The setting for the finish of stage 12 of the Tour de France, a vertiginous altiport runway in Peyragudes, proved to be as apposite as it was breathtaking. Part of the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, was shot here, and that message of hope rang out as Chris Froome (Team Sky) slipped out of the maillot jaune and the Tour was turned on its head.
Hope, of course, for Froome's rivals – Fabio Aru (Astana) now leads the race, while Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) won the stage and is poised in third place at 25 seconds – but also hope for spectacle, hope for something different.
For the 214 kilometres that preceded that vicious drag to the line, the first of two stages in the Pyrenees followed a script most of us can reel off by heart. It was essentially one long Sky lead-out train, with Luke Rowe and Christian Knees leading the race over the Col de Menté before the climbers peeled off one-by-one over the Porte de Balés and the final hike to Peyragudes via the Col de Peyresourde.
With so little suspense or excitement all day – only the briefest of early attacks from Alberto Contador caused ripples in the press room – Froome’s disintegration in the final couple of hundred metres came as quite a shock. Rarely has he looked as uncomfortable as he did here, losing an alarming amount of ground in such a short space of time, and slipping to second overall at six seconds.
The three-time champion, divested of the yellow jersey and therefore the need to hang around at anti-doping or the media mixed zone, pedalled his way up to the Team Sky bus, where a huge scrum of reporters had gathered. When he stepped off the bus to sit down on a chair to answer questions, the ensuing surge was such that he stood up again and went to his turbo trainer to warm down instead.
Ten minutes later, he came over to the waiting media, and they didn't make the same mistake twice.
"It was certainly a tough day for me in the final. The team did such an amazing job for me all day, but I didn't have the legs at the end to finish it off," Froome said.
"Simple as that. No excuses. I just didn't have the legs on the final kick. It was brutal, with ramps of over 20 per cent. That's a really hard finish."
Froome has in the past declined to speak to the press after unsettling incidents – Mont Ventoux last year, for example – but here he was happy to front up with his customary politeness, even if he trotted out the same replies for each of the three camera huddles he was asked to appear before.
"I can only say congratulations to Romain Bardet for winning the stage and also to Fabio Aru for taking the yellow jersey," he said.
"The race is certainly on now. There's a long way to go in the race, and it's going to be a real fight all the way to Paris."
This Tour de France does indeed now have a decidedly different complexion. Before today, Froome had only lost the yellow jersey once, and never to a GC rival. Despite that brief loan to Tony Martin in 2015, all three of his victories have seen him grab the maillot jaune in the first half of the race and carry it all the way to Paris.
Now, though, the Sky train will have to be parked. Froome will have to take the race on. His rivals will smell blood.
"Yes and no," was Team Sky DS Nicolas Portal's reply when asked if his team's usually impregnable confidence had now slipped. "This is what happens in sport. You cannot always have your plan come off exactly as you want it to.
"It's always disappointing to lose the yellow jersey, and to lose time, especially like this. But it's just six seconds, it's not the end of the world, it's still tight. It's what we expected – ASO making the race quite open.
"If we need to see the positive, it's that we're not going to ride tomorrow, and it's a pretty hard one, 100km, it's going to be fast."
Indeed, Friday's outing from Saint-Girons to Foix packs three first-category ascents into just 101km. While Thursday's marathon of more than 200 kilometres was a race of attrition, Friday is ambush territory, with compact mountain stages producing some of the most thrilling racing we've seen in recent years.
There's a sense that anything can happen on such days, and – thanks to one stupidly steep mountainside runway – before the flag even drops and the fury begins, there's once again a sense that anything can happen in this Tour de France.
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