Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar will go into the final week of the Tour de France still separated by just 10 seconds after the slopes of Mont Blanc failed to find any difference between the leading duo.
Wout Poels, the 35-year-old veteran of 10 Tours, took his first career stage win in Saint-Gervais some six minutes before Vingegaard and Pogacar crossed the line shoulder to shoulder, with Pogacar’s latest attempt to distance the yellow jersey coming to nought.
Poels – who helped Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal to Tour titles while with Team Sky and the Ineos Grenadiers – was the last survivor of a big breakaway that went clear after a crash caused by a spectator reshaped the 179km stage 15 from Les Gets.
But as the Dutchman crossed the line, all eyes were further down the mountain. Pogacar was guided towards the summit by team-mate Adam Yates but then gradually let the Lancastrian’s wheel go, seemingly unable to follow as Vingegaard stayed in his shadow.
The easing of pace allowed Saturday’s stage winner Carlos Rodriguez to ride back to the pair, with Vingegaard moving on to the young Spaniard’s wheel.
Pogacar was planning one more attack, but as the Slovenian burst forward just after the flamme rouge, he could not shake Vingegaard, with the Jumbo-Visma rider drawing up alongside on the final bend to ensure he will start Tuesday’s time trial in yellow.
“I tried to attack but I could see that Jonas was feeling super good today so I didn’t waste too much energy,” Pogacar said. “There are still three decisive days but I’m sure it will be very, very tight.”
With Jai Hindley having faded inside the last five kilometres, Rodriguez strengthened his grip on third place, with Yates moving up to fourth ahead of Monday’s rest day.
Asked if he had planned to drop Pogacar on the climb, Yates said: “Not really. We had a few issues with the radio. But I’m still high on (general classification) and if Tadej lets me go then Jumbo-Visma have to chase, so it’s kind of still in our favour.
“Today was unexpected, but these things add up over the three weeks.”
The peloton had been closely following a series of breakaway attempts in the early part of the stage but, when a young spectator in the road was struck by Vingegaard’s team-mate Sepp Kuss 50km in, around a dozen riders went down, slowing the main group and allowing almost 40 riders to get away.
“There was a narrowing in the town and a spectator in the road, and I guess he just clipped my handlebars,” said Kuss, his elbow heavily bandaged. “Luckily I’m OK and hopefully the other guys in the crash are all right. It’s not ideal.
“I think it’s fatigue. It’s been such a hard race and everybody is a bit tired, you lose a bit of alertness and there’s always things out of your control as well.”
Poels’ victory is a second of the race for the Bahrain-Victorious team, who came to this Tour still mourning the death of Gino Mader at the Tour de Suisse last month.
“I always dreamed to win a stage in the Tour and especially with what has happened in the team in the last few weeks with Gino, all of the emotions come,” Poels said.
“I’ve won a Monument, I’ve won a stage in the Tour and I’m super happy. I only started to believe in the last kilometre and I had to just keep fighting.
“I really enjoyed my period with Sky – four times I was in the winning team and it was really incredible to do, but I could never fight for a stage win and to finally do it today is great.”