The Pyrenean summit of Hautacam was realistically the last-chance saloon for two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) to take the fight to race leader Jonas Vingegaard (Jumboo-Visma) for the maillot jaune.
After four hours of racing, however, the Slovenian's dreams of standing atop the final podium in Paris were extinguished as Vingegaard not only resisted a volley of attacks during stage 18 but rode away to the finish alone, extending his GC lead to 3:26.
Vingegaard, who went into the stage with a comfortable 2:18 lead following his dispatching of Pogačar on the Col de Granon last week, parried five attacks from the 23-year-old over the penultimate climb of the Col de Spandelles.
He then survived a tricky descent in which he narrowly avoided a crash, while Pogačar wasn't so lucky, and then rode away with 4.5km to go on Hautacam following an incredible turn on the front by Wout van Aert which dropped his main yellow jersey rival.
The seconds ticked up as the final kilometres of the climb passed by, before Vingegaard eventually crossed the line 1:04 up on Pogačar, the 2022 Tour de France title all but guaranteed. Speaking after the stage, Vingegaard profusely thanked his Jumbo-Visma team, who carried out another "masterpiece" to rival the display put on up the Granon.
"It's a good way of saying it. It's a masterpiece like the jersey we have," Vingegaard said. "I think the whole team was strong today. We had two guys in the break. They were all incredible. I have to thank my team so much today and this victory is because of them.
"You see Wout dropping Tadej Pogačar in the end. Sepp Kuss was incredible. Tiesj [Benoot], Christophe [Laporte], Nathan [Van Hooydonck], they were all incredible. Thanks so much to my teammates. I could never have done this without them.
"Today and the Granon stage are two really good examples of how strong this team are. I'm having the best rider in the world Wout van Aert as a helper. Not only Wout, but everybody was incredibly strong, so I have to thank my team so many times for this win."
Vingegaard fended off numerous attacks from Pogačar on the stage, following on from the offensives the Slovenian had put on during previous stages to the Alpe d'Huez, Mende, Foix, and Peyragudes.
Since taking yellow eight days ago, however, Vingegaard has never looked particularly uncomfortable in defending his lead, matching Pogačar's every move – aside from the brief moment he was caught out shortly after leaving Saint-Étienne to start stage 14.
There was a moment of drama, too, on the descent from the Spandelles, as Vingegaard just about kept control of his bike coming around a corner. Moments later, Pogačar, his only companion on the way down, overcooked a corner and slid out on a gravel patch.
Vingegaard duly waited, the pair still intact after their brushes with disaster, and the remainder of the race down into the valley was taken a little easier.
"I dropped my chain, then I tried to pedal," Vingegaard said of his mishap. "Of course, you don't have friction on the chain and my back wheel slipped. It was a bit of a scare for me, but I was able to make it back to Tadej and I'm happy about that.
"I think Tadej went a bit too quick into one corner and he missed it a bit and then he was out in the ditch with some gravel and then tried to get back on the road. That was unfortunate for Tadej but, of course, I waited for him."
Defence turns into attack on Hautacam
The scares came moments after what would turn out to be the last of Pogačar's attacks on the day – and likely the entire Tour.
Only one of them had hinted at a chance of separation, though each of the five – attempted from between 7km from the top of the Spandelles to the final metres of the first-category climb – saw Vingegaard straight on the white jersey's wheel.
After Granon, he never needed to do anything other than follow Pogačar's wheel, time after time after time. On Hautacam, he went up the road for the first time, though only after Pogačar had cracked once more.
"Of course, it's different to attack than to defend," Vingegaard said. "So, it is a different mentality. Defending you try to go in the wheel and attacking you try to drop everyone in the wheel.
"I don't think I needed to attack him," he added. "I think it was better to hold a steady pace, which we also did. Then they said in the radio they think Tadej is on the limit. Wout gave everything he had and Tadej dropped.
"I think I may have tried to attack later on because I may also have had that feeling on the last climb. But I didn't have to attack him."
It was green jersey champion-elect Van Aert who cracked Pogačar for a second time this Tour, the Belgian pulling a stint on the front that had to be seen to be believed. Pogačar had had enough, and all that was left was for Vingegaard to jump away to claim a second stage victory of the race.
Such was Van Aert's strength on the stage – having attacked at kilometre zero, made the break, led the race over the Spandelles, and then cracked Pogačar on Hautacam – that Vingegaard was asked whether there could be a team leadership rivalry between the pair in future.
"I think you have to ask [Jumbo-Visma DS] Merijn Zeeman about that," Vingegaard joked. "Wout is of course one of the best riders in the world on all terrains. But I don't think there'll be any problems because I don't think Wout has the ambitions to go for GC.
"If he has, we can share the leadership. I shared it this year with Primož [Roglič] and I think in the end it's actually better to go with two leaders."
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