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If weight of national expectation and volume of media hype counted for anything, Romain Bardet would have dislodged Chris Froome here and Jonathan Toews Womens Jersey won the Tour de France. Instead he finished exhausted, close behind the stage winner, Warren Barguil, after pushing himself rather than Froome to the limit and snatching a second place which is provisional before the time trial on Saturday. Froome is now within an ace of winning a fourth Tour de France. As Bardet attempted to find breath to explain how hard he had tried and what it promised for the future, Froome mounted the finish podium perched on the Col d’Izoard – a panorama of Alpine peaks all around in the crystal clear air – with the look of a man who knew the worst was behind him. Annemiek van Vleuten wins La Course stage one with Lizzie Deignan second Read more The stage to Marseille on Friday is far from flat but not threatening, given that the wind is not expected to be strong. As for Saturday’s time trial, on paper Froome is stronger at the discipline than either Bardet, who has to close a 23sec gap, or Rigoberto Urán, who is now 29sec behind. The big threat to the race leader’s fourth Tour is a puncture or a crash on Saturday. Behind Urán in third the gaps stretch away as the initial verdict of Wednesday’s stage over the Galibier was largely repeated. Simon Yates hung on to seventh and the white jersey but Fabio Aru’s challenge for the podium came to an end; the Italian slipped to fifth at 1min 55sec and even fourth place looks beyond him. Mikel Landa was disconcertingly if impassively strong, and he may well move from fourth overall on to the podium on Saturday. The 2,360m-high Izoard, wrote the Tour organiser Jacques Goddet, is a “terrible challenge which establishes the margin between the difficult and the terrifying”. The challenge for Bardet’s AG2R team was to set a pace that would eliminate Froome’s team-mates, which would at least put their leader in a position to see what the race leader had in him. Froome has certainly not been terrifying in this Tour – there have been none of the extreme accelerations on mountain tops seen in other years – but he has been a difficult nut to crack, apart from his costly 200m at Peyragudes. Advertisement AG2R began making the pace on the Col de Vars, 50km out, and by the time they were worn out 40km later the group around Froome and Bardet was reduced to about 15. However, once again, Landa was where he needed to be, and the Basque rider drifted off the front of the Froome and Bardet group shortly after Barguil had sprung away in search of points to seal his victory in the King of the Mountains contest. Sky’s plan was partly to put Urán and Bardet under pressure but also for Froome to join Landa. However, when the yellow jersey made his move – immediately after Bardet had put in an attack at three kilometres to go – he was marked by Urán and the Frenchman as he tackled the brief downhill through the Casse Déserte, past the plaques to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet. “I wanted to move before that descent, I don’t know if that was the right time,” Froome said. “If Rigoberto had not reacted as fast as he did, I might have got away with it.” Bardet tried again inside the final Bill Walton Womens Jerseykilometre and persisted to the line with the time bonuses in his mind, just holding off Froome to take a four-second time bonus and finish two seconds ahead of Urán. However, in terms of the bigger picture and his hopes for overall victory, it was too little, too late. Bardet has proved a mild anticlimax – far from a disappointment – but Barguil has finally come into his own in the past 10 days. A fellow member of the new French generation, Barguil should now join his fellow Bretons Bernard Hinault and Louison Bobet as a winner of the polka dot jersey. He has sealed that position with possibly the two most prestigious mountain stage wins of the race, victory here coming after the Bastille Day triumph in Foix. When he sprang out of Froome and Bardet’s little group, the last remnants of a classic mountain escape were still between him and the stage win. The breakaways had numbered 54, a third of the field, including most of the UAE and Direct Energie teams – Thomas Voeckler’s presence was inevitable. They gained eight minutes at one stage, and UAE’s Colombian Darwin Atapuma was hanging on to a 1min 15sec lead at five kilometres to go. The Tour is the most Darwinian of sports events, however, and the race’s law of natural selection was as implacable as usual. Atapuma was mopped up with one kilometre remaining, surviving to take second and the most rider prize. In the bad old Armstrong era when the French were often the whipping boys of the Tour, the red race number awarded to the combatif du jour was one of the few consolation prizes available to the home riders. Thanks to Bardet and Barguil, and the others who have contributed to a French tally of five stage wins, those days are a mere memory, even if, as Bardet will probably have to accept, the overall title remains as elusive as ever