The sprinters were left empty-handed in Bourg-en-Bresse after the day's break, led home by Kasper Asgreen of Soudal-Quick Step, outfoxed them and won the day by the narrowest of margins.
Green jersey Jasper Philipsen, who led in the bunch sprint, was given the same time as Asgreen, so close was he behind.
Clearly disappointed at having obviously good legs gone to waste, Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) wasn't in a particularly talkative mood at the finish.
Asked whether he thought the day's break would stay away he offered a curt "no".
When pushed, he conceded: "I don't know what the speed was, because I haven't checked the average, but we were riding very fast. They never had more than one minute, they must have had a very good ride."
Even in the final rush to the line – which is often enough to overhaul a tired breakaway that is in sight of the fastmen – Philipsen said he knew they were too far ahead for the catch to be made.
The initial break of three riders, Asgreen, Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Dstny) and Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X) went from the gun. They were joined later by Campenaerts's team-mate Pascal Eenkhorn.
Faultless collaboration between the quartet, plus a lot of hard work by big engine Campenaerts in service of fast-finisher Eenkhorn, helped the break to go all the way to the line.
Despite Philipsen's understandable disappointment, a reminder that he had almost certainly wrapped up the green jersey for Paris seemed to soothe the Belgian though, and he praised his team's riding and said he was looking forward to Sunday. Following stage 18, he leads the points competition by 150 points over Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek).
Philipsen pointed out though, that there was still a big mountain stage to come.
"I felt it a lot yesterday," he said, referencing the huge mountains day to Courchevel, which saw the implosion of Tadej Pogačar's GC ambitions. "So I won't be sure until I cross the line on Saturday."
Fellow sprinter Cees Bol was philosophical in defeat, with the Astana Qazaqstan rider coming in third in the bunch sprint – or sixth overall. It was only the second bona fide bunch sprint since he took over from Mark Cavendish as Astana's main sprinter, and represented by far his best finish of the race.
"It was a bit unfortunate that the three guys stayed away, but I think we also did a good final," he said. "There were two guys that did a better sprint than me, but it gave me some good hope for sure.
"It's disappointing, but what can I do. We decided it was not up to us to pull, and I think it was a good decision, we were not one of the favourites here. It's in the hands of the other teams, and we did everything we could do, maybe even more with how the boys rode, to put me in a good position."
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1