Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) not only survived his first day in the yellow jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but gave another demonstration of his strength on the final climb to La Rosiére to fill his rivals with pessimism ahead of the final day.
The 110km stage 6 from Frontenex to La Rosière was replete with danger, one of those short but highly mountainous affairs that have blown races apart in the recent past. In what was a Tour de France dress rehearsal, the riders went over the Montée de Bisanne, the Col du Pré and the Cormet de Roselend before taking on the final climb to the ski resort of La Rosière – the exact route that will feature on stage 11 of the Tour next month.
Despite Sky losing their maillot jaune predecessors, Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon, under aggression from Romain Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale team, Thomas safely negotiated his way to the final climb, where he, Bardet, Dan Martin, and Adam Yates established themselves as the strongest riders in the race.
While the breakaway's Pello Bilbao (Astana) was up the road claiming stage honours, Thomas kicked away in the final few hundred metres to land a psychological blow – if only a couple of tangible seconds – on his rivals.
"It was certainly tough when AG2R took the race on and made it really hard, hats off to them for that," Thomas said in his yellow-jersey press conference in La Rosière.
"We were always just in control – there was always [Jonathan] Castroviejo or Tao [Geoghegan Hart] there. I think that's our strength in the team – if we have one or two guys who don't feel so good then we have others who step up. I was really fortunate to have two strong guys with me all the team, and I think we were more or less in control the whole time but they certainly tested us."
Remembering the 2016 Tour de France
While Saturday's stage took the riders over the roads they'll be racing on at the Tour next month, Sunday's final stage goes the other way and revisits the scene of one of the most memorable stages of the 2016 Tour.
The Bettex climb, at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, is where Romain Bardet, having attacked on the descent from Mégève to Domancy, took stage victory and hauled himself onto the final podium. Further down the road there was a mini crisis moment for Chris Froome, who slipped out in the driving rain.
"I remember the stage really well," said Thomas, and with good reason; he was temporarily left stranded as Froome took his bike and finished the stage on it.
"I can't remember the name of the descent but Froome crashed on one of hairpins with Nibali, and he needed a bike. I gave him mine, but the team car just drove straight past me and I had to run 100 metres down the road to get a new bike. It was a similar size but the chain rings were completely different."
Only the Cormet de Roselend – from the other side – the Col de Saisies, and that memorable descent and ascent of the Bettex, then, stand between Thomas and overall victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, which would arguably go down as the biggest achievement of his road career.
Such is the strength Thomas has shown over the past three days in the mountains, not to mention to collective might of his Team, the yellow jersey looks secure on his shoulders. He leads the race by 1:29 over Yates, with Bardet at 2:01 and Martin at 2:30.
AG2R La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu even suggested that Bardet is now racing for second place, but Thomas was keen not to get ahead of himself.
"I'm not taking anything for granted. I haven’t really been thinking of the overall – well, I have been thinking of the overall, but I haven’t been thinking about winning, I’ve just sort of been taking each day as it comes, and not getting carried away," he said.
"I'm obviously really close to the victory now but I'm not going to get carried away. Hopefully the team can stay strong together tomorrow and try to finish the job. For sure we're in a really good position. But you just never know, it’s been a really hard week of racing, so I’m taking nothing for granted."