GAP, France — Hurtling too fast for comfort down a twisty, turning foothill of the Alps, Tour de France leader Chris Froome faced a high-speed choice between risk and reward.
The British rider knew that 10 years ago on the same descent, Joseba Beloki shattered his leg, elbow and wrist rounding a corner too fast, and Lance Armstrong plowed into a field to avoid the prone Spaniard howling in pain.
So Froome wanted to go easy. Trouble was, Alberto Contador didn’t.
Against his better instincts, Froome chased after his Spanish rival, who sped down the treacherous stretch with asphalt made gooey and slippery by the July heat.
Contador crashed as he rounded a right-hand corner, forcing Froome to swerve off the road, onto the grass and to put a foot down to stay upright.
Unlike Contador, who bloodied his right knee, Froome escaped with just a fright. Still, the drama in Tuesday’s 16th stage proved a point that Froome and his Sky team have frequently made: Despite his big lead, Froome won’t savor victory until he’s on the cobbles of the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
“One second, you could be going for the finish and about to win a race, and the next, you’re lying in a ditch somewhere with a broken bone,” Froome said.
“I knew it was the descent where Beloki crashed, so I was purposefully laying off a little bit and trying to take it easy, but at the same time also trying to keep touch with the Saxobank guys, who were really pushing the limits.”
By that, Froome meant Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff teammate from the Czech Republic, Roman Kreuziger, who are third and fourth in the overall standings but more than four minutes off the lead.
Opportunities for them to claw back are running out. The finish line in Paris is just 415 miles and four days away. To their credit, they aren’t accepting defeat. They’re harassing Froome all the way. If Froome wins, the way his rivals have repeatedly tested him over the three weeks should give him the extra satisfaction of a hard-earned victory.
Stage 16 wound from Provence past vineyards, lavender fields and villages to the town of Gap, a staging post for what promises to be a grand finale in the Alps for the 100th Tour.
For a long while, it seemed as if the 104-mile trek to Gap from Vaison-la-Romaine — near Mont Ventoux, where Froome won Sunday — would be one of those Tour stages that don’t amount to much.
Apparently preparing for the Alps, Froome and other main protagonists allowed 26 riders — none of them a podium threat — to escape far ahead. The stage winner, Rui Costa, emerged from that group, riding away on the day’s last climb, a 6-mile-long ascent to Col de Manse, and then zipping down to Gap.