SAINT-GERVAIS-LES-BAINS, France (AP) — If Chris Froome wins the Tour de Franceon Sunday, it won't have been an easy ride to the Champs Elysees.
After a pile-up forced him to run up part of Mont Ventoux last week, the two-time champion escaped from another crash on Friday during a chaotic and spectacular penultimate Alpine stage held in stormy and wet weather.
Two days before the ceremonial ride to Paris, rain played havoc at the Tour, causing many crashes and reshuffling places in the general classification. But Froome was lucky enough to escape with no serious injury, and even emerge with a bigger lead overall.
"A crash like that could have gone either way, and I'm grateful that nothing is injured," Froome said. "Never a quiet day on the Tour."
Since he took his rivals by surprise with a daring downhill attack that earned him the race leader's yellow jersey on the eighth stage, media reports have portrayed Froome as the inevitable winner. Day after day, as his overall lead built up, Froome kept insisting that the Tour was not over.
Friday's 19th stage proved him right.
Froome, who won the Tour in 2013 and 2015 and crashed out of the 2014 race, hit the ground with former Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali in a descent, soon after Romain Bardet launched a decisive attack to post the first French victory at this year's race.
Froome did not panic, quickly borrowed a teammate's bike and salvaged his torn yellow jersey after crossing the finish line 36 seconds behind Bardet. The Frenchman climbed to second place overall after Froome's previous closest rival, Bauke Mollema, crashed and never recovered.
Froome increased his lead by 19 seconds, holding a lead of 4 minutes, 11 seconds over Bardet, with two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana of Colombia moving up to third, 4:27 back.
Froome slipped on road paint as he crossed a white line and hit the ground just 13.5 kilometers (8 miles) from the finish of the nervy 146-kilometer (91-mile) ride to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc featuring four ascents.
He was able to continue racing after swapping bikes with teammate Geraint Thomas.
"I think that I hit one of the white lines on the road and lost my front wheel," Froome said at the finish, his right knee heavily bandaged. "I'm okay, I'm lucky that nothing is seriously injured."
Froome was descending at a relatively cautious speed of almost 45 kph (28 mph) when he fell. With his jersey torn, blood dripping down his right leg, cuts and bruises on his back and blood on his right elbow, Froome understandably looked uncomfortable on Thomas' bike.
Despite the circumstances, Froome caught up with the group of favorites in the brutal final climb to Le Bettex with the help of teammate Wouter Poels.
Froome crossed the line grimacing in pain, then put his arm around Poels to thank him for the support.
"I just lost a bit of skin but today," Froome said. "It was great for me to have teammates all the way up until the finish there, with Wout in particular and all the guys. It was a great team effort and it feels great to be one day closer to Paris."
Mollema was one of the many riders who fell in the damp weather, with Daniel Navarro and Tom Dumoulin forced to abandon.
"I'm not too badly injured, just a hip and elbow," said Mollema, who crashed at a roundabout as his hopes of finishing on the podium in Paris disappeared. "The classification is gone. I'm 10th now, but that was not the goal."
Bardet was the day's big winner after posting his second Tour stage win.
"I rode with my instinct. I'm second overall, I won the stage, it's beautiful," he said.
Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez finished the stage in second place, in the same time as Alejandro Valverde, 23 seconds back. In the overall, Adam Yates dropped from third to fourth, nine seconds behind Quintana.
The day had started quietly for Froome, who joked with Peter Sagan at the front of the pack after a group of 20 riders immediately jumped away from the peloton. The best-placed rider in the breakaway was Frenchman Pierre Rolland, who lagged 22:51 minutes behind Froome overall at the start, and Team Sky did not chase.
But the ideal scenario changed dramatically when the weather turned wet. As rain started to fall, Michael Matthews was among the first escapees to be caught a few kilometers from the summit of the punishing Montee de Bisane, a 12-kilometer climb with an average gradient of eight percent.
Rolland then moved away from his breakaway companions in the ski resort of Les Saisies, with former world champion Rui Costa following right on his wheel. But the Frenchman slid off the road on the descent and heavily hit the tarmac. With his jersey lacerated and covered with dirt, Rolland remounted his bike after consulting with the race doctor and finished the stage.
Froome needs to negotiate one more tricky mountain stage on Saturday before the ceremonial ride to Paris.
"Tomorrow is going to be hard, it's going to be really hard and I'm sure that I'm going to be a bit stiff after today," he said. "Hopefully I can rely on my teammates and it's just one last push."