Bauke Mollema feared the short, intense stage 15 that passed through the Jura Mountains, not a big mountain stage where vast time differences were expected, but a day when everything could be lost.
In the end, Mollema looked comfortable on all climbs, notably the final eight-kilometer ascent where a few attacks made life unpleasant - downright difficult for some - and passed safely through the technical descent to maintain his second place overall.
"It was a hard day today, but I was never in any problem, so it was a good day for me," explained Mollema. "For two or three kilometers it was really steep, and Sky did a good pace on the climb, especially after the attacks from Aru and Valverde. Then the last two kilometers of the climb were not so hard anymore. Froome and Quintana almost crashed at the top, it was a bit tricky, especially in the descent."
The short 160km stage from Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz offered six categorized climbs and barely a single meter of flat roads. Haimar Zubeldia jumped into a large 30-man breakaway that formed on the first climb of the day, and with the significant lead granted to the escape group, they fought out the stage win. Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling) took the honors in a two-up sprint.
Zubeldia lost contact to the leaders of the breakaway on the longest climb of the day, the Grand Colombier, and when he knew the win was out of grasp, he settled into an easier pace to wait for Mollema.
"It was a plan to go into a breakaway for a chance at the stage win and to help Bauke," said Zubeldia. "I did not have a chance for the win, so then I went easy on the last climb to recover and wait for Bauke because if he had trouble on the downhill, I would be there and able to help. When his group caught up to me, I asked him if I should pull the last kilometers. I was thinking I should because I knew Van Garderen was dropped and he is one of the contenders."
Team Sky set a fast pace on the final climb, the category-one Lacets du Grand Colombier, and the expected fireworks never materialized; only Fabio Aru (Astana), Alexandro Valverde (Movistar) and later Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) flexed their muscles, all to no avail.
The group caught Zubeldia on the flat run-in to the line, and Zubeldia, after a short discussion with Mollema, pulled the select group to the last meters. Mollema crossed with his GC rivals, less Tejay van Garderen (BMC), who arrived almost a minute and a half in arrears.
Mollema: "I think van Garderen lost some time today, and that is one guy less for the classification, so that is good. The rest of the guys looked pretty good. Aru attacked in the climb but never got away, Bardet attacked and went really fast again in the descent, but I was there and never in problems today.
"To beat Froome will be really hard, he is the big favorite, and I think that he needs a bad day for that. Hopefully, I can have these legs in the last four days in the Alps and then we will see. One day less until Paris now."
Lacets du Grand Colombier climb.
It is uncharted territory for Mollema, who has never been in contention for the podium at the Tour de France, a 6th place in 2013 his best finish. With the Alps looming, including a decisive uphill time trial, today was about playing a vigilant game.
"It was not easy, but there were no major attacks, we expected more," commented director Kim Andersen. "It was quite okay, and with Haimar Zubeldia in the front, all was good for us today. I know you should always go for the win, but I think we are quite happy where we are for the moment."