An ashen-faced Tom Dumoulin leant against a barrier atop the Col du Portet after stage 17 of the Tour de France, sitting quietly in the eye of the multi-lingual storm of television crews jostling for position around him. A Team Sunweb soigneur made entreaties for more space, and eventually, the ring loosened sufficiently to allow him to slot Dumoulin's bike into a turbo trainer in the centre.
After a moment's pause, Dumoulin rose gingerly to his feet and sat astride the bike, at which point the scrimmage began all over again, microphones now brandished like lightsabers as English- and Dutch-speaking crews vied for priority to ask their questions. While the debate was being settled, Dumoulin started pedalling gently to begin the recovery process. The shortest road stage of the Tour had also been its toughest.
"I was thinking, 'pain' and that's pretty much it," Dumoulin smiled when asked his thoughts when he attacked the fragmenting yellow jersey group two kilometres from the finish.
Although Dumoulin was unable to shake off yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), his effort helped to ensure that Chris Froome (Team Sky) was irretrievably distanced. Dumoulin reached the summit in fifth, 52 seconds behind stage winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and just behind Thomas and Roglic.
"The first attempt of Roglic in the final, I saw that Froome was in difficulty, but I didn't know if it was bluff or not, so I waited a bit with my own attack, and then I went," Dumoulin said. "I tried, but I didn't have the legs to drop Thomas and Roglic. And at the end, I was happy I could stay with Roglic actually. Thomas was just the strongest."
Thomas had the strength to track Dumoulin and Roglic's accelerations in the finale on the Col du Portet, and the Welshman somehow conjured up the freshness to leave them standing in the last 200 metres, snaring another five seconds to buttress his overall lead. Although Dumoulin moves ahead of Froome and into second place in the general classification, he now trails the seemingly impregnable Thomas by 1:59.
Thomas and Froome
At the Giro d'Italia in May, the quality of Dumoulin's performance arguably outstripped his winning ride in 2017, but Froome's improbable 80km solo raid on the Finestre saw him reach Rome in second place overall. The Dutchman was circumspect about whether Froome – whose salbutamol case was abruptly dropped by the UCI on the eve of the race – could conjure up something similar here.
"Of course [Froome can still win the Tour], but it's going to be really difficult especially because his teammate is in yellow and Thomas is definitely so far the strongest in the Tour," Dumoulin said. "I don't quickly see that happening, Froome winning the Tour. Like you saw in the Giro, anything is possible in the last days. It's going to be difficult. But I'm focused on myself and not on Froome. I'm not here to make Froome lose the Tour, I'm here to win it myself or do the podium."
To this point on the Tour, Dumoulin has dealt markedly better with the travails of attempting the Giro-Tour double than Froome. "It could be that Froome also did last year's Tour, and Vuelta, and Giro, so maybe it's all a bit too much," Dumoulin said, and then checked himself: "But I'm not here to talk about Froome, actually, you can ask him yourself."
At the Grand Départ in the Vendée, Dumoulin would have gladly signed to be 31 seconds clear of Froome after the Tour's final summit finish, but he now appears to have his path to the yellow jersey blocked by a rider who has never finished higher than 15th overall in a Grand Tour. It must be a maddening business, racing against Team Sky.
Indeed, with just one mountain stage to come, as well as Saturday's time trial in the Basque Country, Dumoulin is perhaps glancing over his shoulder as much as he is scanning for Thomas' vulnerabilities. Roglic, fourth at 2:47, lingers with considerable intent, while Quintana's solo raid on Wednesday's 65km stage has lifted him to fifth in the standings.
"Roglic is definitely very strong and also Quintana did the whole climb by himself and still - I don't know how much of an advantage he had. One minute? Well, he's at a strong level then…" said Dumoulin, who adopted a pragmatic line when asked if he can follow Jan Janssen and Joop Zoetemelk in the annals as a Dutch Tour winner.
"I always keep a little bit of faith and a little bit of hope, but so far over the last two weeks, Thomas has been the strongest, he has proven the strongest. And that's the situation now," Dumoulin said. "For me, so far, it's impossible to get time on him, and that's it."