BRITAIN’S Bradley Wiggins refused to criticise Team Sky colleague Chris Froome for undermining him after taking a giant step towards becoming the first man from these shores to win the Tour de France.
Wiggins tightened his grip on the yellow jersey with just three stages remaining, of which one is his favoured time trial, by extending his lead over Italian Vincenzo Nibali by 18 seconds to two minutes, 41 seconds.
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde won yesterday’s 17th stage, the last in the mountains, by 19 seconds from Froome and Wiggins, who finished on the same time, although the former looked conspicuously stronger.
On the final climb Froome, who lies second in the general classification but is under instructions to aid Wiggins’ challenge, repeatedly pulled away from the Londoner, only to drop back and egg on his senior colleague.
Former road cycling star Laurent Jalabert accused Froome of “devaluing” Wiggins’ march towards an historic victory, but the latter played down tensions as he admitted sensing imminent glory for the first time.
“Chris said he wanted to go for the stage and I said yes. We weren’t too sure of the time gaps,” said Wiggins.
“The moment we crossed the Peyresourde, I allowed myself to drift and that was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve won the Tour today’.
“Once we saw Nibali had cracked on the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we weren’t going to have the danger of him attacking in the final. At that point I knew it was pretty much over.
“All the way up that last climb my concentration had gone, everything about my performance had gone. Chris was egging me on – I was in another world, really.”
Only a huge surprise would now prevent Wiggins, 32, adding the latest chapter to Britain’s cycling success story on Sunday in Paris, following Mark Cavendish’s green jersey triumph last year on Le Tour.
He has led since stage seven and rarely looked under severe threat, although tensions among the team and concerning Froome in particular have simmered steadily as the sport’s biggest event has unfolded.
Froome, 27, has not hidden his frustration at having to play a supporting role and stated that he hopes Team Sky and Wiggins will return the favour next year and aid his own quest for the yellow jersey.
“He’s really strong – he can win the Tour one day,” Wiggins added yesterday. Jalabert, a former world champion and Vuelta de Espana winner, was less complimentary, saying: “I do not like what Froome did. It could devalue Wiggins’s victory.”