PARIS (Reuters) - Chris Froome put on a near-perfect performance to claim his fourth Tour de France and move within one title of cycling’s greatest on Sunday as Team Sky tightened their grip on the classic race.
The Briton suffered a few wobbles throughout the 3,540-km race but was always in control over the three weeks thanks to his high-caliber team mates who sheltered him when it mattered in the mountains, leaving the lanky rider to make the difference in the time trials that book-ended the 104th edition.
Sky, who have the biggest budget of the peloton, have now snatched five of the last six titles and came within a whisker of placing two riders on the podium as Spain’s Mikel Landa missed out on the top three by one second.
Froome is now one title behind all-time greats Belgian Eddy Merckx, Spain’s Miguel Indurain and French duo Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault.
He is the first to win three consecutive titles since Indurain, who prevailed from 1991-95.
The disgraced Lance Armstrong’s seven titles since then have been erased from the record book.
“I’m speechless, it’s amazing,” Froome said after getting off his bike and hugging his wife Michelle and son Kellan.
“The Champs Elysees never disappoints, there is something magical when you have spent three weeks thinking about this moment, it’s just so rewarding every time.
“Each win has been so unique, such a different battle and this will be remembered as the closest and most hard-fought.”
Colombian Rigoberto Uran finished second overall, 54 seconds behind, and France’s Romain Bardet, runner-up last year, was third, 2:20 off the pace after both riders lost time to Froome in Saturday’s final time trial.
Sky’s team principal Dave Brailsford said there was no reason Froome could not add to his tally and become the most successful rider in the race’s history.
“I think Chris can go on, there is no reason to think that he can’t,” he said. “Physically he has got what it takes and I don’t think that’s going to diminish in the next year or so.”
Sunday’s largely processional stage from Montgeron — where the first Tour started in 1903 — to the Champs Elysees in Paris was won by Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen in a bunch sprint.
The 103-km ride was the occasion for Froome to sip rose Champagne with his team mates as the real racing began only when the peloton, who went through the Grand Palais, reached the Champs Elysees and the sprinters wound it up.
Froome’s victory was the first one achieved with a gap of less than a minute and while there was no repeat of last year when he had to run up Mont Ventoux without a bike, he did have mechanical scares that his rivals failed to exploit.
In the ninth stage, they slowed down for him after Fabio Aru attacked near the top of the final climb with Froome waiting for assistance. A week later his main rivals did not go for the throat when the Briton broke a spoke in his rear wheel and found himself trailing by 45 seconds.
He also lacked his usual dominance in the climbs and was beaten in a brutal uphill finish in Peyragudes as the 26-year-old Bardet won the stage to fuel hopes of a first home champion since 1985.
Froome always had the safety net of Saturday’s 22.2-km sprint around the streets of Marseille where Bardet cracked and almost lost his podium place.
France had a great Tour with five stage wins, including a double by Warren Barguil, who won the polka dot jersey for the mountains classification, reviving memories of Richard Virenque.
Australian Michael Matthews’s versatility earned him the green jersey for the points classification, helped by the fact that world champion Peter Sagan was kicked out of the race for causing a crash that ended Mark Cavendish’s race.
Germany’s Marcel Kittel won five stages but crashed a few days before the finish.
Britain’s Simon Yates won the white jersey for the best under-25 rider after finishing seventh overall, one year after his twin brother Adam achieved the same feat.
Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, Editing by Clare Fallon