His mobile phone pressed against his ear, Team Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal was only beginning to piece together the full story of stage 19 of the Tour de France as he stepped out of the team car past the finish line above Saint-Gervais.
"I have no idea how he is. It was a really intense day, I think he fell," Portal told the small knot of reporters that tightened around him as he wrapped up his phone call.
In the shadow of Mont Blanc, snowy and serene as ever it was, had come a reminder that the Tour de France is a force of nature, one capable of escaping even the control of Team Sky. For more than a week, Chris Froome has been easing towards final overall victory, but when his wheels slipped from under him 13 kilometres from the end of stage 19, there was suddenly space for doubt.
Unlike at Mont Ventoux a week ago, when Froome was brought down by a television motorbike and compelled to run part of the way up the mountain, he at least had a teammate on hand to furnish him with a replacement bike. Geraint Thomas handed over his machine and pushed his leader on his way, though Froome's yellow jersey was torn and his back bloodied.
"We didn't have television pictures but I know he switched bikes with G [Thomas] because they have more or less the same measurements," Portal said. "We were a long way back with the car. We thought we might have time to get up to Chris and give him a new bike before the final climb, but it wasn't possible so he did the whole climb on G's bike. It wasn't quite the same set-up in terms of handlebars and so on, but he was able to go up the climb on it. I spoke with him on the radio to see if he wanted a change of bike, but it was difficult to communicate."
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was already on the attack up ahead when the yellow jersey fell and en route to stage victory, while Fabio Aru's Astana team was setting a brisk tempo at the head of the shrinking group of favourites, though Froome was able to latch back on as the final haul of Le Bettex began.
As rain fell steadily on the race and dark clouds swept across Mont Blanc, Jan Ullrich's collapse on the road to Les Deux Alpes in 1998 came briefly to mind, but Froome was able to spend much of the final ascent behind his teammate Poels, gazing at the Dutchman's rear wheel as though in a trance sublime and strange. Poels, used to raising and lowering his pace according to the gradient up ahead, was now reading the contours of the yellow jersey's face as a guide.
"My power-meter was not working anymore so I had to go on feeling," Poels said. "I was always looking and I could see a little bit in his face how he was, so I tried to make the pace not too hard but also not too slow. It worked pretty well."
Five kilometres from the summit, Froome made a point of moving towards the front of the group, perhaps as a deterrent as much as anything else, and though Richie Porte (BMC), Fabio Aru (Astana) and Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) all accelerated near the summit, the yellow jersey was never really distanced.
Although Froome conceded a handful of seconds to Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Aru and Martin on the final ramps before the line, he crossed the line with Poels in 9th place on the stage, 36 seconds down on Bardet. Thanks to Bauke Mollema's collapse on the day, however, he even extended his overall lead. Two days from Paris, Froome is 4:11 ahead of Bardet and 4:27 up on Quintana.
"You're always afraid when he crashes, you never know what injury he might have but I think he was ok. He had scratches on his back," Poels said. "I think in the end, if he makes a good night, with the physio and everything, he should be ok for tomorrow. One more day of fighting and hopefully he should be ok."
On the narrow road past the finish line at Saint-Gervais, reporters waited for riders to come home in ones and twos, with each new arrival adding a further detail to the day's story. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) came down in the same incident, but unlike at Saint-Malo a year ago, he placed no blame on Froome's shoulders.
"No, it wasn't Froome's fault. I saw him crash and there was nothing I could do behind," Nibali said. "Everyone was crashing today, the roads were slick and wet, so Froome couldn't avoid it. I'm OK, I just have scrapes down my right side."
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Poels found himself counting his blessings that he had misjudged a roundabout shortly before Froome's crash. "I was a little bit behind because I took a wrong turn on a roundabout and that was maybe lucky, otherwise I could have been on the floor," he said.
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