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MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Chris Froome stands on the doorstep of the Tour de France's greatest champions.
Sewing up his fourth Tour crown with a cool-as-a-cucumber ride in a high-pressure time trial in heat-baked Marseille on Saturday means he needs just one victory more to join the record-holders who have five.
His winning margin in this Tour, 54 seconds over Rigoberto Uran of Colombia going into Sunday's processional final stage, is narrower than Froome's previous wins in 2013, 2015, and 2016. It is the first he has won by less than one minute.
Over the three weeks, Froome executed fewer of his trademark devastating accelerations in the high mountains. He ran out of gas and temporarily lost the race lead on a super-steep climb in the Pyrenees. He didn't win any of the 20 stages before Sunday's Stage 21, which is traditionally a peaceful ride into Paris with only the sprinters dashing for the line at the end, for the bragging right of winning the stage on the Champs-Elysees.
But Froome at 90 or 95 percent of his previous best still proved plenty.
Certainly good enough to be able to start dreaming of win No. 5 — and of joining the exalted company of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. They have been the joint leaders since Lance Armstrong's string of seven doping-assisted victories was expunged from the history of the 114-year-old race.
"It's a huge honor just to be mentioned in the same sentence as the greats," Froome said. "I have got a new-found appreciation for just how difficult it is for those guys to have won five Tour de France. It certainly isn't getting easier each year."
Yet he made the deciding time trial look easy enough. To boos and whistles from the partisan crowd backing Romain Bardet, the French rider who was only 23 seconds behind him in the overall standings, Froome set off last from the Stade Velodrome football stadium. Bardet had set off two minutes ahead of him.
Froome rode so strongly that by the end, he had Bardet in his sights. The French rider wilted on the twisting, tricky course with long wind-affected straightaways by the sea and a short sharp uphill to Notre-Dame de la Garde cathedral, the dominant landmark in France's second-largest city.
The suspense was quickly over. By the first time check, after just 10 kilometers (six miles) of riding, Froome was already 43 seconds quicker than Bardet. The only question became whether Bardet would even be able to save a place for himself on the podium. He did, by the narrowest of margins. Just one second was all that separated his third place from Mikel Landa of Spain, Froome's teammate in fourth.
"It's just an amazing feeling," Froome said. "It was so close coming into this TT. This was my closest Tour de France, the most hard-fought between the riders ... I didn't think it would come down to this TT in Marseille. There was a bit of pressure but, for me, it's always a good thing having pressure."
Uran was far quicker than Bardet over the 22.5-kilometer (14-mile) stage, despite overshooting a left-hand bend before the stadium finish and ricocheting off barriers. He vaulted over Bardet in the overall standings, into the runner-up spot. And with that, the 104th Tour had its podium. All that's left for the 167 survivors — from 198 who started on July 1 — is to cross the line in Paris.
"Today I did not take risks, I took all the bends carefully, you can lose everything on a day like this," Froome said.
Bardet endured his first bad day of the three grueling weeks. He said he woke up feeling poorly on Saturday, "and I paid for it, in cash."
Twice a runner-up at the Giro d'Italia, Uran added another second-place finish at a Grand Tour to his resume.
The time trial was won by Polish rider Maciej Bodnar, who covered the distance at an average speed of nearly 48 kph (30 mph) on the special aerodynamic bikes the riders used for the discipline. Froome has long excelled in it, winning Olympic bronzes in 2012 and 2016.
"I still can't believe it," Bodnar said. "Last year was close and this year was even closer and now I finally get one. It's amazing. I have been here three hours waiting. It was really nice seeing the atmosphere in the stadium. I was waiting for Froome because he's a really good time triallist."
Froome's teammate, Michal Kwiatkowski, placed second, one second slower than Bodnar. Froome was third, just six seconds off what could have been a stage win to adorn his Tour crown.
But Froome wasn't even slightly bothered about that.
He'd known from the start in Germany that this Tour would be unusual and likely open, because it had few mountain-top finishes, not huge amounts of time-trial kilometers, and many tricky days over all five of France's mountain ranges. Unlike at previous Tours won with knock-out blows in the high peaks, this victory had to be pieced together bit-by-bit like a jigsaw puzzle.
"Just chipping away on every stage," he said. "It was always the tactic to ride a three-week race and basically not to go out there on one day with the aim of trying to blow the race apart and smash it."
Petrequin reported from Paris.
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