Chris Froome put in another stunning display at the Tour de France but it was hard to know if a thrilling stage nine had strengthened or weakened his challenge for this year’s crown.
Froome rode brilliantly to fend off a series of attacks from his rivals and retain the yellow jersey, but the fact he had to do it alone after all his team-mates were dropped before the summit of the day’s first climb raised serious questions about his support staff with 12 stages of the race still to go.
Where the famed Sky train had been so dominant a day earlier on the road to Ax 3 Domaines, it was derailed early yesterday to leave Froome to face four of the five categorised climbs alone.
Exposed at the front, he was the subject of several attacks - with Movistar’s Nairo Quintana kicking out four times in the space of two kilometres on the final climb of the category one Hourquette d’Ancizan - but covered all of them and did not lose a second on his rivals Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador.
He came home 20 seconds behind Dan Martin, the first Irishman to win a Tour stage since his uncle Stephen Roche in 1992, but having lost plenty of support.
Richie Porte had been second overall at the start of the day, but the Tasmanian tanked and wound up losing more than 17 minutes.
Peter Kennaugh, meanwhile, was sidetracked in more spectacular fashion as he was sent tumbling down the hillside following a collision with Ryder Hesjedal.
And Vasili Kiryienka, who had helped Porte and Kennaugh deliver Froome to that stage eight victory, had the worst day of all as he was collected by the broom wagon.
“Saturday was one of our best days,” said team principal Sir Dave Brailsford. “Sunday was one of our tough days.
“The plan was to try and defend the jersey. The other teams attacked very early, made it very difficult.
“We lost Pete, a key man down. Richie had a bad day... it was not the way we’d have liked to do it, but retaining the jersey was the thing.”
After being dropped by the pace set by Valverde’s Movistar team on that opening climb, Porte tried to get back on during the third climb midway through the stage, but Movistar got the message and re-upped the pace at the front.
“It was an amazing stage,” Porte said. “Full credit to Valverde. He attacked so early and it takes a fair set of swingers to do that.
“This was probably the worst day I have had on a bike all season.”
Despite being isolated, Froome kept his cool and answered every question posed by those around him all the way to the finish.
“I was prepared for it in the final climb, I thought this is where they were going to put me under pressure,” Froome said.
“I felt quite within myself on that last climb but they did go for me.”
But no matter how strong he looked there is no question Froome has been weakened by Porte’s struggles, Kennaugh’s tumble and Kiryienka’s exit.
Twenty-four hours after everyone was keen to tell him Froome was already certain of victory, Brailsford was calm.
“Everyone was saying: That’s it, pulling long faces, game over and lets go and watch the tennis,” he said.
“That’s why this sport and this race is so brilliant.”