Chris Froome (Team Sky) put the yellow jersey further out of reach, gaining time on all but one of his rivals on stage 17 of the Tour de France. Froome has not given away time to any of the other overall contenders since the opening stage in the Pyrenees and is now 2:27 from his closest competitor.
Sky has been very careful since Froome took hold of the yellow jersey at the end of the first week not to sound overly confident about his position. Speaking to the press at the finish in of stage 17 in Finhaut, Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford admitted that Froome losing the jersey looked unlikely at this stage but remained cautious.
"You don't know. If you look at past behaviours and try to predict future behaviours, you would say actually, the probability of that happening is reducing, however, it's not impossible," he said. "I think the wrong assumption that everything is going to stay the same and that's going to be the order of the finish, but it's not. The fatigue is accumulating all the time, and it's a very violent effort for those guys tomorrow, and that violent effort will have a big impact on those last two days. At this point, it's very risky to assume anything."
Froome and his teammates once again put on a strong collective performance on the 184.5km stage from Berne to Finhaut Emosson. Inside the final 10 kilometres, Froome still had three teammates to protect him, Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels, while most other conteders were left to their own devices. There have been days when the Team Sky train looked to wobble but, ultimately, Froome has not been isolated by his rivals.
Sky's strength has been in their wallet, giving them the ability to secure many riders that would ordinarily be leaders in other teams. Ensuring their riders deliver at exactly the right time is what has set them apart from their competition, according to Brailsford.
"I'm not sure that we're riding above our best, maybe the others aren't quite at their best. That would be my interpretation if I'm honest," Brailsford said. "It's not easy; it's the same for the Olympics in Rio in a couple of weeks' time. The British Cycling team has always managed to up their game and deliver their 'A' game when it really matters, and that's a very important part of managing a team and riders and delivering that. You want your PBs [personal bests] when it matters the most, and that's not easy."
Froome's tighter grip on the yellow jersey seemed nothing of a surprise considering his performances over the past two weeks. What did come as a surprise was Nairo Quintana's failure to make a concerted attack against the yellow jersey. He and his team have been threatening to do it in the third week but after two short digs from Alejandro Valverde, Quintana wasn't able to back it up. He lost almost 30 seconds to Froome and effectively admitted defeat after the stage.
"To be fair to Nairo, and he's a world-class climber, we can see that he's not quite on top of his game here. The questions about why he hasn't attacked, they're a bit harsh, he's a brilliant climber and if he could he would," said Brailsford.
"He's still relatively young, and he's carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders and that sometimes makes it difficult to turn up with your A game. Who knows, he could still bounce back after this stage, and we've got three very difficult days to come. We are where we are now and we'll have to see it day by day into Paris."
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