By Martyn Herman
COL D’IZOARD, France (Reuters) - Chris Froome said he was relieved the Alps are out of the way after keeping what should be a Tour de France-winning lead intact on the mighty Col d'Izoard climb on Thursday.
With a relatively straightforward ride toward the Mediterranean on Friday and a time-trial in Marseille on Saturday, only something quite extraordinary can now prevent another celebratory ride into Paris for Froome on Sunday.
The 32-year-old heads south with a 23-second lead over Frenchman Romain Bardet and 29 ahead of Colombian Rigoberto Uran after neither managed to dent his armor on an iconic 18th stage won in stunning fashion by home favorite Warren Barguil.
"It's a big relief," Team Sky leader Froome, now looking almost certain to claim a fourth victory in five years, said.
"Ideally I wanted to take a bit more time today but Bardet and Uran were quick to react. It's not quite done yet but the toughest part of the Tour is behind us.
"Definitely it's nice to get through the Alps feeling good and looking forward to the time trial now in Marseille."
There was a sense of now-or-never as Froome's main rivals for the yellow jersey, Bardet and Uran, sized up the Briton at the start of a 14km slog to the 2,360m Izoard summit finish -- their last chance to find a chink in Froome's armor.
But neither could make any impression and it was Froome, with the help of Spanish team mate Mikel Landa, who was actually the aggressor.
At one point on the twisting ribbon of tarmac to the summit finish Froome accelerated away from his GC rivals and opened up a gap before they hauled him back in.
AG2R rider Bardet did finish third to Froome's fourth in an identical time -- reducing the gap to 23 seconds because of a time bonus -- while Cannondale-Drapac rider Uran lost a couple of seconds in fifth and is now is 29 in arrears.
Froome, who went into the Tour with doubts over his form, now looks immovable from the yellow jersey, although he said Uran remains a threat because of his time-trial skills.
"Definitely Rigoberto is my biggest threat in Marseille. From the GC group he is the next strongest in time trials," he said.
"He's only 29 seconds behind so he will be the guy to look out for in Marseille." Froome would become only the seventh man to claim the yellow jersey in Paris without winning a stage if he fails to cross the line first in any of the three that remain.
"I'll do my best to try to win the stage and ride for the jersey. I've already seen the time trial course. It's a very fast 22km course. I'll do my maximum for sure," he said.
"It would have been amazing to win the stage today on this iconic climb. But if I'm in yellow in Paris without winning a stage I will have no regrets."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)