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From well before the Tour’s first pedal-stroke, stage 17 was circled in calendars around the world as the one to watch. With 3,000m of climbing packed into just 65km, it was the race’s shortest road stage in more than two decades – but it was brutality rather than brevity that would ultimately define it. Add in the novel grid start, the question marks hovering over the Team Sky leadership, and the almost audible tick of time running out for the other GC contenders to make their mark on the race, and the stage was set for one of the most dramatic days of racing this year.
There were – as there tend to be – winners and losers. Movistar’s much-touted strength in numbers finally worked out, with Alejandro Valverde slipping into an early break and Nairo Quintana breaking free of the Sky-controlled pack of favourites to join him, and then soar off to a stage win and what felt like a long-overdue reaffirmation of his early promise at this race. Lotto NL-Jumbo, who’ve quietly worked both Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk into the top six, were up there too, with Roglic moving closer to the podium thanks to another attacking ride. Romain Bardet, meanwhile, will leave the French waiting a little longer for a homegrown winner – he looked rough from early on the final climb, and lost 2.35 by the summit. And as for Team Sky? Snakes and ladders. Geraint Thomas strengthened his grip on yellow, whilst Chris Froome had a rare moment of vulnerability and lost 1.35, boosting Tom Dumoulin into second overall.
With four stages remaining – including another Pyrenean mountain stage and a tricky time trial – the final outcome of the race is far from assured. Through the billowing clouds at the top of the Col du Portet, though, it felt like it was starting to slide a little more into focus.