MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The one crumb of comfort for those desiring the yellow jersey Chris Froome will almost certainly wear to Sunday's prize-giving in Paris is that the British rider says winning the Tour de France is getting harder.
The bad news is that he says he is getting better.
Barring a calamity on the champagne-sipping celebratory ride from Montgeron to the Champs-ةlysées, the 32-year-old captain of the Team Sky armada will claim a third consecutive win and fourth in five years.
Modest as he is, it no longer seems fanciful to mention Froome in the same breath as Spain's Miguel Indurain, Belgium's Eddy Merckx or French duo Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil -- all of whom won the race a record five times.
Froome freely admits he is no student of the sport's heritage -- his only concern is pedalling faster and for longer than anyone else in the peloton.
But while he doesn't own the "Cycling Greats" box set, he knows exactly what they sacrificed to dominate.
"I certainly have a new-found appreciation for just how difficult it was for those guys to have won five Tour titles. It certainly isn't getting easier and this year was the closest race of my Tour de France career," he said.
"I've never been one to try and be like someone else. As everyone knows I have my own unique style on the bike. But I have respect for all those guys because I know how hard it is."
Froome arrived in Marseille for Saturday's time trial with a slender 23-second lead over France's great hope Romain Bardet.
As it turned out Bardet was cooked and suffered a nightmare ride through the old port city and was only just spared the humiliation of being caught by Froome before the finish line at the Velodrome soccer stadium -- despite the yellow-jersey holder rolling off the start line two minutes later.
AG2R La Mondiale's Bardet, who slipped to third behind Cannondale-Drapac's Rigoberto Uran on Saturday, did push Froome to the limit throughout the three weeks and left him trailing one day in the Pyrenees.
While Froome failed to land any hammer blows in the mountains, he more than made up for that in the time trials in Dusseldorf and Marseille where he put 76 seconds on Colombian Uran who trails by 54 seconds.
Froome is well served by his team mates, but is still a class apart -- and still improving.
"I'm becoming a more complete rider," he said. "Tactically I can still improve."
It is the first time Froome would have won the Tour without winning a stage, and his margin of victory is his smallest.
But he was not concerned.
"The tactic was for a three-week race, just chipping away and not trying to blow the race apart on one stage," he said.
"It was that type of course. I suffered in the Pyrenees and lost 25 seconds to Peyragudes. But normally a bad day in the mountains you can lose three minutes.
"Every Tour is hard, it's difficult to say which was the hardest, every year you suffer. Definitely this was closest."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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