Chris Froome is closing in on a third Tour de France title after extending his lead in the yellow jersey while Russian Ilnur Zakarin won stage 17 to Finhaut-Emosson.
As Zakarin was celebrating his first Tour stage victory from the day’s breakaway, Froome latched on to Richie Porte’s late attack to ride clear of his rivals and build a cushion of almost two-and-a-half minutes.
Dutchman Bauke Mollema was the first to be distanced as his second place overall came under attack from Orica-BikeExchange’s Adam Yates, but most encouraging for Team Sky will have been the sight of Nairo Quintana being unable to respond as others broke free.
The Movistar rider has usually come good in the third week of Grand Tours and threatened Froome’s lead late in last year’s Tour, but does not seem to have the legs to rival him and appeared to wave the white flag after dropping to three minutes 27 seconds off the pace in fourth place.
“I still have a lot of years,” Quintana said. “I am 26, and there are a lot of people ahead of me who have more experience. I still have a lot of years ahead of me to fight for the ‘yellow jersey dream’. I didn’t have a great [day] today. I expected more because I had good sensations, but my body didn’t feel good in the end. I did the best I could.”
With this being Colombian National Day, the stage had been set for Quintana to show his colours, but he was visibly struggling as Froome and Porte rode away.
At the end of this 184.5km stage from Berne, Froome now leads Trek-Segafredo’s Mollema by two minutes and 27 seconds after the Dutchman gave up 40 seconds on the climb to the Emosson Dam.
Third-placed Yates has seen his chances of a podium finish in Paris enhanced after the 23-year-old moved to within 26 seconds of Mollema and extended his advantage over Quintana to 34 seconds.
Froome was guided up the final climb by team-mates Sergio Henao, Wout Poels and Mikel Nieve but after they had gradually peeled off, there was the familiar sight of the yellow jersey following Porte. The Australian left Team Sky for BMC in the winter but helped Froome distance his rivals while also moving himself up one spot to sixth overall.
“It did bring back a few memories,” Froome said of attacking with his long-time training partner. “It was nice to ride with an old team-mate again but this time he was putting me under pressure, I was just staying on his wheel.”
For Froome it was a near perfect set-up as he was pulled up the hill without having to do a turn on the front himself ahead of today’s short time trial.
“Tomorrow is going to be crucial and this is the first day of a four-day block [in the Alps],” added Froome
Zakarin rode clear of stage 15 winner Jarlinson Pantano of IAM Cycling and Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka on the last of the four categorised climbs to collect his first Tour de France stage win.
The Katusha rider was the only Russian to start the Tour, and his victory came just two days after an explosive report on state-directed cheating in the country. Zakarin, who served a two-year doping ban after testing positive aged 19 in 2009, said he had not paid much attention as he focuses on the Tour. “For me it is already quite a stressful time [being in the Tour],” he said. “I am not following the news.”