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Aru falters, Froome soars in thin air of the Alps

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BRIANCON, France (AP) — One series of giant Tour de France mountains out of the way. One more to come. And one less rival for race leader Chris Froome to watch quite so closely.

By sticking like fly-paper to the enterprising Romain Bardet, despite the French rider's efforts to distance him on the race's highest peak, Froome took a big step Wednesday toward a fourth Tour victory this weekend in Paris.

Italian Fabio Aru, on the other hand, fell behind on the barren slopes of scree and patchy grass in the thinning air of the mighty Col du Galibier, one of the Tour's most fearsome Alpine climbs.

Like a yo-yo, the Italian repeatedly worked his way back to Froome's group of top contenders. But a last burst of speed from Bardet toward the top of the mountain pass, which rises 2,642 meters (8,668 feet) in altitude, proved decisive. Froome stayed with the French rider who stood next to him on the Paris podium last year, in second place. Aru did not.

On the long and hairy high-speed descent from there to the finish, they pedaled furiously to prevent Aru from catching them, whisking through the bends with no safety barriers and no margin for error. At their quickest, the riders descended at 75 kph (45 mph).

Rigoberto Uran, the Colombian who is making a habit at this Tour of being in the right place at the right time, always in Froome's shadow, zoomed down in that group, too.

The bill, at the end, was costly for Aru.

Having started Stage 17 in second place overall, just 18 seconds behind Froome, the Astana team rider slipped back to fourth — 53 seconds behind the race leader, who is getting stronger in the last week of the three-week cycling marathon.

Uran leapfrogged from fourth to second overall. Bardet is still third. That podium could stick all the way to Paris on Sunday, as they both trail Froome by 27 seconds.

"At this stage of the race, everyone's on their hands and knees, let's see what happens," Froome said. "It's still all to race for."

Beating everyone to the top of the Galibier — a feat that earned him a bonus of 5,000 euros ($5,750) from race organizers — was Tour rookie Primoz Roglic. Showing nerves of steel on the 28-kilometer (17-mile) descent to the finish at the Serre-Chevalier ski station, the former ski jumper became the first Slovenian to win a stage in the 114-year history of the Tour.

"It's unbelievable," Roglic said. "A really crazy stage."

Froome's group of Uran, Bardet and French rider Warren Barguil rolled over the line 1 minute and 13 seconds after the 27-year-old Team Lotto rider, who moved to cycling in his early twenties.

Determined not to give any ground, Froome outsprinted Bardet to the finish line, securing four bonus seconds for placing third on the stage. Uran was quicker still, beating Froome to get six bonus seconds for second place.

"It was a big day of climbing," Froome said. "My legs certainly felt a lot better than a week ago in the Pyrenees, which is a good sign."

The Team Sky leader was greeted at the finish by French President Emmanuel Macron, who followed the stage in a car with the race director.

If he wants to catch up with the main contenders, Aru will have to strike back on Thursday in the last Alpine stage, with a mountain-top finish at the Col d'Izoard — another storied 2,000-meter (6,500-feet) pass.

After that, the last big opportunity to make up places is the race-against-the-clock time trial in Marseille on Saturday. But that discipline isn't Aru's forte — unlike Froome.

"I fought until the very last meters, I gave my all to minimize losses," Aru said. "Anyway, I don't see a big drama in today's stage. The race ends in Paris."

While Bardet's repeated bursts of acceleration on the Galibier eventually cracked Aru, they couldn't shake off Froome. To hold onto the race leader's yellow jersey all the way to Paris, the three-time champion can ride defensively, keeping tabs on Uran and Bardet and, now to a lesser extent, on Aru.

"I did my utmost," Bardet said. "I raced to take the jersey and I came close to dropping them at the top of the Galibier. I attacked. That's the way I love to race. I have no regrets. I tried everything."

One of the most active riders on Wednesday was two-time champion Alberto Contador. Riding with the panache of his glory days, the 35-year-old Spaniard sped away from Froome's group on the second and longest climb, the 24-kilometer (15-mile) ascent to the Col de la Croix-de-Fer. But Contador faded in the Galibier and could not stay with Roglic.

"I want people to remember me as a rider who tried things, who was courageous," Contador said.

The Tour lost Marcel Kittel, the winner of five stages this year, after he crashed. The German had been leading the Tour's green jersey competition, awarded for points collected in sprints during and at the end of stages. With his departure, Australian Michael Matthews inherits the jersey.

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