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LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) — If Chris Froome rides into Paris next Sunday with the Tour de France's famed yellow jersey still on his shoulders, it will be impossible to argue that he didn't earn the win.
In another day of drama Sunday in a 104th Tour full of twists, Froome broke a back-wheel spoke at the worst possible time on Stage 15 — just as his top rivals were picking up speed in front of him going into yet another punishing climb.
By the time Froome had stopped, taken a wheel off his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski and got going again, they were long gone, already about one minute down the road.
Froome had two choices: pour all his energy into catching them or lose his overall race lead and its yellow jersey that has already changed hands three times since the Tour started in Germany on July 1.
"Panic stations," he said. "I really thought that that could be the yellow jersey changing shoulders again."
Like a hound chasing prey, Froome hared off after Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran — the three riders all within 30 seconds of Froome in the overall standings of the Tour that, after a ho-hum beginning, has become thrillingly close.
Earlier at the Tour, Froome's rivals had waited for the race leader to catch them back up when he suffered another mechanical problem, that one with his gears.
There was no such politeness this time.
Cheered on by partisan crowds on the 8.3-kilometer (5-mile) slog up the steep Col de Peyra Taillade — scaled for the very first time by the Tour — Bardet's French team AG2R put the hammer down.
Further back, Froome realized that if he didn't catch them by the top, he might never do so.
The race was on.
Helped first by teammates Mikel Nieve and then by Mikel Landa, and booed by some spectators as he labored past them, Froome worked furiously on the climb to reel in Bardet's group.
"They all emptied themselves to get me back into the race," Froome said of his teammates. "I had to get back by the top of the climb. Otherwise it was game over for me."
"It was a stressful moment," Froome said. "I thought I might not get back to the front."
Froome said the back-wheel problem seemed to be a broken spoke. "The wheel wasn't straight anymore," he said.
By recovering from the misfortune, Froome now takes the jersey and an 18-second lead over Aru into Monday's rest day, the last of two at the Tour, ahead of a crucial last week of racing in the Alps and with a time trial in Marseille.
The stage itself was won by Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands, with a courageous solo breakaway at the front of the race.
Mollema, a top-10 finisher at the Tours of 2013, 2014 and 2015, sped away on the descent from the Peyra Taillade climb and endured over the last 30 kilometers (20 miles) in front of a group of four riders who laid chase.
They couldn't catch the Trek-Segafredo rider, who was determined to secure his first-ever win at the Tour.
Mollema held his arms out in a cross shape as he sped across the finish in Le Puy-en-Velay, the start of a famed Christian pilgrimage route to Spain. Champagne would be uncorked in celebration, he promised.
"I've never ridden so many kilometers alone in my life," Mollema said. "But I made it!"
The arduously bumpy 189.5-kilometer (117-mile) stage from the cattle-market town of Laissac-Severac L'Eglise, past rocky outcrops and patchwork fields on the high plateaus of central France's Massif Central mountains, offered two important insights going into the final week: Froome's rivals haven't given up trying to unseat him, and he still has energy to burn.
Riding back into Bardet's group required a big effort, especially since the French rider and his AG2R teammates were scaling the ascent at a brisk pace, roared on by the crowds. At one point, they rode over the words "Go Romain" that someone had painted on the tarmac.
"I had to go very deep," Froome said.
But he still had reserves at the end to finish the stage with a sprint, making clear that he's not prepared to cede an inch of road without a fight. The top four standings remained unchanged: Aru, 18 seconds back in second place; Bardet 23 seconds behind the leader in third; Uran, 29 seconds off the lead, in fourth.
Irish rider Dan Martin moved up from sixth to fifth overall by powering ahead of the leaders' group in the final stretch. Now just 1:12 behind Froome — having started the day 1:26 back — Martin can expect to be watched even more closely by Froome and his Team Sky support riders from now on.
"It's going to be every second at this point," Froome said, "every second all the way into Paris."
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