Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) knows better than most that a Grand Tour is not over until the final stage but the Dutchman remains confident of his podium prospects after coming through the weekend battles in the Pyrenees lying third overall at the Tour de France.
Kruijswijk and his Jumbo-Visma team animated the race on the Tourmalet and again on the stage to Foix, with the 32-year-old's consistency coming to the fore. He was unable to match the power and pizazz of Thibaut Pinot but Kruijswijk put time into several key rivals thanks to his climbing and before that a solid sixth place in the time trial in Pau on stage 13.
With the final week and three punishing stages in the Alps still to come, Kruijswijk is 1:47 behind current race leader Julian Alaphilippe, but only 12 seconds down on last year's Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. Stage 14 winner Pinot is on the march but less than 40 seconds currently separate second and sixth on GC.
"I just wanted to try and get some time," Kruijswijk said at the finish of stage 15 after finishing in a group of three that included Thomas and Alejandro Valverde.
"You never know. One day the others might be better but one day I might be better. You have to take it day-by-day. The Tour isn't finished until Paris."
Jumbo-Visma played a crucial role in splitting the group of main contenders on the Tourmalet but on stage 15 they took on a different role as they looked to chase down a dangerous move from Mikel Landa. The Dutch team were not as explosive as they were on stage 14 but Kruijswijk still has one of the strongest squads at his disposal in this year's race.
"I have a lot of trust in my teammates and them in me. We felt like we could try again. I'm looking forward to the rest-day. The podium is still on the horizon. I lost some seconds but the Tour isn't over."
A few hundred metres away, and as Kruijswijk wrapped himself up in several layers of clothing atop Sunday's summit finish his director Frans Maassen disclosed that the team would have taken this position on GC had it been offered at the start of the race in Brussels. The Jumbo-Visma camp are quietly confident that Kruijswijk can come into his own in the final week when fatigue could be the deciding factor between the podium contenders.
"It's all close, very close between the favourites," Maassen told Cyclingnews.
"Everything can go up or down and we just don't know. The team did a good job and we took responsibility after the attack from Landa. We didn't want to give him too much, he's a good rider and in the end it was all the big stars against each other.
"I think a lot of teams will breathe a sigh of relief after seeing Alaphilippe start to lose time. At the moment it looks as though Pinot is the strongest but everything can change in one moment. Who is the favouirte? Pinot maybe but Steven is really good and he can also surprise. If you said in Brussels that Steven would be in this position at this point in the race then we would have taken it. We had a really strong first week and hope to have a strong final week."
George Bennett, who once again worked tirelessly for his leader on the final climb echoed Maassen's words concerning the stage, the slender margins between candidates and the growing threat from Pinot.
"I think we took it up a bit early, I was already riding full gas before the climb even started. In an ideal world, I'd be saved until the end where it really made the difference. I guess Landa was dangerous and we were the only team that had any real numbers there so I think everyone was going to look to us. I feel that it would've maybe been a bit better to play a bit of poker and let some other teams come and chip in but in the end, we took it up and once we started, we couldn't stop. I think I just had to go for it quite early and coming into the last climb and in the end, it worked out well. Steve took a bit of time off of Alaphilippe but it sounds like Pinot took some time too, he's going to be dangerous on the last three days for sure.
"I don't [we felt the effects of yesterday], I think we all had really good days but just probably didn't look as impressive because we were working 30 kilometres before the finish as opposed to the last few kilometres. Power-wise, I think we were just as good, Landa really forced our hand I guess.
"I think it was still a good day actually, I haven't got the full run down yet but if Pinot got one minute back then that's not ideal. I don't know who the biggest threat is. If Pinot comes back strong, or we still need to crack Alaphilippe, I've been saying the whole time this last week will be up to Steve."
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