Chris Froome (Team Sky) savoured his moment in the yellow jersey on the podium at the breathtaking summit of the Col d'Izoard, knowing that his controlled performance on the final mountain finish leaves only Saturday's Marseille time trial separating him from a fourth overall victory at the Tour de France.
Froome refuted every suggestion that he had a fourth victory stitched up; he was cautious but also quietly confident after neutralising all the attacks on the 14.1km climb to the summit of the Col d'Izoard and even putting in one dig of his own.
Key rival Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) had tried an attack and kicked away at the finish to snatch the four-second time bonus for third place on the stage, but it was far too little for the Frenchman to think he can still win the Tour de France. Froome leads Bardet by 23 seconds, while Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) slipped to third overall at 29 seconds after finishing just behind.
The Briton coughed as he spoke about the important stage, but it was more from his huge effort at altitude than any sign of illness or weakness. He seemed fresher than in the final stages of his three previous Tour de France victories.
"It was very, very hard stage with the climb to the finish. I have to congratulate Warren Barguil on his win. I'm happy with today. My teammates did a very good job in the finale to control the break. I tried to drop Uran and Bardet, but it was virtually impossible today," Froome said.
"They've both ridden a very impressive race up until now. Romain Bardet taking the bonus seconds today, he can be pretty happy with that. There's still everything to race for. If everything goes well, I fancy my chances against the other guys in the time trial, but it's still very close.
"The top three are all within 30 seconds. Rigo seems to be the biggest threat for the time trial, but there are still two days of racing, so anything can happen. We've still got do everything to stay safe up front and get this jersey to Paris."
Froome couldn't see Paris from the Alpine summit but was hugely relieved to have made it through the fifth and final mountain range of this Tour de France. The Alps, especially when they come in the final week of the Tour de France, have often caused him problems. He was not able to gain time on his rivals this year, but he also avoided losing time, thanks to his form and to the consistently strong work of his Team Sky teammates.
"I'm happy to have got through the Alps this year without a problem. They've always been more difficult for me," Froome admitted.
"It's great having the numbers there to control things and having that card to play with Mikel Landa. I tried to give it a dig behind, and I thought that I had a gap, but it looks like Rigoberto Uran brought it back."
Landa: a podium contender and a future rival
Froome sent Landa on the attack 4.5km from the summit to force Bardet and Uran to chase. He then attacked with 2.5km to go, opening a gap just before the descent into the Casse Deserte. He got up to Landa, but Uran and Bardet quickly got on his wheel.
"I wanted to move before that descent (in to the Casse Deserte). I'm not sure if it was the right time, but you have to take risks in bike racing. It was a good moment to go. If Rigo hadn't responded I might have got away," Froome suggested.
"Landa is a bit of threat to other GC guys. He was threatening to them, so it's great to throw that card in the final."
Landa lost time in the final kilometre, finishing 12 seconds down. However, with Fabio Aru (Astana) losing more time, he moved up to fourth overall at 1:36. The Basque rider could still finish on the podium in Paris if he performs well in the time trial. This year Landa is a vital teammate for Froome. He is expected to move to Movistar for 2018, and Froome suggested that he could one day challenge for the overall victory at the Tour de France.
"He's come up through the race remarkably well and been there for me when I needed help. I'm extremely grateful for that," Froome said. "He showed his ability today on such a tough finish. He rode for me and set tempo. That showed he's got the engine to ride with the best in the world. He could come back to the Tour de France to challenge for victory."
No regrets before the time trial
Team Sky will have to control Froome's overall rivals during Friday's 222.5km stage to Salon-en-Provence, then it will be up to Froome to seal overall victory in Saturday's 22.5km time trial in Marseille. He has yet to win a stage, but that is a very minor problem with a fourth overall win within in reach.
"For sure it would have been nice to win today on the most iconic stage, but the first goal is to focus on yellow. If I get to Paris in yellow I'll have no regrets about this Tour," he pointed out.
"Now I'll do my best to try to win the time trial and ride for the jersey. I've already seen the time trial course. It's a very fast 22km course. I'll do my maximum for sure. If the time trial goes like the one in Dusseldorf, then I have the upper hand on the other guys, but it's still every close and anything could happen," Froome warned.