Romain Bardet did it. By a single second. No, he didn't win the Tour with the time trial of a lifetime, but rather clung on to a podium position after a ride to forget. We got the drama we were hoping for today, only it didn't come in the manor we expected.
As Bardet rolled down the start ramp inside the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, the crowd roared in hope. Two minutes later, the cheers turned to boos for Chris Froome. That may seem unfair, but given he was the man standing in Bardet's way, you could understand it. Froome himself could have expected nothing less. But when Bardet returned to the stadium a half hour later, the roars were cheers of nerves. He hit the line and retained his podium by a single second from the surging Mikel Landa. Following him into the stadium, only seconds later, was Froome. The boos had quietened. Reality had set in. The dream was over for the French; the Englishman had won a fourth Tour de France.
In in the end then it was a formality. And in the end, deep down, I would say we all knew it would be. Froome did what he had to do. He didn't win the stage but he didn't need to either. The winner on the day was Maciej Bodnar. A deserving victor after coming so close on the road to Pau. That day he had spent near 200 kilometres in the break only to get swept up in the final 200 metres. It was Boras's second stage win in a row following Edvald Boasson Hagen's brilliant late escape on a roundabout during yesterday's stage. As everyone went left, he went right and got the gap. It had been a stage that may have threatened Froome but which in the end was a day off for the contenders.
Could Froome have found the extra 6 seconds to win today had he needed it? We'll never know for sure. But once the call came over the radio at the second time check, at the top of that short but steep little hill, that he was well up, he could afford caution. No need to risk anything. In the end he came in third, behind team mate, domestique, bodyguard and roving mechanic, Michal Kwiatkowski. The brilliant pole missing out on the stage win, like team mate Landa did the podium, by a single second.
So Chris Froome won't win a stage in this Tour. But he won't care. He's won before and the target was always yellow. Greg LeMond didn't win a stage at the 1999 Tour and in the five years Miguel Indurain won, he never won a road stage. Few remember this; its winning the yellow in Paris that stands up over time.
Froome may not have won either time trial at this Tour, but he won the Tour in the time trials. He took more time out of his nearest rivals in the first stage time trial than he held over them coming into today. And by the end of today, Froome led Rigoberto Uran by almost a minute and Bardet by 2 minutes 20 seconds. It flatters Froome to a degree given how close the trio were in the mountains, but it's hard to say he didn't deserve it. The man who wins a twenty-one stage race always deserves it.
And yet this year the route planners tried to curb Froome's grip on this race by shortening the kength length of the time trials. And to a degree it worked. This was as tight a Tour as ever given that four men were within a minute of yellow coming into the final week, Froome included. But they cut back on the climbing too and while that kept the standings tight, it also kept the time trials significant. We can only be glad today's race against the clock didn't come ten stages earlier.
It will be interesting to see what they do with the route next year. Some will want them to remove time trials altogether, but that wouldn't fit with the Tour. Time trials are a part of the race. Sure if you remove them Froome would have to tailor his training in a different way. And he might even struggle to win now, at what will be the age of 33. But if you took the mountains out of the race too, Peter Sagan would win and Bardet might only finish as Lanterne Rouge!
General classification after stage 20:
1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 83h55'16"
2. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +54"
3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +2'20"
4. Mikel Landa (Sky) +2'21"
5. Fabio Aru (Astana) +3'5"
6. Dan Martin (Quick-Step) +4'42"