Chris Froome warns rivals he is getting better after all but securing Tour win
Chris Froome warned his rivals he is still improving after effectively wrapping up his fourth Tour de France title in Marseille on Saturday.
Froome finished third in the 22.5 kilometre time trial that started and finished in the city's Stade Velodrome, increasing his overall lead ahead of Sunday's traditional procession into Paris as his rivals could not keep pace.
Froome leads by just 54 seconds from Colombian Rigoberto Uran, his former team-mate who leap-frogged Frenchman Romain Bardet with a superior performance against the clock.
But such narrow margins can be explained by a Tour course which seemed custom-designed to downplay Froome's strengths, featuring only three mountain-top finishes and 36.5 kilometres of time trials.
Froome conquered it anyway, drawing on his experience and the vast strength of his team to keep rivals at bay.
Though the margins were narrow, the 32-year-old insisted that was not a sign he is on the wane.
"I'm definitely getting older but at the same time each year I like to think I'm still learning more, still developing as a rider, and becoming a more complete rider," he said. "Hopefully as a rider I'm still improving."
Froome's fourth win leaves him just one behind the all-time Tour record of five, jointly held by Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain - a group Froome could yet join.
"It's a huge honour just to be mentioned in the same sentence as the greats of Tour de France history like that, but I'm really just taking it one race at a time at this point," Froome said.
"We still have to get to Paris tomorrow safely. I'm just taking it one season at a time at this point.
"I've certainly got a new-found appreciation for just how difficult it is for these guys to have won five Tours.
"It's certainly not getting any easier each year. This year was certainly the closest race of my Tour de France career."
Prior to Saturday's time trial, Froome had never trailed in the general classification by more than 12 seconds, but never led by more than 27 either.
"With the course being the way it was this year, it was always going to be a very cagey race between the top GC guys in the mountains," he said.
"Maybe we saw a little bit less aggressive racing this year because of the way the course was."
Irishman Dan Martin finished in 40th place on the day, enough to keep the Quick-Step Floors rider in sixth place in the general classification - his best ever finish in the Tour de France.
Bury's Simon Yates hung on to seventh place overall, securing the young riders' white jersey which was won by his twin brother and Orica-Scott team-mate Adam 12 months ago.
"I'm really happy," the 24-year-old said. "A little bit relieved. I really wanted to come here and take this jersey and to pull it off is absolutely fantastic.
"It's always difficult. Everyone thinks it's just a parade but once you get there with the nerves it's a hard day once you hit the circuit. For sure, I'm looking forward to the Champs Elysees wearing the jersey."
Froome had been odds-on to take the title since emerging safely from the Alps with his lead intact on Thursday.
Having a time trial on the penultimate day was seen as Froome's trump card given his strength against the clock, and so it proved.
Maciej Bodnar won the stage in a time of 28 minutes and 15 seconds, with Froome's team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski making it a Polish one-two as he finished just one second back.
It was sweet relief for Bora-Hansgrohe's Bodnar, who was cruelly denied victory from a breakaway on stage 11 to Pau, where he was out in front for 200 kilometres, only to be beaten 200 metres from the line.
This one did not come without a little stress either. He had been 52nd out of 167 to tackle the course, and had to wait more than two hours for his victory to be confirmed.
"This is something special for me today," the 32-year-old said. "After the stage when I went alone I was thinking I need to do something nice again. Today I got more luck than on the other stage so I was really happy about this."
Froome was six seconds off the pace - becoming just the seventh man to win the Tour without a stage victory on the way - but comfortably ahead of his rivals.
Cannondale-Drapac's Uran was seen as the main threat given Bardet's record in time trials, but though the Colombian went well he lost time when he took a late corner wide and collided with the barriers, finishing 25 seconds off Froome's pace.
Bardet's struggles were considerably greater, and Froome knew he had the Tour won when he almost chased down the AG2R La Mondiale rider on the final approach to the Velodrome, having started two minutes behind him.
"Coming into the stadium with Romain just ahead of me, I knew that if I navigated the next two corners correctly that would be it for me in this year's Tour de France," Froome said.