LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) — If Chris Froome rides into Paris next Sunday with the Tour de France’s famed yellow jersey still on his shoulders, it will be impossible to argue that he didn’t earn the win.
In another day of drama Sunday in a 104th Tour full of twists, Froome broke a back-wheel spoke at the worst possible time on Stage 15 — just as his top rivals were picking up speed in front of him going into yet another punishing climb.
By the time Froome had stopped, taken a wheel off his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski and got going again, they were long gone, already about one minute down the road.
Froome had two choices: pour all his energy into catching them or lose his overall race lead and its yellow jersey that has already changed hands three times since the Tour started in Germany on July 1.
“Panic stations,” he said. “I really thought that that could be the yellow jersey changing shoulders again.”
Like a hound chasing prey, Froome hared off after Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran — the three riders all within 30 seconds of Froome in the overall standings of the Tour that, after a ho-hum beginning, has become thrillingly close.
Earlier at the Tour, Froome’s rivals had waited for the race leader to catch them back up when he suffered another mechanical problem, that one with his gears.
There was no such politeness this time.
Cheered on by partisan crowds on the 8.3-kilometer (5-mile) slog up the steep Col de Peyra Taillade — scaled for the very first time by the Tour — Bardet’s French team AG2R put the hammer down.
Further back, Froome realized that if he didn’t catch them by the top, he might never do so.
The race was on.
Helped first by teammates Mikel Nieve and then by Mikel Landa, and booed by some spectators as he labored past them, Froome worked furiously on the climb to reel in…