MORZINE, France, July 23- Britain’s Chris Froome retained his lead to all but secure a third Tour de France title as Ion Izaguirre won Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage.
Surrounded by four team-mates as he crossed the line in Morzine at the end of the 146.5km Alpine stage from Megeve, Froome could afford himself a smile of satisfaction despite the treacherous conditions.
Romain Bardet snatched back six seconds in a sprint to the line but remained 4min 05sec back in second with Nairo Quintana third at 4:21.
But with only Sunday’s virtual procession into Paris to come, the Tour is all but over.
The conditions made the roads slippery and dangerous and after a raft a crashes on Friday, it served to almost neutralise the race amongst the top 10 riders and few were prepared to take a risk.
The only two to attack out of the group of favourites were Bauke Mollema and Joaquim Rodriguez, but they were merely squabbling over 10th place with Roman Kreuziger, who started the day 12th, up the road in a breakaway — their quibbles were of no concern to Froome’s yellow jersey aspirations.
The rest rode as if happy to hold onto what they had, rather than risk losing everything in the drab conditions in a quest to snatch a place or two in the standings.
Quintana — who was second to Froome in his previous two successes in 2013 and last year — had admitted as much before the stage, claiming he was contented with his lot having suffered with illness the last few days.
“A third place or another podium in the Tour in these conditions is a joy for me and I’m very happy,” said the 26-year-old Colombian who many expected to dethrone Froome this year.
– Daring descent –
It was therefore up to the breakaway to produce a spark on an uneventful final day of possible hostilities as Izaguirre won the stage after a daring descent to the finish having crested the final climb, the Col de Joux Plane, alongside 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali and Colombian Jarlinson Pantano, winner of the 15th stage last Sunday.
A huge group of more than 30 riders took off in the day’s breakaway before a lead bunch of eight formed.
That was split when Pantano and Julian Alaphilippe of France went clear on the slick, dangerous descent of the first category Col de la Ramaz.
By then the peloton, taking no risks, had drifted out to 7min back.
On the climb up the Ramaz, Dutchman Mollema, who fell from second to 10th overall the day before after crashing, was briefly dropped, although he made it back to the peloton on the descent and even attacked on the next climb, before being distanced once and for all.
Nine riders formed a chase group behind the front duo but that changed when Fabio Aru, who started the day in sixth, cracked on the final climb.
He had put his Astana team to work at the front of the peloton with Nibali in the breakaway up the road to help out later.
Aru’s troubles freed Nibali to go after a stage win that would have saved his dire Tour.
He caught the lead duo 3.5km from the summit before seemingly leaving them for dead.
Alaphilippe wilted and Izaguirre stormed past before he and Pantano bridged up to Nibali a kilometre from the summit.
From there, the Spaniard was in a class of his own on the descent as Pantano almost skidded off the road while Nibali was uncharacteristically tentative following his crash on Friday.
Rodriguez launched an attack out of the peloton that proved enough for him to move up four places to seventh in the overall standings.
Aru dropped from sixth to 13th after losing more than 13 minutes, while Mollema fell to 11th with Kreuziger taking the final top-10 spot.
Briton Adam Yates, 23, finished fourth and won the young rider’s white jersey in only his second Tour.
Slovakia’s Peter Sagan won the green points jersey for a fifth straight year and Rafal Majka of Poland claimed the polkadot king of the mountains jersey for the second time in three years.