MERIBEL, France (AP) -- Colombian rider Miguel Angel Lopez won the toughest mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France, while race leader Primož Roglic added a few crucial seconds to his advantage over rival Tadej Pogacar.
The much-vaunted 17th stage saw Roglic finishing 15 seconds behind Lopez in second place, while Pogacar trudged over the line 30 seconds behind Lopez in third.
But with another tough day of climbing to come on Thursday, Roglic remained wary of the threat posed by his Slovenian countryman - although back home people may not care which of the two stands atop the podium when the race finishes in Paris on Sunday.
“I don’t think the job is done. Am I happy with the gap I have over Pogacar? Well… It’s never enough. When you have something, you always want more," he said. "These last days I’ve seen so many Slovenian flags on the roadside, all day long. This always gives you some extra energy, it is such an unique feeling. I hope they are proud of us back in Slovenia.”
The 170-kilometer (105.4-mile) trek's final ascent to the Méribel ski station was the high point of this year’s race at 2,304 meters, winding up a Loze pass never before ridden and with tortuous gradients of 24%.
“I felt really good on the climb, but you can’t compare these last 4-5K to anything else. I’m glad this stage is behind us,” said Roglic, who praised his American teammate Sepp Kuss for his efforts in helping him up the hardest parts. “On this climb, every meter counts. Having his help was really good.”
Lopez timed his attack perfectly with just under 3 kilometers to go while Roglic accelerated away from Pogacar, who clawed some of the gap back but may have bid farewell to his chances of winning the Tour.
“I lost a few seconds. It was very steep. I did my best and I’ve lost a bit of time on Lopez and Roglic but it’s not over yet," Pogacar said. "There’s another difficult stage tomorrow. It’ll be another hard battle."
Roglic is 57 seconds ahead of Pogacar with four stages remaining. Lopez overtook Rigoberto Urán to move up to third overall and is 1 minute, 26 seconds behind Roglic heading into another testing mountain stage on Thursday. Urán dropped to sixth.
As riders tackled the steepest section of the Loze, where tarmac was laid last year on a mountain path which is only open to bikes, Pogacar increased the pace with about four kilometers left while Roglič tucked behind him and Uran was dropped.
Lopez then attacked and went after Richard Carapaz, one of five riders who had formed an early breakaway group and the last to be caught with 3 kilometers remaining.
With Lopez surging ahead, Roglič attacked Pogacar, who responded well near the end to limit the damage.
French President Emmanuel Macron was on hand to applaud Lopez when he crossed the finish line after 4 hours, 49 minutes and 8 seconds of a grueling trek which featured two of the hardest climbs known as Hors Categorie, or beyond category.
Lopez explained why he was not unsettled by the daunting climbs.
“At 2,000 meters of altitude, I feel like at home. I took some advantage when I had to," he said. "It’s wonderful. The team did an excellent job from start to finish ... we’ve dreamt big and we never lost faith before fighting day after day. This stage win is the best.”
Sam Bennett kept the green jersey for best sprinter from rival Peter Sagan but Benoit Cosnefroy faded early in the final ascent and lost his best climber’s polka-dot jersey to Pogacar.
Defending champion Egan Bernal pulled out before Wednesday's stage. The Colombian had been struggling since Friday’s stage in the Jura mountains, where he dropped more than seven minutes on the main contenders.
Stage 18 from Méribel is 175 kilometers (108.5 miles) long and another demanding one with an early Category 1 climb, followed by another one up the Aravis pass and the Hors Categorie Plateau des Glières before an undulating descent to La Roche-sur-Foron.
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