By Julien Pretot
LE-PUY-EN-VELAY, France (Reuters) - After narrowly averting disaster in the Massif Central, Chris Froome believes he is ready for the final stretch of the Tour de France with a handful of rivals breathing down his neck.
The Tour will hit its last mountain range, the Alps, with a couple of grueling stages on Wednesday and Thursday, and the defending champion still has the yellow jersey on his shoulders. He also has a virtual extra advantage in the form of Saturday's final time trial in Marseille, a strong event for the British rider.
Things went pear-shaped for the three-time champion on Sunday when he dropped out of the main contenders' group due to a mechanical problem. But he eventually powered his way back just before the top of the last climb.
"That was a huge save. I think I'm really, really grateful I've gone through yesterday," Froome told reporters on Monday, the second rest day of the three-week race.
"If I hadn't reached that front group by the top of that climb, I don't believe I would have made it to the finish line in yellow."
The Team Sky rider leads Italian Fabio Aru, who appears to be running out of gas, by 18 seconds, and French daredevil Romain Bardet by 23, with Colombian dark horse Rigoberto Uran in fourth place, 29 seconds off the pace.
Ireland's Dan Martin is fifth 1:12 behind, and Froome's own team mate Mikel Landa of Spain, who has been in ominously good form, lies sixth 1:17 off the pace.
Bardet believes Thursday's mountain-top finish at the Col d'Izoard, 2,360 meters above sea level, will be key.
"I think that with the two consecutive stages in the Alps and the finish in altitude, there could be big gaps," said Bardet, Froome's runner-up last year.
The AG2R-La Mondiale leader has ridden very aggressively, and although alliances are a bit of a fantasy, Uran could possibly join him in trying to overthrow Froome, as the Colombian is something of an all-in type of rider.
"For me, if we risk everything and it ends up in fifth place because we rolled the dice and it went the wrong way, c'est la vie," his Cannondale-Drapac team manager Jonathan Vaughters said.
"A front against Froome? Have you seen any kind of front against Froome since the start? For now it looks pretty ominous because nobody takes initiatives, and Froome has such an armada with him that they are tough to unsettle," Bardet said.
While Bardet and Aru could well lose around a minute to Froome in Saturday's 22-km solo effort in Marseille, Uran fares better riding against the clock.
"Uran is more of the dark horse who slips under the radar but he is the strongest time-trialist of the group of riders (challenging me)," said Froome, who believes he timed his peak of form well.
"I am feeling better and better as the race goes on. I came in really fresh, I hope that means going into the third week that is going to put me in better shape than some of my rivals," the 32-year-old said.
Froome can also rely on the support of the strongest team in the field - a fact which often frustrates his rivals.
"Their strength is that they have three or four potential (team) leaders. Sometimes it can be discouraging," said Bardet.
That strength could also be Sky's weakness, however, as Landa may fancy his own chances after some impressively smooth rides in the mountains.
"He's the X-factor," said Vaughters.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)