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Slovenia's Primoz Roglic, right, rides on the Glieres plateau during the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Sept. 17, 2020.

KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Paris, and victory at the Tour de France, are almost within reach for Primoz Roglic.

The Slovenian rider safely negotiated the last truly mountainous stage of this year’s race on Thursday, moving a big step closer to adding what would be his first Tour win to the Spanish Vuelta title he conquered last year.

Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski won the saw-tooth Stage 18, up and down over a leg-burning succession of five Alpine ascents. His first stage victory at the Tour was also the first at this race for his Ineos Grenadiers team, a consolation prize after its leader, 2019 Tour champion Egan Bernal, withdrew Wednesday having struggled since the weekend.

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By avoiding any mishaps on a brutal stage that included a treacherous stretch of gravel path that punctured the thin front tire of another top contender, Australian Richie Porte, Roglic has just two more stages to digest before being able to ride into Paris on Sunday with the yellow jersey on his shoulders to the finish.

“One day less,” Roglic said. “Still some days to go. We just need to maintain our focus.”

Kwiatkowski finished arm-over-arm with teammate Richard Carapaz. They did not sprint to the line, instead crossing together, all smiles, their faces caked with dust, and with Kwiatkowski’s front tire just ahead. Kwiatkowski is a former world champion and veteran of seven Tours who likely would have won other stages before now had he not devoted much of his career to helping other riders win the Tour title.

Carapaz said Ineos' goals for the day were both winning the stage and putting him in the red-spotted jersey awarded to riders who vacuum up the most points on the Tour’s climbs. They did both. With Carapaz having secured the jersey on the ascents, the Ecuadoran rider then graciously left the win to his loyal teammate who had helped him up the climbs.

“Basically, he decided,” Kwiatkowski said of Carapaz, who last year became Ecuador’s first Grand Tour champion by winning the Giro d’Italia. “He’s an incredible person.”

“We are going to celebrate big time tonight because we all deserve it after so many stages,” he said. “We put in a show today.”

Further back, in his own battle to keep the overall race lead, Roglic again kept Tadej Pogacar, his Slovenian countryman and closest rival, firmly in his grasp. Roglic surged ahead of Pogacar on the dusty gravel track at the top of the day’s toughest climb, making clear that he was in no mood to cede even seconds so close to Paris.

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Roglic remains 57 seconds ahead of Pogacar overall, and has a lead of 1 minute, 27 seconds over Colombian rider Miguel Angel Lopez, still third.

Thursday’s 175-kilometre route northward from the mountain resort of Meribel led the race out of high Alps to the foothills of La Roche-Sur-Foron, which claims to have been the first town in Europe to illuminate its streets with electric light, in 1885.

Part of a large and early breakaway, Carapaz quickly found himself locked in a battle for climbing points with powerful Swiss rider Marc Hirschi. Hirschi, a 22-year-old Tour rookie who has been among the most dynamic riders at this race and won Stage 12, had the measure of Carapaz up the first three climbs, beating him to the top.

But he charged too hard on a mid-stage descent, and his wheels slid out from under as he leaned wildly into a left-hand bend.

“He took that corner way too fast,” said Kwiatkowski, who was just behind.

Shedding skin in a slither across the tarmac, Hirschi finished in a heap in grass. He picked himself up and hared off in pursuit of Carapaz, bashing on his displaced left-brake lever as he descended, trying to hammer it back straight on his handlebars.

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But his challenge was over. Points that Carapaz picked up by finishing first on the last two ascents were enough for him to wrest the polka-dot jersey from Pogacar.

After 3,157 kilometres of racing over four mountain ranges since the Aug. 29 start in Nice on the Mediterranean, Roglic has just 203 kilometres left to ride before the final stage into Paris, traditionally a leisurely procession with a sprint fiercely contested at the end by riders who weren’t chasing the overall title.

Friday’s bumpy Stage 19 shouldn’t be a problem for Roglic. The former ski jumper can count on his teammates, who have controlled much of the racing, strung out like fairy lights in their yellow jerseys in front of him, to reel in any threat to his lead on the 166-kilometre stage.

That leaves a time trial Saturday as his last significant hurdle. But Roglic’s lead should, barring a mishap, amply fend off any final challenge over the 36-kilometre (22-mile) race against the clock.

Staying focused, Roglic isn’t yet allowing himself to savour his Tour. That can wait until Sunday.

“I also try to enjoy it. Yeah, it’s crazy, eh?” he said. “Still, more time for more enjoyment will be then, after the Tour.”

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