginal gains for Chris Froome.
Not as dominant as he used to be in the mountains, the Kenyan-born British rider was unable to deliver a lethal blow to his rivals. He had to fight until the very end to seal his fourth win in five years at cycling's biggest race.
The gap between Froome and his rivals narrowed, but his teammates at Sky remained the best and played a decisive role in helping their leader defend his title during a three-week race of attrition.
Froome's winning margin in this Tour, 54 seconds ahead of Rigoberto Uran, was narrower than Froome's previous wins in 2013, 2015, and 2016. It's the first Tour he has won by less than one minute.
Here is a look at the defining moments of the Team Sky leader's ride across France:
STAGE 1: A STRONG START IN DUESSELDORF
Froome arrived in Germany for the Tour's Grand Depart without a win this year, and with serious questions about his form.
Over 14 kilometers, the defending champion silenced his doubters by taking time on all of his rivals in the streets of the German city.
In bad weather conditions and on slippery roads, he managed to put 35 seconds into Richie Porte that day, with Nairo Quintana one second further back. Other top contenders including Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran lost even more time.
''If you'd told me at the beginning of today that this was what the GC would look like after today's stage, I would have definitely accepted that and been happy to take that,'' said Froome.
STAGE 5: IN YELLOW DESPITE ARU'S THREAT
Italian national champion Fabio Aru won at the Planche des Belles Filles ski station but Froome stayed cool and took the yellow jersey from teammate Geraint Thomas.
On a very hot day, Aru impressed the field with a terrific acceleration in the steep climb leading to the finish. Froome crossed the line 20 seconds behind the Italian and showed no sign of panic afterwards.
''It's still very open, we've got a lot of racing ahead of us,'' Froome said.
STAGE 9: SURVIVING THE MONSTER STAGE
Froome had predicted Stage 9 would be a ''monster stage.'' It took 12 riders out of the race, including Froome's top lieutenant Geraint Thomas and top rival Richie Porte. But the Team Sky leader came out of it unscathed after answering all of his rivals' attacks.
Froome also had to deal with a problem on his bike gears that forced him to change machines. Aru tried to take advantage of the situation and launched an attack. But the Italian rider and others top contenders then slowed the pace to let him make his way back.
''I want to say `thank you' to the other riders for not attacking,'' Froome said. ''They waited until I had changed bikes. That's sporting and pleasing to see.''
After seven ascents that together amounted to 4,600 meters (15,000 feet) of climbing, Froome even consolidated his overall lead by securing a 4-second bonus with a third-place finish in the stage.
STAGE 12: A BAD DAY IN THE PYRENEES
In his previous victories at the Tour de France, Froome had always taken advantage of the first mountain-top finish to make a big difference.
But near the end of the brutal climb to Peyragudes, Froome cracked.
When Aru launched his attack in the final few hundred meters, Froome was only able to follow the Astana team leader for a few bike lengths before he got dropped. He ended up crossing the line in seventh place, 22 seconds behind stage winner Bardet. Aru seized the lead from Froome by six seconds.
STAGE 14: TACTICS IN RODEZ
Lance Armstrong once said that one does not need to be a ''rocket scientist'' to know it's crucial to ride at the front of the pack on roads open to cross winds.
Chris Froome knows it perfectly.
So when the wind started to blow in the technical and twisting final kilometers of Stage 14, the Team Sky train hit the front. Aru, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen, trapped at the back of the pack.
The Astana leader didn't come back before the peloton split and cracked in a short and steep climb to the finish, relinquishing the yellow jersey to Froome.
''It's a beautiful surprise today,'' said Froome, who took an 18-second lead over Aru. ''Everyone is fighting for every second they can get. The time I made up today could be very vital.''
STAGE 15: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR FROOME'S RIVALS
Froome had another mechanical problem at the foot of the Col de Peyra Taillade as the peloton rode to Le Puy-en-Velay in the Massif Central. He broke a back-wheel spoke and had to stop on the side of the road to take a wheel off his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski.
Riding at the front with an advantage of about one minute, Bardet, Aru and Rigoberto Uran lacked ambition. They could have reshuffled all the cards in the battle for the yellow jersey, but they failed to join forces to try and go clear.
With the help of his teammates, Froome eventually caught them.
''It was a stressful moment,'' Froome said. ''I thought I might not get back to the front.''
STAGE 20: TOO STRONG IN MARSEILLE
Although he failed to win the final time trial, ending the Tour empty-handed in terms of stage wins, Froome sealed his fourth Tour victory in the streets of Marseille.
After controlling the race during two hard days in the Alps, Froome finished third in the 22.5-kilometer stage and increased his overall lead.
Better than all of his main rivals in the race against the clock, he gained time on all of them and almost caught Bardet in the final meters.
''Every year,'' Froome said. ''Winning the Tour is getting more difficult.''