Primoz Roglic strengthened his grip on the yellow jersey after an intriguing battle on the Col de la Loze as Miguel Angel Lopez rode onto the virtual podium by becoming the ninth rider to pick up a maiden win in this year's Tour de France with victory in Stage 17.
A pulsating conclusion to the 170km Alpine test saw Slovenia's Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) ride clear of compatriot Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) in pursuit of Astana's Lopez, the Colombian lone ranger, ahead of a final kilometre of brutal double-digit ramps.
The Tour's first ascent of the steep and narrow Col de la Loze bike path above the ski resort of Meribel lived up to its billing as the queen stage as fans flocked to the summit of the highest point of the Tour and the riders delivered the drama in spades.
Watch the amazing last kilometre as Lopez beats Roglic on eye-watering gradients of Col de la Loze
Lopez held on for the win in front of French President Emmanuel Macron with Roglic weathering Pogacar's fevered chase to come home 15 seconds down and extend his lead on his compatriot to 57 seconds ahead of the final day in the Alps.
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Victory for Lopez saw the 26-year-old ride into third place in the general classification, 1'26" down on Roglic, while Pogacar, the double stage winner who came home 30 seconds down, took some consolation in moving into the lead of the polka dot jersey standings.
Fourth over the line at the 2,304-metre finish was the American Sepp Kuss, who had ridden clear of the leaders with two kilometres remaining only to sit up and wait for his Jumbo-Visma leader as Lopez made his decisive move.
A solid fifth place for Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) saw the Australian veteran rise to fourth place in the standings ahead of Britain's Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who stayed in fifth after coming home alongside Spain's Mikel Landa and behind another Spaniard, Enric Mas of Movistar.
Emotional Lopez soaks in 'special day' after winning Stage 17 on Col de la Loze
Landa's Bahrain-Merida team set out their stall early, riding to the front en masse to set a hefty tempo on the Col de la Madeleine to all but thwart the chances of the day's five-man break before whittling down the main pack on the start of the final 21.5km climb.
But as the road narrowed and the gradient worsened above the ski resort of Meribel, Landa was unable to repay his team with the attack the world craved but which nobody, deep down, really expected.
Instead, Jumbo-Visma were able to control matters with their power in numbers, as Kuss, Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert all put in a big shift before the eventual fireworks spelled the end for the last remaining escapee, Ecuador's Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers, with 3km to go.
With all eyes on the man in white, it wasn't Pogacar, the Tour's best young rider, who made the first move, but Lopez, the diminutive rider in baby blue, who attacked in a moment of indecision after Kuss had ridden clear on one of the numerous flat steps ahead of the last, seemingly interminable slog towards the summit.
The searing attack that won Lopez the stage on Col de la Loze
As the storm clouds gathered, Roglic dropped Pogacar in his pursuit of Lopez and a potential second stage win. The 21-year-old yo-yoed behind, at one point almost closing the gap despite having to ward off the gathering fans with his arms.
With the finish in sight, Pogacar put in a last-ditch attempt to draw level with Roglic and reignite the battle for yellow, but as the gradient kicked up to 20% the elastic finally snapped. And so, the advantage swings further towards the 30-year-old Roglic, who extends his cushion to almost a minute ahead of the final day in the Alps and Saturday's decisive time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Familiar faces on the front
Once again, the start of a mountain stage gave way to the subplot of the green jersey as Ireland's Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was alert to the constant pressure from his rivals Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Matteo Trentin (CCC Team).
The moves came thick and fast, most notably a dangerous-looking dig from Thomas De Gendt. The Belgian breakaway specialist from Lotto Soudal looked up to his old tricks, but his slender gap was easy pickings for a large chase group which formed in the first hour.
As the road headed uphill on a seven-kilometre uncategorised climb, this move was neutralised before five riders managed to zip clear following an acceleration from Stage 2 winner Julian Alaphlippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep.
The Frenchman was joined by Spain's Gorka Izagirre (Astana) and Ireland's Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), while the top two riders from Tuesday's Stage 16 – Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Carapaz – got in on the act, the latter hoping to give Ineos Grenadiers something to shout about following the earlier withdrawal of defending champion Egan Bernal.
Alaphilippe led the break through the intermediate sprint with a minute over lone pursuer Daryl Impey. The Mitchelton-Scott rider soon sat up for the peloton after Bennett managed to extend his lead over Sagan by another two points when QuickStep teammate Michael Morkov expertly led him out for sixth place ahead of the Slovakian and Trentin.
With this green jersey distraction out of the way, the focus shifted to the battle for polka dots and the stage as the break's advantage swelled to six minutes ahead of the Col de la Madeleine.
Trailing Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2R-La Mondiale) by nine points in the king of the mountains competition, German youngster Kämna clearly had his eyes on the polka dot jersey as well a second stage win on the bounce.
But his previous day's efforts caught up with the 24-year-old and Kämna was quickly distanced by his fellow escapees on the HC climb of the Madeleine – being used for the 27th time in Tour history, but for the first time from a secondary southern approach used during August's Dauphiné.
Landa's Bahrain-McLaren came to the front of the pack to set an infernal tempo and reduce the lead of the four escapees to under two minutes going over the summit of the 17km climb.
It was Carapaz who took the maximum points over the top to move within touching distance of Frenchman Cosnefroy's long-standing lead in the KOM standings – only for Pogacar to zip clear of the pack to take fifth place and a virtual eight-point lead.
Martin was dropped by the leaders on the descent and caught by the Bahrain-led pack ahead of the false flat run towards the foot of the final climb, with the trio's lead creeping back up to 2'30" after Alaphilippe put on a ferocious display of downhill dexterity.
Despite Bahrain's success in whittling down the pack, yellow jersey Roglic still had five Jumbo teammates ahead of the highest climb of the 2020 Tour – another demonstration of their dominance in the 107th edition of the race.
Wout Poels, Pello Bilbao and Damiano Caruso did a sterling effort for Landa, but the Basque climber was unable to follow through when the torch paper was finally lit entering the last five kilometres.
At this point, Carapaz was the only remaining man out ahead, the Ecuadorian extending his lead to 45 seconds after almost being caught when Izagirre followed Alaphilippe's sinking trajectory.
An initial increase in tempo from Pogacar's UAE teammate David de la Cruz ended the chances of Landa and Uran, while Yates clung on with Mas as Lopez rode clear with Kuss, Porte and the two Slovenians.
Jumbo-Visma's super domestique Kuss on how he supported Roglic
Lopez's first attack was enough to end the battling Carapaz's hopes of a maiden Tour stage win with 3.5km to go. When Kuss then unexpectedly opened up a gap, Lopez put in his second, stinging acceleration to set up his win and let his pursuers play out their own private battle for yellow behind.
It was a battle which Roglic won, the ice-cool yellow jersey extending his lead after his young rival showed the first signs of tiring during this year's Tour. His points over the summit also saw Roglic cut Pogacar's lead in the polka dot jersey standings to three points in a thrilling counter narrative to their epic duel.
This Slovenian rivalry will continue on Thursday with the final part of the Alpine tryptic, the 175km Stage 18 from Meribel to La Roche-sur-Foron, a tough stage featuring four categorised climb ahead of the HC Plateau de Glieres and a downhill run to the finish.
Roglic is looking very comfortable in yellow but this race is far from over.