After the champagne bubbles fade and Chris Froome drifts away from his Sunday night celebrations to reflect on a fourth Tour de France win, he may do so with greater fondness than the others.
The first, in 2013, brought the bursting pride of a first success. But he won by more than four minutes, as he did last year. Although Nairo Quintana finished a little over one minute behind him in 2015, this year's victory — by just 54 seconds — over another Colombian, Rigoberto Uran, tastes sweeter.
"This Tour has been my toughest yet," Froome said.
Froome temporarily lost the race lead to the daring Italian Fabio Aru in the Pyrenees on a huge climb to the ski station of Peyragudes, and thought he'd lost it altogether two days later.
Last Sunday in Rodez, he was forced to change his rear wheel in the final 40 kilometers (25 miles) after a spoke broke. He got dropped, drifting way behind the peloton.
"I was just standing there on the side of the road with my teammate Michal Kwiatkowski," Froome said. "I thought it was potentially game over."
Riding with unchained fury, Kwiatkowski and Froome bridged the gap — and saved his Tour.
Fast forward to Saturday's penultimate stage in Marseille and a time trial — one of his strongest disciplines. Froome was right back in the ascendency and closing in on win No. 4.
Yet the future champion was jeered by fans at the Stade Velodrome football stadium as he began his ride, and more jeers followed along the route.
Froome had urine chucked over him on a previous Tour, so booing was hardly going to unsettle him. He was almost chivalrous on the podium Sunday, addressing fans in admirable French.
"Thank you for the welcome and your generosity," Froome said, with unintentional irony. "Your passion for this race makes it really special. I fell in love with this race."
This was the third straight win for the Team Sky rider.
"I want to dedicate this victory to my family. Your love and support makes everything possible," he said. "I also want to thank my team Sky (for your) dedication and passion."
Bardet placed 2 minutes, 20 seconds behind him. But he denied Spaniard Mikel Landa — Froome's teammate — a podium spot by just one second. Aru finished fifth, 3:05 behind.
As per tradition, the 21st stage — 103 kilometers (64 miles) from Montgeron to Paris— was reserved for sprinters and a procession for the rest. Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen won, edging German rider Andre Greipel and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen.
The focus was elsewhere.
Froome now needs only one more title to match the Tour record of five shared by Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddie Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.
"It's a huge honor to be talked about in the same sentence," Froome said of those cycling greats.
However, Froome is more of a slick modernist than a reminiscent historian.
"I probably don't even know the full history of those events," he said. "Coming into cycling quite late in my life, obviously my childhood back in Africa, I only started watching the Tour de France in the years that Lance Armstrong was racing."
Indurain won five straight Tours from 1991-95, and Armstrong won seven straight from 1999-2005 before the American was stripped of all of them for doping.
Clearly, the Kenyan-born Froome isn't one to seek inspiration elsewhere.
"I'm not a big person to necessarily choose a role model," he said. "I've got a bit of a unique style on the bike and my own way of doing things."
That included ruthlessly putting more time into Uran and Bardet in Saturday's time trial.
Some might say Froome did not shine too brightly because he didn't win a stage, but neither did American Greg Lemond when clinching his third Tour in 1990.
For Froome, consistency and a dogged ability to respond under pressure were the keys.
So was overcoming fear.
Notably in tackling speedy downhill sections that once filled him with the equivalent of an actor's stage fright. Some used to prod at his fear, like a schoolyard bully senses a weakness.
Froome zipped downhill with new-found confidence.
"Something I've certainly worked on the last few years is my descending," he said.
Others should do more homework.
Bardet lost his second place after a nightmare time trial, crawling home in near-exhaustion.
Astonishingly, Bardet revealed he found training for the clock race too dull to bother with.
"I don't like to go out for training with the time trial bike," he said. "It's a bit boring for me."
You wouldn't catch Froome skipping training. Then again, his dedication is higher than most.
With inputs from AP
Published Date: Jul 25, 2017 08:44 am | Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 08:44 am