July 24, 2015

LA TOUSSUIRE, France (AP) Chris Froome always expected his rivals to throw everything at him and his Tour de France race lead. He just didn't expect that would happen when he was stopped by the side of the road.

Showing bristle beneath his mild manners, the British rider angrily tore into Vincenzo Nibali, calling him ''unsportsmanlike,'' after the defending champion accelerated away while Froome was fixing a stuck wheel on the toughest Alpine climb on Friday.

Nibali, who went on to win Stage 19, said: ''He was very angry but that's his problem.''

Froome said a stone or piece of asphalt jammed between his brake and rear wheel on the Col de la Croix de Fer climb, forcing him to pull up momentarily to unjam it.

While Froome stopped, Nibali rode away.

Those weren't the only fireworks on the exhausting Alpine stage that moved Froome one step closer to a second Tour victory.

On the stage's final climb to the La Toussuire ski station, Nairo Quintana launched his most sustained and telling attack against the 2013 champion, and this time got the better of him.

Showing for the first time at this Tour that he's not untouchable, Froome chose not to stay with the Colombian, his closest rival, as he rode away, eating into the Team Sky rider's overall race lead.

Froome said he preferred to save energy for Saturday's last Alpine stage, which features two very hard climbs. So rather than hunt down the Movistar rider, Froome rode steadily, telling himself: '''I don't need to panic but I do need to keep something in reserve.'''

He didn't hold back on Nibali.

At the finish, ''I told him exactly what I thought of him,'' Froome said.

There was other unpleasantness out on the road. TV images of the final climb appeared to show a spectator spitting toward the race leader as he sped past.

Froome said he didn't see the man but called his behavior ''appalling.'' Earlier in the Tour, Froome said another spectator threw a cup of urine at him and another punched his teammate Richie Porte.

''We are human beings,'' he said. ''You can't come to a bike race to spit at people, or to punch them or to throw urine at them.''

Froome's reduced lead of 2 minutes, 38 seconds over Quintana, down from 3:10 at the start, should still be enough to get the British rider through the last competitive day in the Alps before the final stage to Paris on Sunday, which is largely ceremonial and won't change the overall podium standings.

Still, the smaller cushion will force Froome to watch Quintana very carefully and means he cannot afford a bad Saturday on the two ''Hors Categorie'' climbs, meaning they're so tough they defy categorization.

The last of those, up 21 hairpin bends to the Alpe d'Huez ski station, is cycling's most iconic ascent and will be lined with screaming spectators.

''It's the final test,'' said Froome.

''I'm in a great position,'' he added. ''I can't wait to get up there.''

Nibali's win rescued what has otherwise been a disappointing Tour for him.

The Italian said he didn't see that Froome had pulled up, even though television images appeared to show him looking back over his left shoulder at the Team Sky rider before accelerating away.

Nibali said he was speaking to a teammate, not looking back at Froome, and that he always had planned to attack on that climb. The manager of his Astana team, Alexandre Vinokourov, defended him, saying: ''Vincenzo doesn't have eyes in the back of his head.''

Froome said: ''It seemed to me that Nibali had the whole climb to attack but he chose the moment that I had a mechanical (problem) to make his move.''

''That, in my opinion, is very unsportsmanlike,'' he added. ''It's not in the spirit of the Tour de France.''

Nibali said he was ''very disappointed'' at the way Froome spoke to him at the finish with language ''too hard and too unjust to be repeated.''

He added that as far as he is concerned, no rule says other riders must wait when a race leader has an accident.

After fixing his bike, Froome rode furiously to catch back up with other podium contenders. But Nibali was gone, chasing French rider Pierre Rolland, who summited the Croix de Fer pass first.

Riding with the No. 1 bib as defending champion, Nibali has been crushed by Froome at this Tour. He started the day in seventh place, 8:04 behind.

Hitting 70 kph (45 mph) on the Croix de Fer descent and shaving the edges of bends, Nibali caught Rolland and overtook him on the final climb to La Toussuire.

Sweat pouring off his legs, he rode solo to the finish, with the cross from the chain around his neck in his mouth.

With the time clawed back, Nibali jumped to fourth place, now 6:44 behind Froome. With third-placed Alejandro Valverde just 1:19 ahead of him, a podium spot may not be out of reach for the Italian.

With so much still to ride for Saturday, a spectacular Tour is getting a thrilling finale.

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