Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) had ridden into Tour de France contention as something of a dark horse. The impulsive Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) was the obvious rider to launch a direct assault on Chris Froome's yellow jersey, but the Colombian was riding an assured, if quiet, race and looked as strong as anyone.
Criticised subtly rather than openly by Bardet for his reluctance to attack after the first of the two Alpine stages of this final week, Urán hinted that he would strike out on the Col d'Izoard and show his full hand.
"Today is an important day if I want to win this Tour. It will be difficult but today, I believe, is the day I have to try something," he said in Briançon this morning.
The attacks, however, never materialised. Bardet and Froome (Team Sky) both rolled the dice, but the Cannondale-Drapac rider simply followed, even if his shutting a dangerous acceleration from Froome inside the final 2km showed he had zip in the legs. It must be pointed out, though, that he was the only other GC rider capable of following, as the trio established themselves as the strongest men in the race.
"We knew it could be complicated, and attacking Sky with the tempo they were setting - it's difficult to attack a team like that," Urán told reporters just beyond the finish line on the Col d'Izoard.
Urán lost two seconds in the final push for the line and with it, second place, as Bardet, tied on time at the start of the day, added another four bonus seconds for second place.
"The important thing was to be up there. I lost a couple of seconds there at the end, but then the rhythm was pretty high, and it was a hard stage, you could feel it. I think it went pretty well. It was more or less what we were hoping to do," he said.
Urán, like Bardet, must now hope for a minor miracle in the penultimate-day time trial, with Froome clearly the strongest of the three against the clock.
Unlike Bardet, however, Urán has been known to put in a decent time trial, his victory on the long and rolling Giro d'Italia course of 2014 being his standout performance. He would need to put 30 seconds into Froome over the 22.5km course to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, while he needs seven seconds on Bardet to take second place.
"The time trial is important. Obviously, we know who we have in front of us, but it's a time trial that comes after 20 pretty tiring stages, so we'll see how it goes," he said.
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