The final days of the Tour de France have always been about the haves and the have nots. After two and a half weeks of accumulated fatigue, some riders retain their vim better than others, and prosper accordingly. Those running on fumes tend to suffer. It is, after all, an endurance event.
On Wednesday's tough summit finish at Finhaut-Emosson, Chris Froome (Sky) certainly seemed to be drawing on deeper reservoirs of energy than most of his rivals for the yellow jersey. When Richie Porte (BMC) attacked as the road steepened in the final two kilometres, only Froome could bridge across, while Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) were distanced.
Froome crossed the line alongside Porte to add another handful of seconds to his overall advantage – he now leads Mollema by 2:27, while the fourth-placed Quintana trails by 3:27 – but Tours are not won by working the clock alone: breaking the morale of rivals is a useful part of a yellow jersey's armoury, too.
It must certainly have been dispiriting for Quintana, the man expected to mount the most serious challenge, to find that Froome's domestique Wout Poels, having controlled the yellow jersey group most of the way up the final climb, was still strong enough to manage the race when the flurry of attacks began in the closing kilometres.
The depth of the Sky team has been a constant since the squad began its remarkable sequence of Tour success in 2012, but its superiority this year has been particularly striking, with Poels, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao, Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve providing Froome with a level of support simply unavailable to others.
"I think one of the big differences with our team, when I compare it to other teams, is that all eight teammates of mine are focused on one goal. If you look at other teams, they've got a sprinter, they've got two GC riders, they're trying to put guys in the break for stages," Froome said after the finish on Wednesday. "There's a lot of different things happening but I've got eight guys, nine including me, dedicated to one goal and that makes a big difference."
In recent years, the Grand Tours, much like football's Champions League, has increasingly become the preserve of a select group of big budget teams, who at times seem to be engaged in a competition all of their own. The Big Four of Sky, Astana, Movistar and Tinkoff have won 11 of the past 12 Grand Tours, with Froome set to make it 12 from 13 this week, and it is striking to note how many riders have moved between those four elite teams in recent seasons.
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Asked if he would be able to aspire to winning the Tour if he were riding for the Pro Continental outfit Fortuneo-Vital Concept, Froome expressed bemusement at what he felt was "a bit of a random question" though his response was frank.
"If I was riding for a small team it would be very different, I'd probably have a very different objective. I'd probably be looking to try and get in the break every day. It's a good opportunity to win stages," Froome said.
As to whether one of the 'have nots' could ever hope to compete against the might of a Team Sky, Froome said: "If they had a good GC rider, then maybe."
Even the most formidable team is only as strong as its leader, however, and while Froome has not yet soloed clear on a mountaintop as he did en route to victory in 2013 and 2015, at no point in this Tour has he seemed under particular duress.
Froome moved promptly across to track his former teammate Porte's punchy attack on the final ramps of the climb, but opted not to come past the Tasmanian and followed him to the line, perhaps with one eye already to Thursday's stiff uphill time trial to Megeve.
"I don't think it was really possible to go much faster there," Froome said. "Richie seemed to be doing just fine there. Really tactically for me, there was no real need to get on the front and start pulling in the final. This is the first day in a four-day block and tomorrow is going to be critical."
Tour de France stage 17 highlights video
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