Out of his customary yellow garb, wearing goggles and a billowing, unmarked rain jacket as he descended toward the team bus Wednesday evening after Stage 17 of the Tour de France, four-time champion Chris Froome apparently looked like a rogue cyclo-tourist to the police officer stationed near the finish line at Saint-Lary-Soulan.
Froome swerved and crashed when the officer tried to stop him. The case of mistaken identity was cleared up and Froome, uninjured, continued on his way. It was an odd moment, but not the oddest of the day for those who watched the stage. That came when Froome suddenly and definitively looked vulnerable on the steep ascent of the Col du Portet. It was a sight unaccustomed enough that Dutch star Tom Dumoulin, who would soon pass the Briton in the standings for second place, momentarily wondered if he was bluffing.
The 40-mile course -- shortest for a road stage in 30 years -- and its precipitous climbs and treacherous descents shaped a bike race that was as serious it gets, and delivered the answer everyone had been waiting on. For the first time in a year, the man in bib No. 1 was not the strongest rider in a three-week Grand Tour. Team Sky, Froome included, will consolidate behind overall leader Geraint Thomas now in a scenario that few imagined at the start of the Tour, as long as both men stayed upright.
"We've just got to try and look after him now, these next few days,'' Froome said in a brief concession speech of sorts to reporters at the summit.
He said he had no regrets. Thomas deserves the win, he added.
The torch was officially passed -- for this race, anyway -- with about three miles to go, when Froome spoke up on the team radio and said he wasn't feeling tip-top. He had successfully covered the first attack on Thomas on the finishing climb, but couldn't follow the subsequent surges and changes of pace. There was nothing left to speculation, as hadn't been the case back in 2012 when Froome seemed to be in better form than eventual winner Bradley Wiggins, but subjugated his own ambitions.
"We've just been open and honest with each other from the start," Thomas told reporters afterwards. "Maybe it's hard to believe sometimes after the situation with him and Brad. But we generally are good mates, and we're honest and open and I think that is the main reason for success for the team.''
Froome lost almost a minute to Thomas and is now in third place, sandwiched between the two men with the best chance of cracking Sky's hegemony, Dumoulin (Sunweb), who is 1:59 behind Thomas, and Slovenia's Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), who trails Froome by just 16 seconds. Without the assistance of 21-year-old Colombian talent Egan Bernal, who will surely be a team leader at Sky or somewhere else in the not-distant future, Froome would have slid further back.
In some ways, the presumptive winner of Sky's two-man lottery should surprise no one. Froome has won the past three Grand Tours in France, Spain and Italy, and his legs were going to wobble at some point. (Needless to say, he is still in the top percentile of the top percentile of riders.) And then there's the unquantifiable effect of the polemic that ensued after news leaked last December that Froome was being investigated for testing over the allowed threshold of an asthma medication.
It has led to constant questioning and considerable roadside hostility, even though the lengthy and tortured path of his case has more to do with dysfunctions within anti-doping than with Froome himself, who assembled the same defense any prominent athlete would -- with all the resources that could be brought to bear. He did not get official clearance to race the Tour until a week before. One of the constants about Froome over the years has been his implacability, speaking softly and staying in the saddle. But the stress has to have had an effect.
Unless Thomas goes to pieces, Froome's post-stage comments seemed to obviate the chance that he'd blast off on a Hail Mary breakaway as he did to come from behind in the Giro d'Italia this spring. The last bit of intrigue left is how much he'll do in Thomas' service and how much that work will affect his chances to finish in the top three.
Thursday's flatter stage won't affect the overall standings, but Friday's includes a ton of climbing and a downhill finish where Sky's rivals may take some risks. Colombia's Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who won Stage 17 on a course that suited his explosive style, moved up to fifth at 3:30 shy of Thomas. He could try a last-ditch move of his own, as he knows he won't be able to bridge up to the podium in Saturday's individual time trial.
If the gaps remain the same going into Saturday, Froome will have to be at his best to stay within striking distance of Dumoulin and fend off Roglic, the time-trial gold and silver medalists respectively in the 2017 world championships -- in which Froome finished third. Lowered over his bike alone, grinding away in a discipline he has deliberately worked to improve, Froome should be unmistakable. It likely won't be a decisive day for him as it has been in the past, but rather a chance to show that he intends to stick around.