The sinuous descent of the Cormet de Roseland is not for the faint of heart. Johan Bruyneel – still a few years away from infamy – famously rode off the side of the mountain and into a ravine when the Tour de France passed this way en route to Les Arcs in 1996, on a day that heralded the end of Miguel Indurain's imperial phase.
Tom Dumoulin, the man most likely to put a halt to the current dominance of Team Sky and Chris Froome, went on the offensive and forged clear of the group of favourites in the company of his Sunweb teammate Søren Kragh Andersen on the drop off the Cormet de Roseland on Wednesday.
Moments earlier, Mathias Frank (AG2R La Mondiale) had echoed Bruyneel by riding off the road, but the Sunweb duo were either unaware or unperturbed as they built up a lead of half a minute over Froome, Geraint Thomas et al. The move, Dumoulin explained afterwards, was conceived on the hoof.
"Improvised. Intuition," Dumoulin smiled after he had composed himself past the finish line. "Søren Kragh Andersen, we had him in the break and he’s a madman in the downhills, so I told him to go in front and take it fast, but not risky."
Amid the tumult of an Alpine descent, instructions are open to interpretation. Andersen seemingly felt Dumoulin's orders were delivered with the urgency of Bob Dylan growling at his band at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966: "Play it fucking loud." He duly swooped through the descents and they hit the base of the final climb to La Rosière with a buffer of 34 seconds over the Sky-controlled group of favourites.
"Suddenly we had a gap," Dumoulin said. "He did such an amazing job, I think. The whole team was amazing today. I had a lot of guys with me. Especially compared to yesterday when we were slightly disappointed. Today they were amazing."
Sky's lone challenger
Dumoulin's sense of adventure would not be fully rewarded, however, as Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) caught him and later dropped him to claim stage honours atop La Rosière. The Dutchman had to settle for second place, 20 seconds down alongside Froome. In the overall standings, he is now third overall, 1:44 behind the new yellow jersey Thomas and still 19 seconds down on Froome.
Team Sky may give the disquieting impression of being in a race of their own at this Tour, but Dumoulin nonetheless made a spirited attempt to disrupt their preeminence on the 17km haul to the finish at La Rosière. On the lower slopes, he bridged up to previous escapee Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), before soloing away from the Spaniard and beginning to pick off the remnants of the day's early break.
As Dumoulin pedalled smoothly up the mountainside, never conceding an inch of his lead on the group of favourite, it looked a performance to match his defence of the maglia rosa on the slopes of the Stelvio at last year’s Giro d'Italia.
"I learned to ski in this village when I was a little kid. My uncle rented a big house here and we were there with the whole family and he taught me to ski," Dumoulin said. "This spring, he passed away, just two weeks after my aunt also passed away, so my dad lost his sister and his brother within two weeks. Today I really wanted to perform well for them. I hope I did them proud. It was really special for me to finish in this place."
With a little over 5km remaining, Dumoulin still had his initial advantage of half a minute on the group of favourites, but that lead suddenly crumbled when Thomas accelerated viciously and bridged across the gap with startling facility. Despite Thomas' presence at his shoulder, Dumoulin continued at his previous tempo on the approach to the summit, only for the Welshman to jump past him ahead of the flamme rouge – just as Froome was about to make the juncture.
"Thomas was able manage his energy a bit better," Dumoulin said. "I faded a little bit in the last few kilometres, but I don't think that's any shame. I'm satisfied."
On a day that saw Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet and Vincenzo Nibali all underwhelm, Dumoulin has positioned himself as the man most likely to prevent Team Sky from claiming a sixth Tour in seven years. Suffice to say, he will not want for encouragement when he rides through Dutch corner en route to Alpe d'Huez on Thursday.
"I'll just try to do my best every day," Dumoulin said. "Today I had a good day and maybe I'll pay for it tomorrow. But at least I have today, which I'm very happy with."