A dramatic final day of racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné saw all three of the podium positions change as Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) pulled off a famous victory over Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Daniel Martin (QuickStep Floors), with Chris Froome (Team Sky) narrowly missing out on the podium by just one second.
The 115-kilometre stage from Albertville to Plateau de Solaison had everything, with four major climbs crammed into the parcours and several virtual lead changes as the GC favourites forgot all about the chatter of Tour de France preparation and fought a desperate, nail-biting battle for the yellow jersey.
There were several subplots along the way, not least the battle between overnight race leader, Porte, and his former teammate and the defending Tour champion, Froome.
Despite not racing on the same team for almost two years, the pair remain closely linked on and off the bike, and as the Tour de France looms on the horizon every word, every act of body language is pored over. The fact that the gap between them in terms of form has never been so narrow only adds to the drama.
Sunday's stage saw Astana's Fuglsang and Fabio Aru deliver a masterful display of team tactics, with the Dane taking a well-deserved stage and overall win, but Froome played his part too. He came into the final stage second overall, the closest challenger to Porte, and despite claiming on Saturday evening that the Australian had the race all but sewn up, he attacked on each of the first three ascents. The first two moves isolated Porte from his teammates and the Australian appeared content to mark Froome when a dangerous group, including Fuglsang, broke free on the penultimate ascent of the Col de la Colombière.
Porte limited the damage at first with Froome glued to his wheel but after sharing a brief conversation, Froome attacked and left Porte with just one kilometre of the climb remaining – just as BMC riders were working their way back to their leader.
"I can't remember what I said at that point. Everyone knew that it was going to be an aggressive day of racing and for us, well we weren't here to protect second place. We were here for the win. We put all our cards on the table and I think that's exactly what we did as a team. Even though it didn't pay off, I think that we've got to be happy with that."
On the descent, Froome linked up with a group containing Dan Martin, Alberto Contador and Fuglsang, and it was the Sky rider who set the pace for the first half of the final climb as Porte toiled alone a minute in arrears.
"At one point, I was close to being in the virtual yellow jersey but I think I'd done so much work earlier on to try and set up that situation that when I got to the final climb I didn't have so much left for that final climb," Froome said.
When Martin, and then Fuglsang jumped clear, Froome had no answer and Porte caught and passed his former leader before the line. Throughout the final ascent Porte cut an isolated figure, but he never cracked – sign of his commanding form – and only missed out on the overall win courtesy of the bonus seconds Fulgsang picked up for his second stage win of the race.
Sizing up Porte
When Froome was asked about the Australian's lonely plight at the finish, his response was as well-thought out as Froome answers tend to be, but between the lines one could see that the master was pointing out that the former disciple still had much to learn about the pressure of leading a race.
"I've been in that situation myself a lot of times," Froome said. "That's when the weight of having the yellow jersey really falls on your shoulders. It feels as though the whole world is out to get you. That's bike racing.
"I was here to try and race for the win, and not defend second. If I was here to defend second place I would have been a lot more conservative and just followed Jakob and Aru. That wasn't the plan. I wanted to try and race for the win and that's what we tried to do as a team. It didn't pay off but I came here looking for a hard week of racing. I only had 19 days of racing before the Dauphiné and hopefully that will move me on now."
When asked by Cyclingnews if he now had the psychological edge over Porte, after halting his momentum ahead of July, Froome played a straight bat at first before – and for the first time this year – stating his opinion that the BMC rider was the favourite for the Tour de France.
"I don't think so," he said when asked about holding the edge over Porte mentally. "I'd still say that Richie was far and above the strongest man in the race. He did get caught out tactically, his team did get caught out tactically today, but I still say that he's the favourite for July and the strongest rider in the peloton at the moment."
Were BMC Racing caught out tactically or did they lack the depth to defend Porte's lead?
"Good question, you'd have to ask them. I don't know what their tactics were."
The Tour de France is just three weeks away and it's starting to show.
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