CHORGES, France - Even when he expects to lose, Tour de France champion-in-the-making Chris Froome cannot help but win. He's that strong, and he's making it look easy.
On a day when the British rider was planning to save some energy for upcoming mountains, Froome still brushed aside the field and took his third stage win of this 100th Tour.
Alberto Contador, Froome's Spanish rival still trying to make a fight of this one-sided battle, gave his all in Wednesday's Alpine time trial. His face contorted in a grimace of effort as he sprinted out of the saddle to the line, while spectators whipped up a thunderclap of noise by banging their fists on the barriers.
Froome, having set off behind Contador, sped in a few moments later. He, too, rode hard but looked more comfortable with his easy-on-the-eye pedaling style, perched on his saddle, legs pumping underneath him.
Contador shook his head and shrugged his shoulders when television flashed that Froome beat his time by nine seconds. This was another opportunity lost for Contador to make victory for Froome in Paris on Sunday at least feel less inevitable.
"Froome is in impressive shape," was the understated assessment of the 2007 and '09 winner who was stripped of his 2010 victory for a failed doping test.
The last Tour champion - now ex-champion - to carry as many stage wins as Froome to Paris was Lance Armstrong.
That was in 2004, when Armstrong won five stages and declared he'd be giving "no gifts" to his rivals. That is all just a bad memory now. This Tour is the first since the serial doper's name was erased last year from the race's honor roll, literally crossed out in the official history book.
Froome swears that won't happen with him. He has repeatedly said when asked at this Tour that he is riding clean - an assurance that only has limited value in the poisonous atmosphere of doubt that is a legacy of the Armstrong years and the American's confession to Oprah Winfrey this January that he cheated for all seven of his Tour wins, from 1999 to 2005.
"The problem today is that we are traumatized by the past," Stephane Heulot, manager of the French Sojasun team, said in an interview. "We've seen too many stories like this. We've seen too many riders swearing on the heads of their kids, their grandmothers, their mothers that they're completely clean and then - bam! - 15 years, 10 years, five years later we're told other things. Someone's word no longer means anything. We can't rely on that."
A union that represents about 600 professional riders from seven European nations supported Froome on Wednesday against what it called "unjustified allegations of doping."
"It's not fair to blame someone without evidence against him," Gianni Bugno, president of the Association of Professional Riders, said in a statement. "We demand more respect for Chris and for all the riders."
In four days, as long as he gets through the Alps, Froome will be able to sip champagne in the saddle on the final ride to the Champs-Elysees, unusually staged in the evening this year. That would make it two victories in a row for Britain and for Team Sky, after Bradley Wiggins' win last year.
Froome covered the 32 kilometers (20 miles) in Stage 17 in 51 minutes, 33.66 seconds.
• What: Stage 18, Gap to Alpe-d'Huez
• When: 3 a.m. on NBC Sports Net.