Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas moved one step closer to winning the Tour de France title as teammate Chris Froome finished eighth in the standings on a 17th stage where Colombia’s Nairo Quintana came victorious, on Wednesday.
Thomas held an overnight lead of 1min 39sec on compatriot Froome, but took it to 2:31 after the four-time champion crossed the finish 1:36 behind winner Quintana and 48 behind Thomas.
Ireland’s Dan Martin (UAE) finished second, 28secs behind Quintana, with Thomas third at 47 and Primoz Roglic (Lotto-Jumbo) in fourth at 52.
Froome’s failure to stay with Thomas in the final few kilometres of the 16 km climb to the finish of the Col du Portet amid a series of attacks by rivals means the Kenyan-born Briton is in danger of finishing off the podium.
Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin, who was also the 2017 Giro d’Italia champion, has moved up to second place, above Froome, but is stil behind Thomas.
Thomas will begin the 18th stage, which is a flat 171 km ride from Trie-sur-Blaise to Pau with a 1:59 lead on Sunweb team leader Dumoulin, with Froome in third.
Friday’s stage 18 is the final day in the mountains, and has a downhill finish in Laruns.
— Le Tour de France (@LeTour) July 25, 2018
UAE Team Emirates rider Dan Martin put in a heroic performance on Stage 17 of the Tour de France although his brave pursuit of a second stage win was just not quite enough as he had to settle for second place behind Movistar’s Nairo Quintana.
It was another top five finish for the team though – a result which sees the Irishman continue his pursuit of a top 10 General Classification (GC) finish.
Martin, who held his nerve among the yellow jersey group for the first half of the race, decided to make his move with less than 12km to go as he pursued the breakaway riders.
Showing true grit and determination, the 31-year-old continued to close the gap on the race leader and eventually secured second place just 28 seconds behind Colombian climbing specialist Quintana.
The race began with an unusual Formula One grid style start, with UAE Team Emirates’ Kristijan Durasek quickly taking his opportunity to be part of the day’s breakaway.
The Croatian performed well and dropped off to make way for team mate Martin who excelled as a solo chaser of Quintana on the third and final climb of the day.
Martin said: “The last two or three days I have felt really good. It’s a really good sign. I planned to go earlier and that’s why we had Kristijan in the break. But it’s okay to say ‘attack early’, but there is so much wind on those early climbs so it wasn’t worth it.
“I had good legs and felt I could do a good last climb. I took advantage of the pace and they let me go and Nairo came with me, and then he attacked me and went so hard but I wanted to settle into my own tempo – it almost turned into a time trial to the top.
“I was trying to keep him at 10 or 15 seconds because at 500m I could usually close that gap, but at this altitude it was tough. He was the better guy on the day, but I was really proud of how the team and I rode today.”
With the result, Martin climbs up to ninth in the GC and sits 6:33” behind the leader, Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who finished third.
After two hard days in the mountains, Stage 18 will give riders some respite, with just two category four climbs featuring on the 171km route from Trie-sur-Baise to Pau.
The sprinters will have an eye on this race, looking to climb the standings and get back into contention, but the peloton will have to manage the breakaway carefully to avoid any major upsets.
While Movistar’s Nairo Quintana won atop the Col du Portet to move back into the top five, Froome lost contact with the main group of contenders around two kilometres before the summit.
As he went backwards, Thomas stuck on the wheels of Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic – who started the day third and fourth overall – before racing clear in the final few hundred metres to take third place on the day behind Irishman Dan Martin.
The Welshman picked up four seconds on the road and four bonus seconds for third. He now leads by one minute and 59 seconds from Team Sunweb’s Dumoulin, with Froome two minutes and 31 seconds back in third.
Froome finished 48 seconds behind Thomas on the day and, as he warmed down on rollers, he sounded ready to put aside his pursuit of a record-equalling fifth Tour crown in order to support his team-mate.
“It was a tough day, an intense day, but I’ve got no regrets,” Froome said. “(Thomas) has ridden such an amazing race, he deserves to be in yellow and fingers crossed he holds it now until Paris.”
Asked about riding in service of Thomas as the defending champion, he added: “That’s professional cycling, that’s what a team is all about.
“I’m happy just to be in the position I’m in. I’ve won the last three Grand Tours I’ve done now. It’s certainly been a tough build-up for me but I’ll still fight for the podium and obviously we want to see (Thomas) up there in yellow.
“I just didn’t have the legs. I think he’s got an almost two-minute lead on Dumoulin which is a pretty comfortable buffer. He looks pretty strong and I imagine he’ll be able to finish it off. We just need to look after him now for these next few days.”
While Froome was dropped in the finale, at one stage it looked like going the other way as he covered a move by LottoNL-Jumbo’s Roglic while Thomas hung back on the wheel of Dumoulin, leaving the Dutchman to close the gap.
Quintana, who started the day more than four minutes back in the General Classification, hauled himself back into the top five with the second Tour stage win of his career.
The Movistar rider attacked close to the foot of the 16km climb as he followed a move launched by UAE Team Emirates rider Martin, though he quickly shook him off and was left to pursue him alone.
Quintana’s victory came despite two early mechanicals on a 65km stage – the shortest road stage in the Tour for over 30 years – that was designed to be explosive from the start.
A Formula One-style grid start turned into something of a damp squib but the final climb appears to have provided one of the decisive moments of the Tour.
Froome was not alone in cracking at the end as AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet and Quintana’s team-mate Mikel Landa also fell away.
Another casualty on the day was world champion Peter Sagan, who crashed on the dangerous descent off the Col de Val Louron-Azet.
Though he rode to the finish, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider was expected to go for scans, putting at risk a sixth green jersey which is mathematically his as long as he makes it to Paris.