Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) doesn't have the pedigree of a Tour de France podium finisher, nor does he have the build of a pure climber, but the Slovenian claimed victory on the race's final Pyrenean stage to make a significant down payment on a place in the top three in Paris.
Friday's trek from Lourdes to Laruns by way of the Col d'Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Col d'Aubisque all but confirmed that this Tour will have a surprise winner in the shape of Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), and the Welshman looks likely to be flanked on the Champs-Élysées by a man who only took up cycling at the age of 22 after a previous existence as a junior world champion ski jumper. It's been a curious sort of a Tour.
Already winner of the Tour of the Basque Country and Tour de Romandie this season, Roglic showcased his prodigious strength once again on the Aubisque, where he pummelled the yellow jersey group with his forcing as though he were working a punch bag. The offensive continued on the sweeping, mist-shrouded descent, and 10km from home, he slipped away alone into the gloom, never to be seen again.
Roglic reached Laruns 19 seconds clear of Thomas and the rest of the GC contenders, but while he was being feted on the podium, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) was lamenting how the Slovenian had benefited from the slipstream of the television motorbike to forge clear on the way down the Aubisque.
"I don't think so. It's hard to comment – I don't have influence on that," Roglic said. "We all have the same possibility to go down in first place, and I was not on the moto. I didn't notice anything unusual."
Dumoulin had been careful to note that his ire was not directed at Roglic, whom he described as the strongest rider on the day, but at the television motorbike's positioning and the advantage he felt the Slovenian had inadvertently gained from it. The influence of motorbikes on the race was an issue already raised by Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) following stage 15.
"Like I said, I don't think I got some advantage from it," said Roglic, whose raw power was matched by considerable technical ability on the sweeping corners of the Aubisque.
"I know going downhill that if you get some little gap, it's hard to close it. When I saw that I got a gap I pushed really hard. When I heard I had 10 seconds or something with 5k to go, I tried to time trial to the end and it was worth it."
Podium on the cards
Roglic's solo victory has seen him leapfrog Chris Froome (Team Sky) in the overall standings, and he will set out in Saturday's time trial to Espelette in third place overall, 2:24 behind Thomas. The 28-year-old now has a buffer of 13 seconds over Froome, while he trails the world time trial champion Dumoulin by just 19 seconds.
Asked if he had attacked on the Aubisque with the intention of trying to put Thomas into difficulty and perhaps even win the Tour itself, Roglic played a straight bat. "I didn't really think about it," he said. "It was a very hard day. I thought everybody was really tired and I had to go and fight for it. In the end it worked out and I'm really happy."
The stage was animated by a break led by Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) on the Col du Tourmalet, with some 100km still to race, but neither Roglic nor his teammate Steven Kruijswijk opted to join the offensive. Instead, they delegated Robert Gesink to help Team Sky control the move ahead of the final haul towards the Aubisque. Roglic downplayed the idea that it had been a mistake to come to Sky's aid.
"It's hard to say. In the end, it finished well for us, so we also don't mind it," Roglic said. "All the team was doing really good and did their job and it was nice to see it and I'm happy I could finish it at the end."
Kruijswijk moved up to 5th overall in the Tour on Friday thanks to Nairo Quintana's collapse on the final ascent. The Dutchman began the race as LottoNL-Jumbo's nominal leader, but Roglic insisted that the pair had complemented rather than clashed with one another.
"It's only my third Grand Tour and my second Tour, and he has a lot more experience. We are working really well together and it's just really good if you have strong guys," Roglic said. "At the end this is always really welcome."
As the Tour reaches its final major rendezvous with Saturday's time trial in the Basque Country, the only remaining suspense lies in the three-way battle between Roglic, Dumoulin and Froome for the final two podium places. On Friday's evidence, Roglic will be favoured to maintain or better his current position.
"I'm not bothered about Tom Dumoulin or Chris Froome, I'm just bothered about myself. That's the only thing I can manage," Roglic said. "I'll focus on myself. I'll do my best and as long as I'm proud and happy about it, it doesn't matter which number is in front of my name."