PARIS — Riding a bright yellow bike to match his shiny leader's jersey, defending champion Chris Froome won his fourth and most challenging Tour de France title on Sunday.
The 32-year-old Kenyan-born British rider finished 54 seconds ahead of Colombian Rigoberto Uran overall, the smallest margin of his wins.
"This Tour has been my toughest yet. I want to pay tribute to all riders for their sportsmanship," Froome said. "We raced hard together, we suffered together."
This was the third straight win for the Team Sky rider. His first in 2013 came the year after former teammate Bradley Wiggins sparked off an era of British dominance.
His margin of victory over Colombian Nairo Quintana in 2013 was by more than four minutes. Quintana pushed him much harder in 2015, finishing only 1:12 back, but Froome beat Frenchman Romain Bardet by 4:05 last year. Bardet was third this time.
Froome looked emotional as he lifted the race winner's bouquet of flowers, his eyes seemingly watering. Then, smiling broadly, he gave a thumbs-up to the crowd before going to pick up his young son and walking back onto the podium with him in his arms.
"I want to dedicate this victory to my family. Your love and support makes everything possible," he said. "I also want to thank my team Sky (for your) dedication and passion."
Then, switching to an admirably improving French, Froome addressed the Parisian crowd.
"I wanted to thank the French fans, thank you for the welcome and your generosity," said Froome, who was nevertheless loudly jeered in Marseille on Saturday. "More than 100 years ago you created this beautiful race. Your passion for this race makes it really special. I fell in love with this race."
Bardet placed 2 minutes, 20 seconds behind him. But he denied Spaniard Mikel Landa — Froome's teammate — a podium spot by just one second. Italian Fabio Aru, who briefly led the race, finished fifth, 3:05 behind.
"It's always more difficult to repeat a result," Bardet said. "I'm really happy with this podium finish."
As per tradition, the 21st stage was reserved for sprinters and mostly a procession for Froome and the other overall leaders.
Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen won it in a dash to the line, edging German rider Andre Greipel and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Moments later, Froome and the rest of the peloton crossed the line after eight laps of an eye-catching circuit around the city's landmarks, finishing as usual on the famed Champs-Elysees.
Froome now needs only one more title to match the Tour record of five shared by Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddie Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Indurain.
"It's a huge
Froome sealed it on Saturday, finishing third in the time trial in Marseille where he put more time into Uran and Bardet, who dropped from second to third.
After more than three weeks of stressful racing, it was a relaxed atmosphere as riders set out from Montgeron in the Essone suburb south of Paris to the evening finish 103
Froome chatted casually with two-time champion Alberto Contador, the Spanish veteran, as if they were on a sight-seeding ride.
Right in front of them, Frenchman Warren Barguil — wearing the best climber's red-and-white polka dot jersey — swapped race anecdotes with Australian Michael Matthews, wearing the green jersey awarded for the Tour's top sprinter.
Matthews became the third Australian to win the green jersey, all this decade, following Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke.
"It's really a dream come true to stand there with the green jersey," the 26-year-old Matthews said.
Froome's teammates wore a yellow stripe on the back of their Team Sky shirts. They allowed themselves a flute of champagne, chinking glasses with leader Froome, as they casually rolled through the streets under cloudy skies beside cheering fans packing the roads into Paris.
Everyone was in high spirits, happy to complete a grueling race that saw Australian Richie Porte, one of the pre-race
As the slow-moving peloton passed near where Frenchman Yoann Offredo grew up, a television camera moved alongside, asking what it was like to be riding so close to home.
"I might nip to the bathroom," he said, jokingly.
Another rider, Cyril Gautier, asked his girlfriend Caroline to marry him: the proposal scrawled on a piece of paper held up by the smiling Frenchman as he blew a kiss to the camera.
Barring a crash, Froome was virtually assured of winning.
The route to another victory continued to unfurl before him without mishap — although he did have to change bikes at one stage. Barguil had a brief hiccup, needing to catch up after a puncture, but generally the peloton took in the sights.
Riders passed the Hotel des Invalides — a magnificent, sprawling set of buildings ordered by King Louis XIV in the 17th century — and actually rode through the resplendent Grand Palais exhibition hall, then past the golden statute of Joan of Arc, up the famed Champs-Elysees from the iconic Place de la Concorde and its towering 23-meter Egyptian obelix, and around the Arc de Triomphe.
Some might say Froome did not shine too brightly because he didn't win a stage, but neither did American Greg Lemond when clinching his third and final Tour in 1990.
For Froome, consistency and a dogged ability to respond when put under pressure were the keys to his latest success.