Sweaty, tired faces. Rainsoaked, grimy bodies. Mouths jutting open and gasping for breath every time the road steepens. The third straight Alpine stage of the Tour de France, six hours of straight riding, 204 kilometres long, and with five major cols, saw no major changes overall. Chris Froome remains solidly in the lead, and few developments amongst an increasingly exhausted peloton - except that the collective tiredness has settled in a little deeper, and Paris, now just two days away, must seem more appealing than ever.
There were five abandons today, the most for any single stage of the Tour. One team seems almost impervious to this general tendency - Spaniards Movistar, whose Portuguese rider Rui Costa rode through heavy thunderstorms to claim his second stage win in four days and whose talented young Colombian rider, Nairo Quintana, after attacking Froome and Alberto Contador on the Alpe d'Huez on Thursday, remains firmly on line for a podium finish in Paris. All this, aged 23, and in his maiden Tour de France: a rider to watch.
Meanwhile his team-mate and room-mate Costa applied a carbon copy of his tactics on Tuesday, moving into the break of 35 riders that formed early on the stage and then blasting away on the final climb. One fast descent on smooth, rainsoaked roads and another solo victory was in the bag - with the 26-year-old pointing two index fingers at the sky as he crossed the line to underline that this was not the first.
"I wasn't feeling so good as I had done on Tuesday so I had to measure my strength carefully on that last climb," the quietly-spoken Costa said afterwards. One of the most prized riders now with three Tour stages in his career, two victories in the prestigious Tour de Suisse - cycling's fourth biggest stage race - and beginning to invite comparisons with Joaquim Agostinho, Portugal's greatest ever rider, Costa is on the market for a new team in 2013 and although he was cagey about where he will be going, today's victory will have boosted his contract price considerably.
Froome, meanwhile, had a comparatively calm day as the peloton wended its way over two enormous Alpine cols, the 21 kilometre Glandon and 19 kilometre Madeleine. It was not until the race hit the final climb, the 11 kilometre Col de la Croix Fry where both Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team and - predictably - Movistar heightened the pressure at the front of the pack to a near-maximum.
As the rain teemed down and the sky darkened, Froome was isolated - briefly this time - from all his team-mates. But although the leader's group shrunk to perhaps a dozen riders, of the favourites only Movistar's Alejandro Valverde managed briefly to go clear.
AfterValverde was caught, Rodriguez made the briefest of charges forwards, with Froome's yellow jersey hovering close behind - ever the dominating figure of the race, as the Sky rider has been since his first mountain top stage win nearly a fortnight before.
With the stage win already taken by Rui Costa and Porte returning to his side, Froome stayed close to the front of the half-dozen strong group. But although the ever-restless Rodriguez tried a late acceleration towards the line, Froome - albeit so tired he cut down on the time spent in his round of usual press conferences - crossed the line safely. And Paris is now almost within sight.
"I'm really relieved to have this stage behind me, I was quite nervous about it and it was very tough to be there," Froome said afterwards.
"There was more than 4,500 metres of climbing, it was a very hard day and the objective was to remain on the wheels and stay in control."
Asked if he was excited at the prospect of potentially winning the Tour with just one hard day remaining, Froome was guarded. "Having five minutes advantage is a really good position to be in but let's not be too complacent."
"It would be very hard for anybody to take five minutes on me in the last stage, but I will need to stay focussed. One final big effort and then we'll be able to relax a little."
The King of the Mountains jersey is also resting on Froome's shoulders, although his lead is only one point, compared to the five minutes and 11 seconds advantage he has on Contador. Should he do so, he will be just the fourth rider in the Tour's history to manage to take both classifications in a single year. "It would be a nice bonus to win it, but I have to be careful about the yellow first, and make sure I get that," Froome said.
Asked if he was losing any sleep at the prospect of winning the Tour, Froome grinned and said "no problem at all, in fact I'm sleeping like a baby, I'm absolutely dead."
The battle for the podium, then, will now come down to tomorrow's final mountain stage. If Froome remains well out of reach - and with just one difficult, but short, Alpine stage left, it would take a major disaster to dislodge him - the order and names of the riders who will stand beside him in Paris is far from certain.
Just 21 seconds separate Alberto Contador, second overall, from Costa's team-mate Quintana in third place, whilst Contador's team-mate Roman Kreuziger and former World number one Joaquim Rodriguez are also within striking distance of the Paris podium.
Even as the Tour reaches the end of its week-long trek across the Alps and the rain continues to pour down on the race, then, the sparks will continue to fly.Reuse content