Britain’s Geraint Thomas on Wednesday moved a step closer to winning his maiden Tour de France after pushing Team Sky teammate Chris Froome down the standings on the 17th stage won by Colombia’s Nairo Quintana.
Thomas held an overnight lead of 1 minute, 39 seconds on compatriot Froome, but took it to 2 minutes, 31 seconds after the four-time champion crossed the finish line 1 minute, 36 seconds behind Quintana and nearly a minute off Thomas.
Ireland’s Dan Martin of UAE Team Emirates finished second at 28 seconds behind Quintana, with Thomas third at 47 seconds and Slovenian Primoz Roglic of Team LottoNL-Jumbo in fourth at 52 seconds.
Froome’s failure to stay with Thomas in the final few kilometers of the 16km climb to the finish of the Col du Portet amid a series of attacks by rivals means the Kenyan-born Briton is in danger of finishing off the podium.
Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin, champion of last year’s Giro d’Italia, has now moved up to second place, with Roglic up to fourth overall just 16 seconds behind Froome.
Welshman Thomas was to start yesterday’s 18th stage, a mainly flat 171km ride from Trie-sur-Blaise to Pau, with a 1 minute, 59 seconds lead on Team Sunweb leader Dumoulin, with Froome in third.
“It’s unfortunate Froomey lost time, but he’s still up there in the podium [position],” said Thomas, who has taken nothing for granted. “I’m feeling good, but I’m not going to get carried away. I will keep refueling, eating and drinking as best I can and not let any complacency creep in.”
Froome appeared to abdicate his crown when he tipped his hat to Thomas at the finish.
“I’ve won the last three Grand Tours I’ve done now ... but I’m still going to try and fight for the podium and try and obviously keep G up there in yellow,” Froome said.
Quintana said: “I’m happy for the win. It was a day for the pure climbers.
“It’s also great for the morale of the team. It’s been frustrating and sad, because things didn’t work out the way we’d hoped,” he said. “But we have to keep on fighting.”
Tour organizers introduced innovation with the top-20 riders, much like in MotoGP, starting on a grid according to their times in the general classification.
At only 65km long — a nod to the number of the French department featuring the start and finish — and with three punishing climbs, a spectacular day of racing looked to be on the menu.
However, when it came to rival teams trying to loosen Sky’s grip, it was the same old story.
An early breakaway sparked by Estonian Tanel Kangert of Astana Pro Team and King of the Mountains Julian Alaphilippe eventually came to nothing, although the Quick-Step Floors rider picked up 18 precious points for his polka dot jersey.
Quintana overcame two mechanical problems early in the race, when he twice had to chase back to join the peloton.
When Martin attacked at the foot of the final climb, Quintana was quickly on his wheel.
Safe in the knowledge Quintana was unlikely to claw back his overnight deficit of nearly four minutes, Sky let the Colombian go.
They only had to control Dumoulin and Roglic, who launched a series of attacks in the closing kilometers that put Froome in trouble.
When Froome struggled, Thomas said that it gave him wings.
“Obviously I didn’t want him to have a bad day like he did, but it gave me confidence knowing somebody of Froomey’s stature was struggling,” Thomas said.
Quintana, having benefited from the help of teammate Alejandro Valverde after he got into an earlier counterattack, attacked solo with 6.4km remaining.
Martin battled to close the gap, but came up short as the Colombian claimed just his second Tour de France stage five years after winning at Semnoz in the Alps.
The final podium placings are to be decided by a time trial over 31km in the penultimate stage tomorrow.
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