A week from Paris and already there is a sense that the scramble for consolation prizes has begun at the Tour de France. Chris Froome (Sky) safely carried the yellow jersey through the Jura to Culoz on stage 15, a day when attacks on his overall lead were in short supply.
Astana and Fabio Aru did launch an offensive on the twin ascent of the Grand Colombier and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) accelerated on the final climb, but the anticipated onslaught from Nairo Quintana's Movistar squad never materialised.
The team's decision to send Ion Izagirre and Nelson Oliveira up the road in the opening hour seemed a statement of intent, but not for the first time on this Tour, the early break moved too far clear for the Movistar pair to serve as a foil for their leader in the finale.
Alejandro Valverde took it upon himself to track Aru's move on the final climb, but Quintana preferred to stay alongside Froome than launch an assault on the maillot jaune. The Colombian remains 4th on general classification, 2:59 down on Froome.
"I think they've got one eye on team GC, if I'm honest. They had two guys in the break and they were both riding, they weren't waiting, so it's pretty obvious what they were doing," Sky manager Dave Brailsford said of Movistar's approach to the stage.
"Somebody was going to take it up on the final climb and today it was Astana. To be fair, Rosa went pretty hard on the climb, he did a good stint. Aru was obliged to follow it up to attack but it didn't really come to anything. Valverde to his credit went after him. Nairo didn't move again as we saw and neither did anybody else."
The startling collective strength of Froome's Sky guard has been a powerful deterrent on this Tour to date, with Wout Poels and Mikel Nieve – who would crash on the descent, but without injury – taking over from Rosa and dictating terms on the final climb. At one point, Froome even feigned as if to launch an attack of his own, later explaining that he was testing the waters to see who was primed to follow.
"For us it's day by day. We don't need to look to gain time as such. It's a question of managing the situation and keeping control, and we were never out of control today," Brailsford said. "It looked like Chris could have gone but with a flatter final it was good to stay safe with teammates."
After subduing Quintana's acceleration on Mont Ventoux during the week, Poels was once again the most prominent member of Froome's supporting cast on the Lacets du Grand Colombier, where his pace-setting on the front of the dwindling group of favourites was more than sufficient to diffuse any threat to the yellow jersey.
"I expected a few more attacks but we had everything under control and we had good numbers on the front," said Poels. "There were a few little attacks today, not really big attacks but maybe they're saving them for the last week, which is really hard."
The early section of Sunday's stage unfolded precisely how Sky would have wanted – "When a good break goes and you have the whole team in front, you don't need to panic," Poels said – and the Dutchman exuded calm when he took up the reins at the head of the yellow jersey group to peg back the moves on the final climb.
"I just stay at my pace and try to look at how fast they're going and if I can bring them back," he said matter-of-factly. "First you let them attack, then you see how fast they are riding and calculate how to close it."
Froome carries a lead of 1:47 over second-placed Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) into the final week, while Quintana lies just under three minutes off the lead – more or less where he stood at this point a year ago. "Last year, the last week was really hard and Quintana was really strong, especially on Alpe d'Huez, so it was a close one," Poels said. "We've got a really hard week now and but hopefully we continue like this."
Video Highlights - Stage 15
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