Stage 17 of the Tour de France, a debut for the harrowing summit finish of the Col de la Loze, realistically marked the end of the fight for this year's yellow jersey. The latest installment in a general classification battle that has never really sparked into life saw Jumbo-Visma's Primož Roglič solidify his grasp on yellow, putting more time into his closest rival, Tadej Pogačar.
Some had hailed the steep slopes of the high-altitude Loze as an opportunity for Pogačar – by many estimates the strongest climber of the Tour – to put time into his compatriot, setting up a battle royale in the closing days of the race.
He has been the only man remotely capable of challenging Roglič over the first two weeks, grabbing bonus seconds in Laruns and the Grand Colombier and taking time on stage 7 – albeit from 16th on GC after shedding time in the crosswinds.
But rather than gaining time as the race reached up over 2,000 metres for the first time, it was the UAE Team Emirates prodigy who was vulnerable. Rather than the cream of the GC crop floating away from the also-rans to battle for yellow mano a mano, Roglič was away with 2.3km to go, bridging up to teammate Sepp Kuss, who was riding beyond his super-domestique tag.
Behind Astana's stage winner Miguel Ángel López, the two Slovenians played out their own mini-mountain time trial, three days before the 36km test to La Planche des Belles Filles, where Roglič looks a good bet to take more time.
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The final gap between the pair was 15 seconds, plus another two in bonuses, which saw Roglič extend his GC lead to 57 seconds. His team, barring some small mishaps earlier in the race, look impenetrable, and enjoyed an 'easier' day than usual as other GC teams took up the pacemaking for much of the stage.
Thursday's stage 18 to La-Roche-sur-Foron will provide their final major test as a squad, with six Alpine climbs en route to the finish, including the Plateau des Glières, a 6km test at an 11 per cent average gradient replete with a gravel road at the top.
An ambush could be on the cards, especially as López has moved closer at 1:26 back, but Jumbo-Visma have all the tools to cope with one. Kuss, especially, should be valuable after his stunning fourth place on Wednesday.
The American, who took sixth on the Grand Colombier on Sunday, hung with the elite on the steep slopes of the final five kilometres, even attacking with 3km to go before providing a valuable late assist as Roglič made his move 700 metres later.
With no hint of a crack in Roglič's armour yet showing, the battle for yellow looks all over bar the shouting. After the stage, the 30-year-old, a man of simple statements, said: "I was pleased with my position, and now I am even more so."
Pogačar, meanwhile, will be satisfied with a solid second place just days away from the end of his first Tour de France. The blistering attacks we've seen from him in previous days weren't there on the Col de la Loze, and yes, his assault on yellow now looks to be over, but second – along with two stage wins and a possible polka dot jersey – is an outcome surely beyond the dreams he would have had back in Nice.
The 21-year-old will have to keep one eye over his shoulder on Thursday, though, saying after the stage: "I can win, or I can lose the podium."
Behind him, López took back a total of 40 seconds, and now lies just 39 behind second place. The Colombian should lose time in the time trial but still looks a threat to Pogačar, the Slovenian only having David de la Cruz to rely on when the going gets tough.
The podium battle
Rather obviously, the man most pleased with his day – Roglič aside – will be the stage winner, López, now the favourite to finish third in Paris and complete his Grand Tour podium triple. After an improvement on the Grand Colombier, López was well at home at the altitude of the final kilometres – "Being at 2,000 metres is like we're at home," he said afterwards.
He jumped away from Roglič, Pogačar and Kuss 3.5km from the top of the Col de la Loze and, though he would be brought back by Kuss, he then followed the American's 'attack' shortly afterwards before striking out once again. Barring the swathes of fans contravening COVID-19 guidelines near the top of the climb, he would ride on alone to the finish and a third Grand Tour stage victory.
The move was one of very few attacks from GC contenders we've seen during this Tour, with several mountain stages giving the impression of a race neutralisation rather than a battle for victory. Before Wednesday's stage, you could argue a solid case that Trek-Segafredo's Richie Porte – a man not known for offensive riding in Grand Tours – was the second-most attacking rider in the GC race.
Still, López took his chance and is now within striking distance of Pogačar in second place, and hey, maybe even Roglič if the cycling gods sow chaos on Thursday. The Colombian likely needs to go on the offensive, considering his time trial abilities – which could charitably be described as erratic.
Porte, a surprise podium challenger, is among the the men who will be eyeing López's spot. He's up to fourth overall now – 3:05 down on Roglič and 1:39 behind the Colombian – after another strong ride which saw him once again at the head of the race in the final kilometres when most would have expected him to be riding quietly to a sixth or eighth place finish.
On what he says is his final chance to ride for GC at the Tour, the 35-year-old might have come away disappointed to lose a minute to López on the Loze – a climb he later compared to the Zoncolan – but the stage 20 time trial, which features 30km of flat and rolling roads followed by 6km of La Planche des Belles Filles, will now be a focus.
One contender who was poised to strike in the final was Mikel Landa, whose Bahrain McLaren squad controlled the peloton from the bottom of the Col de la Madeleine, some 80km from the line.
They were in charge of proceedings up the Madeleine, down the descent, in the valley and up the Loze until the 4km to go mark. It was surely time for the 'Free Landa' proselytes to rejoice as the Spaniard launched his podium bid.
It didn't come though, and half a stage of hope was extinguished in under 300 metres as De La Cruz took to the front on Pogačar's behalf. Landa was spat out the back of the nine-man group, losing 1:20 to López despite a recovery to finish seventh. "The operation was a success, but the patient died," to quote Shaquille O'Neal.
Landa is still seventh overall, among a small cluster of riders separated by 13 seconds – Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) in fifth and Rigoberto Urán (EF Pro Cycling) in sixth. The latter, who lay third in the morning, was the day's big loser as he dropped 1:59 to López.
After a (very) quiet, but effective, Tour campaign, Urán's chances of a podium spot look slim having dropped from the lead group just before Landa did. He has 1:58 to claw back on López, though a plausible top-five finish would still be a positive outcome after three weeks of work.
Elsewhere, there was no major movement in the top 10. Movistar's lead in the team competition is still strong after Enric Mas' solid sixth place, while evergreen teammate Alejandro Valverde moved up to tenth at the expense of Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), a pity for the Frenchman given he lay in a podium spot mid-race.
All eyes will now be focussed on stages 18 and 20, as the battle for the podium jolts back into life. Five riders are still in contention for some time in the limelight on the Champs-Élysées, where – barring catastrophe – Slovenia will celebrate an unexpected one-two finish.