LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) — The battle for victory will go right down to the wire on the Tour de France.

With simply six levels left earlier than the three-week race reaches the Champs-Elysees, solely 29 seconds separate the highest 4 riders within the common classification.

Defending champion and three-time winner Chris Froome has an 18-second lead over Fabio Aru of Italy. Frenchman Romain Bardet, the runner-up to Froome final 12 months, is 23 seconds again from the chief, in third place. In fourth, is Colombian Rigoberto Uran.

It is an uncommon state of affairs forward of an intense ultimate week of racing that features two Alpine levels in excessive altitude and a short while trial.

“It is the toughest fought battle when it comes to Excursions de France I’ve completed earlier than,” Froome mentioned throughout Monday’s relaxation day. “I am simply grateful I am on the best facet of these gaps.”

Froome has the strongest crew and stays the favourite to win in Paris, regardless of some uncommon indicators of weak point.

He endured a nasty day within the Pyrenees throughout a grueling stage to the ski station of Peyragudes, when he misplaced the general result in Aru after sporting the race chief’s yellow jersey for seven days. However the Crew Sky chief recovered in type two days later, when Aru was trapped behind the peloton in Rodez.

On a windy day within the south of France, Froome and his teammates confirmed their superiority by driving on the entrance when the peloton stretched out and managed to place 24 seconds into their chief’s closest rival.

Froome’s major asset within the ultimate stretch would be the power of his teammates. Anticipate them to journey on the entrance within the mountains and to set a punishingly quick tempo – all designed to forestall others from attacking. If Froome is in type, he shall be untouchable.

The collective power of the Sky Crew was on show Sunday when Froome was pressured to alter his rear wheel within the ultimate 40 kilometers and obtained dropped.

“I used to be simply standing there on the facet of the highway with my teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, making an attempt to alter wheels. I assumed it was probably recreation over for me,” Froome mentioned.

However Kwiatkowski rapidly handed over his wheel and Froome was helped again to the entrance by teammates Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka and Mikel Nieve, erasing a 45-second hole.

Mikel Landa, who appears sturdy sufficient to be a pacesetter in one other crew, was driving on the entrance however waited for Froome to catch up and the pair labored collectively to complete with the principle contenders.

Froome has additionally confirmed nice composure and calm when in hassle. At risk of shedding the coveted chief’s jersey, he didn’t panic whereas Bardet, Uran and Aru failed to hitch forces on the entrance.

“I believe Chris was sturdy as a result of he was calm. The temptation will be to go too exhausting too rapidly, you panic a bit of bit, go actually, actually deep to get on too rapidly and naturally you simply explode,” Crew Sky supervisor Dave Brailsford mentioned.

Froome’s rivals have now to discover a strategy to unsettle and isolate him within the Alps earlier than Saturday’s time trial in Marseille, the place the British rider could have the higher hand within the race in opposition to the clock.

Here’s a have a look at the opposite contenders forward of Tuesday’s Stage 16 that can lead the peloton to the gateway to the Alps in Romans-sur-Isere.

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FABIO ARU

Aru was the massive winner in Peyragudes, the place he took the yellow jersey for the primary time after Froome cracked within the final 500 meters of the stage.

However he couldn’t construct on the momentum and was remoted within the finale of the Rodez stage, handing total lead again to Froome after solely two days in yellow.

The previous Vuelta champion is paying the value for his Astana crew’s weaknesses. The Kazakhstan-funded crew has misplaced key members Jakob Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo in crashes, and Aru has to rely on his personal abilities when in hassle.

He’ll journey on his favourite terrain from Wednesday when the race enters the Alps. His solely possibility if he desires to succeed Vincenzo Nibali on the record of Italian winners of the Tour shall be to assault.

“That is going to be a really powerful ultimate week and so not all the pieces is misplaced,” Aru mentioned. “There aren’t just some seconds distinction now between me and Froome, however there aren’t so many both. So the Tour remains to be vast open.”

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ROMAIN BARDET

Bardet has made no mistake to date in his bid to turn out to be the primary Frenchman in 32 years to win biking’s greatest race.

The 26-year-old climbing specialist completed runner-up to Froome final 12 months and needs to maneuver one step increased on the rostrum.

“I am ready for a possibility to create a time distinction,” Bardet mentioned.

A really attack-minded bicycle owner with a pure intuition for racing, Bardet is in excellent bodily form. In Peyragudes, his deadly acceleration earned him the stage win. He’ll attempt to reproduce the transfer within the mammoth Stage 18 to the Col d’Izoard, which contains a ultimate 14.1-kilometer ascent to the highest of the mountain, at an altitude of two,360 meters.

“I am not occupied with the time trial,” Bardet mentioned. “We’ll test the state of affairs after the Izoard. I will journey two Alpine levels as in the event that they have been classics.”

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RIGOBERTO URAN

Twice a runner-up on the Giro, the Colombian from Cannondale-Drapac is now a critical contender for the general win in France.

“We knew Rigo was tremendous good and able to successful mountain levels, and that he was able to being within the prime 5 total,” mentioned Jonathan Vaughters, supervisor of Uran’s Cannondale-Drapac crew. “However that he was going to be 29 seconds behind? No.”

A wonderful climber with good downhill abilities, Uran has taken benefit of the very mountainous route in 2017. He made headlines in the course of the first week when he gained a stage in Chambery regardless of driving on a defective bike, unable to alter gears for the ultimate 23 kilometers.

Uran, a former Crew Sky rider, completed second on the Giro in 2013 and 2014 after successful the Olympic silver medal within the highway race in London in 2012. He determined to not compete at this 12 months’s Giro to reach in excellent form on the Tour, an excellent technique to date.

Vaughters mentioned Uran won’t be content material with a podium end in Paris.

“That is not likely Rigos’s mentality, he’s a type of all-in man,” Vaughters mentioned. “For me, if we danger all the pieces and he leads to fifth place as a result of we rolled the cube and it went the unsuitable approach, c’est la vie.”

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