AP Sports Writer
SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France — The road snaked back and forth like spaghetti stuck to a wall, 18 hairpin bends, climbed for the first time in the 112-year history of the Tour de France.
Curiously, there were no crowds on this spectacular vista just perfect for the television age. Police decided that the three-kilometer (two-mile) stretch of bends piled one on top of each other up an Alpine cliff, was simply too narrow to let in spectators who line pretty much every other inch of cycling’s toughest race.
Not that Chris Froome noticed on Thursday. The race leader isn’t here for the picture-postcard scenery. Just two more days in the Alps, and a second Tour victory will be his. The British rider isn’t about to get distracted and take his eyes off the road now.
“I didn’t actually even realize there weren’t any spectators up there,” Froome said. “I was just in a tunnel mode at that point, just following the wheels.”
After Stage 18, Team Sky’s leader really has only two wheels to follow: Nairo Quintana’s and Alejandro Valverde’s, the Movistar teammates closest to him in the overall standings.
As long as he doesn’t let either of them get too far away from him on Friday and Saturday, then Froome will be sipping champagne and slipping back into the yellow jersey on Stage 21 on Sunday, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
“Two more stages left of real racing,” he said. “We’re focused on two guys.”
Romain Bardet, on the other hand, was focused on himself. France hasn’t had a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, and there are some that think 24-year-old Bardet could be next after his sixth place last year. But he’s not been consistent enough to improve on that this time, so he wanted to at least win a stage.
He did. In style.
Bardet rode alone down the huge Glandon pass and up the hairpin bends of the Montvernier Laces to take a solo victory at Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne on the second of four days in the Alps. Pierre Rolland of the Europcar team made it a 1-2 French finish, coming in 33 seconds behind the winner for AG2R La Mondiale.
As they did on the first Alpine stage on Wednesday, Froome’s rivals again tested him but couldn’t make him crack over seven climbs.
“Everyone attacked,” Froome said.
Two-time champion Alberto Contador showed spirit, with a burst of speed on the 22-kilometer (14-mile) long climb up to the Glandon pass, but he couldn’t claw back the minutes he lost on Wednesday in a downhill crash.
“One of the hardest days for me,” Contador said. “I was in pain.”
Froome, Contador, and other podium contenders finished together in a group of 10 riders who rode in three minutes behind the stage winner. Bardet remains too far down the overall standings — in 10th place, nearly 13 minutes behind Froome — to have realistic ambitions for the podium this year. But he is the highest-placed French rider so far.
Bardet rode away at the top of the punishing Glandon climb — the hardest Alpine ascent so far — and built a lead on the long descent. He held it up the Montvernier Laces’ spectacular switchbacks.
“A crazy stage,” Bardet said. “I can’t believe it.”
Without fans, the telegenic ascent was eerily quiet.
“Almost every kilometer (mile) of the race up until now you’ve had spectators all the way, and we had three kilometers there where there was no one,” Froome said. “You can understand why … the road really was quite narrow.”
But a cheering crowd waiting for Bardet at the top gave him a burst of energy to the finish.
“I had goosebumps,” he said.
Froome remains 3 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of second-placed Quintana, and 4:09 ahead of Valverde, in third. But the Tour has covered 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) and their chances have nearly run out to dislodge the 2013 winner. What’s more, Froome says he feels stronger than he did at the same point two years ago, when “I was just sort of hanging on.”
The crescendo will come on Saturday on the 21-hairpin bends to the Alpe d’Huez ski station. Unlike the Montvernier Laces, the most iconic climb in cycling will be teeming with fans.
“It’s the last challenge,” Froome said. “We can really expect it to be a big finale.”