Chris Froome (Team Sky) stopped just shy of officially announcing that his Tour de France challenge was over but made it clear that on stage 17 he hadn't the power nor the legs to stay with the yellow jersey and teammate Geraint Thomas when the Welshman accelerated away with key rivals Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Thomas finished third on the Col du Portet, 47 seconds behind stage winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) but put time into both Roglic and Dumoulin to add a few extra seconds to his lead. Froome was ushered to the line by teammate Egan Bernal at 1:35 and dropped to third overall at 2:31 behind Thomas.
The defending champion now has Dumoulin ahead of him and Roglic breathing down his neck in fourth, and while one cannot write off Froome after his astonishing ride at the Giro d'Italia in May, it is unlikely that he will ride into Paris to claim a fifth Tout title this July.
"It was a very intense day, but I've got no regrets," Froome told the media as he warmed down on the rollers. "Geraint has ridden such an amazing race, and he deserves to be in yellow – and, fingers crossed, he holds it now until Paris."
When asked how it felt to be in a position where he would now be helping Thomas, the four-time Tour winner responded graciously.
"That's professional cycling. That's what a team is all about. I'm happy just to be in this position," Froome said. "I've won the last three Grand Tours I've done now, so it's certainly been a tough build-up for me, but I'm still going to try and fight for the podium and try and obviously keep Geraint up there in yellow. I just didn't have the legs in the final."
Thomas' 1:59 lead over Dumoulin is certainly strong, but it is not impregnable even at this late stage in the race. The Welshman has never gone this deep into a Grand Tour with a jersey on his back, while the Dutchman, albeit having come into the race after a tough Giro, knows how to close out a Grand Tour.
"I think he's got almost ... what is it? A two-minute lead on Dumoulin? Which is, I think, a pretty comfortable buffer," Froome added. "He looks really strong, so I imagine he'll be able to finish it off. We've just got to try and look after him now, these next few days.
"Yeah, like I've said, I've won the last three Grand Tours now and Geraint has ridden an absolutely faultless race this year, so he fully deserves to be in the yellow jersey and fingers crossed he finishes it off and gets the job done to Paris."
What advice would you give Geraint about the position he's in now, asked one journalist.
"I don't think he needs any," Froome said. "I think he's doing just fine."
After the stage, Froome was involved in an incident involving a French police officer. According to Team Sky, the officer assumed that Froome was a spectator as he descended the final climb with the team bus waiting towards the bottom.
The police officer tried to block the Team Sky rider and caused Froome to fall. There were no injuries, and after a brief conversation in which the officer and Froome exchanged words - possibly agreeing that the rider was in the right and the officer was in the wrong - Froome was able to mount his bike and ride to the team bus.