LE GRAND BORNAND, France (AFP) – Spending 11 days in the yellow jersey is taking its toll on Chris Froome, but the Kenyan-born Briton is beginning to finally accept he will be crowned the Tour de France champion on Sunday.
On the penultimate stage in the high mountains Friday, Froome finished the 204.5 km 19th stage from Le Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand Bornand with his 5min 11sec over Spanish rival Alberto Contador intact.
It was a day when Contador, the former two-time winner who lost his 2010 title after a positive test for doping, had hoped to launch an attack on one of the five categorised climbs on the way to a downhill finish.
But after nearly three weeks of toil, in which Froome's Sky team has dealt with most of what the peloton and the elements have thrown at them, the Saxo team leader has little left to offer.
Saturday's 20th and penultimate stage finishes on the summit of Annecy-Semnoz, but asked if he had anything left to aim for on Sunday, Contador was evasive.
"It all depends on the legs I have tomorrow, and how the race develops and what tactics we can employ," he said.
Looking dejected, Contador will now likely return to the drawing board to see how and if he will ever challenge for the sport's top prize again.
That is a prospect that Froome allowed himself to dream of as he took another step towards Paris.
"To be over five minutes ahead of the second place wearing the yellow jersey is just amazing," said Froome.
"I am excited, but quietly excited. I know 125 kilometers tomorrow, it's going to be very hard for someone to make up five minutes in the general classification.
"But having said that, it is a day where the whole team's going to have to stay alert and control that last stage. One final big effort, then we can start relaxing on the ride into Paris."
On the penultimate day in the mountains there was ample opportunity for Contador's Saxo team to try and claw back their deficit.
But as an early breakaway forged ahead of the main bunch, the Spaniard's challenge failed to materialise.
Saxo's accelerations helped drop several of Froome's teammates on the penultimate climb, but he ultimately crossed the finish safely on the wheel of Australian teammate Richie Porte.
Porte has been tipped as a future challenger for the yellow jersey.
But despite playing his role to perfection in the wet and slippy conditions, the Tasmanian said he won't start beginning to celebrate until he shepherds Froome over the finish of stage 20.
"I'd love to see Chris Froome win the Tour and we're one day away from that so we're not going to be complacent but we are looking forward to finishing it off tomorrow," he said.
On paper, Froome has little to fear in the final stage in the mountains although the battle for the teams' classification -- which offers a podium appearance in Paris -- and the runner's up place means
Currently, Saxo lead RadioShack by 3:39 in the teams competition and Contador has only a 21-sec lead on Colombian climbing specialist Nairo Quintana of Movistar.
Sky team chief Dave Brailsford predicts a lively stage.
"There is a lot to play for tomorrow," he said.
"There's the team GC, all the podium positions, and there's not a lot in the top five in the GC so I'm pretty sure everybody will be thinking tonight about how they can maximise their team's and individuals' chances of finishing in Paris."
Despite his imminent triumph, Froome admitted that shouldering the burden of the yellow jersey is beginning to tell.
"It's mentally quite hard to keep up with that and wake up every morning, still motivated, still hungry to go out there and look for more seconds," he said.
"That's probably the biggest challenge, to have a fresh mentality at the beginning of every day when you've still got so far to go in the Tour."