SPORTS

Quintana pulls back time on Alpe d'Huez, but Froome poised for a second Tour win

MODANE VALFREJUS, FRANCE - JULY 25:  Nairo Quintana of Colombia and Movistar Team rides up the Alpe d'Huez during the twentieth stage of the 2015 Tour de France, a 110.5 km stage between Modane Valfrejus and L'Alpe d'Huez on July 25, 2015 in Modane Valfrejus, France.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

MODANE VALFREJUS, FRANCE - JULY 25: Nairo Quintana of Colombia and Movistar Team rides up the Alpe d'Huez during the twentieth stage of the 2015 Tour de France, a 110.5 km stage between Modane Valfrejus and L'Alpe d'Huez on July 25, 2015 in Modane Valfrejus, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

Chris Froome grimly hung on against a flying final attack Saturday from his Tour de France rival Nairo Quintana on the last Alpine climb of this year's race to all but lock up the British rider's second Tour victory in the space of three years.

Quintana was outstanding on the final ascent to the Alpe d'Huez ski station in what was the Colombian's last real opportunity to unseat Froome. Piling on bursts of speed on the steep road teeming with frenzied spectators, the Movistar rider ate into the race lead that the Team Sky leader had carefully pieced together in the previous 19 stages.

Thibaut Pinot won Stage 20, for the third French victory at this Tour. But all eyes were on the battle behind the FDJ team rider for the overall race.

Lacking his usual explosive power, Froome gritted his teeth up the 21 hairpin bends as his advantage started to melt away, looking to limit the damage. Only at the end, in a final sprint at the ski station itself, did Froome show his top speed.

"Very hard," he said.

But his tenacious defense was enough: The 1 minute and 12 seconds he still has over Quintana will see Froome crowned the winner on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.

"We finished off the job," said Froome's teammate Richie Porte.

Froome essentially won this Tour on the first big climbs in the Pyrenees in week two when, closely followed by teammate Porte, he triumphed at the La Pierre-Saint-Martin ski station to give him a big cushion at the top of the standings.

That carried him through the rest of those mountains and the hilly Massif Central region on the way to the Alps and dealt a heavy psychological blow to other podium contenders.

With the sole exception of Quintana, they all but resigned themselves to fighting for second and third place.

Ultimately, Quintana left himself too much to do on the last of four days of climbing in the Alps. Just as in 2013, he is set to finish runner-up again to Froome on Sunday.

Quintana said time he lost in the first week of the Tour cost him dearly at the end, leaving him too much to do.

Still, he wasn't despondent.

"Second at the Tour de France isn't half-bad," he said.

Their engrossing developing rivalry is box-office for the sport after the ravages wrought by Lance Armstrong's era of systematic doping and lying.

At age 25, Quintana's future is in front of him. He again will win the white jersey as the best young rider at this Tour. At age 30, Froome has time to add to his soon-to-be two Tour wins. But from the evidence this time, Quintana is getting closer to finding Froome's breaking point. In 2013, Froome finished with a 4 minute, 20-second lead over the runner-up. It wasn't so comfortable this time.

"He is young and very strong and he has a good racing mind," Froome said. "We'll be back for the rematch."

On the final climb, with Quintana scything through the yelling fans higher up the mountain, Froome clung onto the lifeline offered by his teammates Porte and Wouter Poels, his guardians when the roads go sharply uphill.

They led Froome up the mountain, constantly looking behind to make sure he was still in their wheels.

''They saved it for me," said Froome.

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