Chris Froome handed the Team Sky leadership to Geraint Thomas after watching the Welshman extend his lead in the Tour de France on stage 17.
The defending champion came to France looking for a record-equalling fifth Tour crown and a rare Giro-Tour double, but after fading in the final two kilometres on Wednesday, Froome said he was all in for Thomas.
“It was a tough day, an intense day, but I’ve got no regrets,” Froome said. “’G’ has ridden such an amazing race, he deserves to be in yellow and fingers crossed he holds it now until Paris.”
A short 65km stage from Bagneres-du-Luchon to the summit of the Col du Portet was designed to be explosive from the start, but despite the best efforts of an innovative F1-style grid start, it did not come to life until the final climb.
While Nairo Quintana won the stage ahead of Irishman Dan Martin, Thomas asserted his dominance in the fight for yellow as he left behind Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic in the final few hundred metres, picking up four seconds on the road and four seconds in bonus time.
Thomas now leads by one minute and 59 seconds from Team Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin, with Froome falling to third, two minutes and 31 seconds down after conceding another 48 seconds.
He may be the defending champion, but Froome will now be riding in service of Thomas for the rest of the Tour.
“That’s professional cycling, that’s what a team is all about,” he said. “I’m happy just to be in the position I’m in. I’ve won the last three Grand Tours I’ve done now. It’s certainly been a tough build-up for me but I’ll still fight for the podium and obviously we want to see G up there in yellow.”
If there was any doubt that Froome is on side, Thomas revealed he had told him via team radio that he was struggling, giving Thomas licence to follow Dumoulin and Roglic.
“Froomey said on the radio maybe with four or five km to go that he wasn’t feeling super and that gave me confidence,” Thomas said. “Because if Froomey was suffering, everyone was suffering. And I was feeling good.
“Obviously I didn’t want him to have a bad day, like he did. It just gave me confidence that someone of his stature was struggling.”
No danger then of this being a repeat of the uneasy relationship between Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins during the latter’s victory in the 2012 Tour.
“We’ve just been open and honest with each other from the start,” Thomas said. “Maybe it’s hard to believe sometimes after things with him and Brad. But we genuinely are good mates and honest and open. I think that’s the main reason for our success so far at this Tour.”
Froome’s bad day got worse after the stage, when he was knocked off his bike in a misunderstanding with a police officer, who had thought he was a fan trying to ride the course as he returned to the team bus.
As you can see in the video below, Froome was understandably angry at the policeman's mistake.
Pictures also emerged which suggested Thomas’ late dash for third place was almost thwarted by a spectator who reached over the barriers to try to grab him.
Dumoulin had tried an attack of his own late in the climb but the Dutchman, who like Froome has the Giro d’Italia in his legs, admitted he could not keep up.
“Thomas was stronger than I was and I have to deal with that,” he said.
“I saw Froome was in difficulty but I didn’t know if it was a bluff so I waited a bit with my attack. I went and I tried but I didn’t have the legs to drop Thomas and Roglic.”
Quintana took the stage victory despite suffering two early mechanical problems, and the win saw him haul himself back up the general classification, now three minutes 30 seconds back in fifth place.
The Movistar rider attacked close to the foot of the 16km climb as he followed a move launched by Martin, although he quickly shook off the UAE Team Emirates rider who was left to pursue him alone.
Froome was not alone in cracking at the end as AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet and Quintana’s team-mate Mikel Landa also fell away.
Another casualty on the day was world champion Peter Sagan, who crashed on the dangerous descent off the Col de Val Louron-Azet.
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider described the incident in typically colourful fashion before confirming his intention to race on, needing only to make it to Paris now to confirm a sixth career green jersey.
“I flew in to the forest and I hit a big rock with my arse,” the Slovakian said. “For sure I’m injured but it could be worse.”