Both Thomas (Team Ineos) and Fuglsang (Astana) hit the deck in separate incidents during the sweltering 173km stage in the south of France. But while Thomas was able to get back and ride on with nothing more than a bit of road rash, Fuglsang was forced to withdraw from the Tour with a suspected broken collarbone.
Once the day’s five-man break was caught with 2.5km remaining, the focus switched to what will probably be the last rendez-vous for the sprinters ahead of Sunday’s finale on the Champs-Elysees. And it was Lotto Soudal’s Ewan who rose to the occasion with a gladiatorial display in the most Roman city outside Italy.
The pocket-rocket from Sydney powered from deep to surge past the former Italian champion Viviani of Deceuninck-QuickStep while staving off the lingering interest from Dutch powerhouse Groenewegen of Jumbo-Visma.
Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) took fourth place to consolidate his lead in the green jersey competition while Italy’s Niccolo Bonifazio completed the top five in posting his Total-Direct Energie team’s best result of the Tour so far.
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) successfully managed the heat to retain the yellow jersey for a 12th day, preserving his 1’35” lead over Thomas, who recovered from his early crash to finish safely in the peloton.
Fuglsang crashes out of Tour in dramatic Stage 16
The outcome for Fuglsang after his spill 27km from the finish was less favourable: the 34-year-old Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Dauphine winner - who was in ninth place in the general classification - quickly entering his team car after his second high-speed crash of the race.
Ewan, the 25-year-old riding his maiden Tour, said he took extra motivation from the presence of his daughter and wife, who had made the journey over from Australia in time for Monday’s second rest day.
Ewan: I was suffering so much, the heat really got to me
“I’m so happy I could win for them,” Ewan said. “But to be honest, I felt so bad today during the day. I think the heat really got to me. I was actually suffering so much I was almost about to tell Max [Monfort] to get off the front because I was really suffering.”
Stage 16: Nimes to Nimes - how it happened
In mind-boggling temperatures pushing 40 degrees Celsius in the south of France, the peloton snaked its way through the picturesque Cevennes national part and along the gorges of the Gard on a 173km loop always destined for a bunch sprint.
Despite the likely outcome, French duo Alexis Gougeard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis) attacked from the gun and were soon joined by Lukas Wisnowski (CCC), Lars Bak (Dimension Data) and Paul Ourselin (Total-Direct Energie).
The quintet only ever built up a maximum lead of two minutes largely thanks to the shared pacing by the Jumbo-Visma and Lotto Soudal teams of red-hot sprint favourites Groenwegen and Ewan, who were both eyeing a second scalp on the race.
Amid the chateaux, aqueducts and quaint hillside towns of the region, the major flash point of the stage came with 130km remaining when Thomas inexplicably clipped the kerb with his pedal on the apex of a corner, catapulting himself onto the tarmac.
The Welshman was able to get back on his bike and continue on his way - but it was a wake-up call for the Ineos leader ahead of three decisive days in the Alps.
Geraint Thomas crashes to add GC drama to sprint stage
Meanwhile, 39-year-old Bak, riding his eighth and final Tour, won both the intermediate sprint and crested the summit of the only categorised climb in pole position from the break.
With the wind getting blustery on an exposed stretch of road with 50km remaining, the break, the teams of the race favourites flocked to the front of the pack to keep their GC riders out of trouble.
As a result, the advantage of the break dropped to just 25 seconds as Frenchmen Rossetto, Gougeard and Ourselin, Dane Bak and Pole Wisnowski continued their inevitable ride towards disappointment - their race not being for the stage spoils, but for the simple right to wear the red combativity number on their jersey.
But before they had been swallowed up by the pack, the second flash point of the stage happened when, out of nothing, Astana’s Fuglsang hit the deck in a crash with Sunweb’s Cees Bol.
Surrounded by his Astana teammates, Fuglsang was quick to remove his helmet and shake his head to the team car. Having crashed badly on the opening stage to Brussels, Fuglsang’s chances of a first ever Tour podium were left in tatters, one of the most impressive riders of the season forced to throw in the towel.
But there was no time to reflect on the Dane’s misfortune; there was a quintet of riders to reel in and bigger fish to fry.
Pulls from Groenewegen’s Jumbo-Visma, Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe and the Katusha-Alpecin team of no one identifiable sprinter sounded the death-knell to the break, which was gobbled up with 2.5km remaining, with Gougeard named the most combative of the day.
It was Viviani who benefited from the most slick of lead-outs as teammate Max Richeze piloted his man with aplomb, before putting on the brakes and spoiling things in his wake.
But Ewan, coming from deep, anticipated this scenario and launched earliest. This meant the Australian had the speed when his rivals opened their sprints - and the rest was history, although Ewan still needed to dodge Richeze after the Argentine’s equivalent to football’s cynical professional foul.
“QuickStep came past and I lost a few more positions that I wanted to," Ewan said. "I looked at this finish before and played all the scenarios, and one of the scenarios was if I was too far back. I think if you watch it, I laid off the wheel and took a run it by starting sprinting before the rest of the guys."
Coming up: Stage 17 - Pont du Gard to Gap
Wednesday’s 200km ride into the foothills of the Alps is ideal breakaway territory ahead of three successive days in the high mountains.
Two categorised climbs break up the action ahead of a downhill run into Gap; it’s the kind of stage that would usually suit the yellow jersey Alaphilippe to a tee - although given Fuglsang’s predicament, it’s safe to assume that Astana will be keen to get bodies in the break. Alexey Lutsenko or Omar Fraile for the win, then.