Stage 17 offered the first of four consecutive tests between the general classification contenders, and the summit finish of the 184.5-kilometer mountain stage saw the first crack in Bauke Mollema's armor.
Mollema slipped off the pace of his rivals with two kilometers to go on the steep climb, but dug deep and fought his way to the line to maintain his second place overall.
After 16 stages of seemingly unshakable form, stage 17 was the first sight of Mollema struggling on a climb, but over the line, Mollema had controlled the damage: 40 seconds loss to Sky's Chris Froome and Richie Porte (BMC), and 32 seconds to 3rd placed Adam Yates (Orica BikeExchange).
"I did not have such good legs today," admitted Mollema. "I felt it already on the second last climb, and when the attacks started, I couldn't follow. At two kilometers to go, I had to go my own tempo. My positioning wasn't great before that, I knew I should be more towards the front, but you do what you can, and I couldn’t do more at that point. I did not have the legs I had the last weeks. It's a pity, but I just kept fighting until the finish line so as not to lose too much time."
It was a long journey to the base of the two grueling mountain climbs that reared upward with 31 kilometers remaining. While a large breakaway rode out front all day and contested the stage win, Trek-Segafredo positioned around Mollema, protecting him to the mountains. The rouleurs led into the penultimate 13-kilomter uphill before peeling away and leaving the climbers to the rest of the work.
"The plan was to rally around Bauke and not worry about any breakaway that would go," said Stetina. "Our rouleurs kept him protected and hydrated until the climbs and then I just tried to post up behind Froome as long as I could and keep Bauke out of the wind. I was able to make the selection of about 20 guys until Nibali cracked it over the top. I couldn't quite hold it, but Haimar (Zubeldia) was able to hang at the back of the group and support him until it was time for the GC favorites to play.
"At this stage of the race, 17 stages in, every effort you do becomes an accumulative effect. Today, the biggest factor was the heat, but we managed it very well with our cooling techniques and keeping everyone hydrated with lots of water. We are all motivated. At the dinner table, it's fun every night; we have great team spirit. We believe in Bauke."
Despite Mollema suffering a time loss to the GC rivals and Froome increasing his lead in yellow, he defended his second place.
"The first 140 kilometers are quite flat so it's hard to know how you will feel on the climbs, added Mollema. "With the first attacks I needed to take a breather, and I could bridge, but then when they ride away from 2k to go, it sucks. The last climb was really steep, so in the end, it could have been worse. Luckily the damage is not too bad, and I am still second. Let's hope it was just this one day."
"It's normal," pointed out director Kim Andersen, nonchalantly. "You always need to calculate that one day you will win something, another day you will lose something. There are still three hard days. I think we can be quite happy after today. It was a hard stage, and a long, long, long climb..."
He paused, then said: "Yeah. I'm happy. It's okay."