Julian Alaphilippe said he is "ready for the Alps" as his Tour de France rivals looks to crank up the pressure with just the three mountain stages standing between the Frenchman and the general classification title.
Alaphilippe maintained his overall lead on Wednesday after the 200-kilometre run to Gap on Stage 17, which was won by Italian Matteo Trentin.
The Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider holds a one minute, 35-second advantage over defending champion Geraint Thomas, with four more challengers two minutes, two seconds behind as the Tour goes into three huge Alpine stages in one of the most open races in years.
In the yellow jersey for a 13th day, the world No 1 looked relaxed after the balmy run from the Camargue into the town of Gap, surrounded by the daunting mountain peaks which lie in wait for the peloton.
"It was a peaceful day, it did me good, we reserved energy in this dreadful heat," said Alaphilippe, the 27-year-old former soldier. "I'm ready for the Alps.
"But I need to detach myself from all this going on around me. My legs are tired, but in my mind I have never felt better."
Alaphilippe also highlighted his role as leader by solving a physical spat between Ineos rider Luke Rowe and Jumbo-Visma's Tony Martin, who visibly rode into the Welshman at the head of a climb.
"Everyone wanted to be in the right position," said Alaphilippe. "But there were a couple of guys getting nervous, physical about it. They thought I might attack I guess so I went over and told them to calm it."
Rowe smirked but did not react to Martin's move after jostling on the way up the type of climb where Alaphilippe has frequently left everyone trailing with his trademark push on this Tour. Alaphilippe is aiming to become the first French winner of the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Rivals have been predicting local hero Alaphilippe would crack under pressure since he took the overall lead but Thomas' co-captain Egan Bernal, lying in fifth overall, was unsure.
"We all said he'd lose the lead in the Pyrenees, but here we are with just three stages remaining and he's still there," said Team Ineos' Colombian rider.
"Hats off to him, he's the one in the lead and he looks strong. But at last we are in the Alps," said climb specialist Bernal, the youngest man in the race.
The victory for Trentin, 29, came after he surged forward alone from a mass breakaway 20 minutes ahead of the main pack, and is a fourth win on the 2019 Tour for the Mitchelton-Scott team after Simon Yates' double and Daryl Impey's victory.
"It's never easy, I was sitting there studying everyone, when it kicked off I just stayed calm in the attacks and I made the move at the right time just ahead of the climb, which won the race," said Trentin, who now has three stage wins on the Tour de France. "All wins are nice, but I have been chasing this one for a while."
The heatwave was a worry at the first century Roman aquaduct Pont du Gard where the stage started, with hundreds of fans seeking refuge from the searing conditions by splashing around in the Gardon river.
But Trentin, Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet and six other previous Tour stage winners led a group of 33 riders in a burning pace covering the first 100km in two hours.
"Sure it was warm," said Trentin. "But we were wearing ice packs and drinking a great deal of water, and when the rain came it cooled us down."