On sinuous climbs through the green, lush Limousin, into the department of Correze, the peloton made its way incrementally southwards. 200 and more kilometres further from its starting point, another 200-odd closer to Paris. The Alps yet loom, but today it was the Massif Central that provided the backdrop.

Prodigious talent Marc Hirschi ascended to the top step of a Tour de France podium on stage 12, after two near-misses in this race already. To say it was a moment of catharsis for the Swiss rider is perhaps a little too strong, he was disappointed to lose stage 9 after his long breakaway raid, but he is yet young enough to know that there will be many more opportunities in his career. Nevertheless, the emotion of that first victory overcame the 22-year-old in the interview afterwards – another reminder of what this race means to every rider in it.

Hirschi said last week, when asked what sort of rider he thought he might become, that he simply wanted to win bike races. Now he has won a stage of the biggest race of them all.

At the other end of the course, the attritional nature of the Tour is beginning to bear on the riders. Ilnur Zakarin abandoned today, while the gruppetto rolled home a stately 26 minutes down, with an even tougher day to come for the fast men.

Bahrain McLaren have been dogmatic in their pursuit of the general classification for much of this race, but today they posted Pello Bilbao in the breakaway. While the result went to Hirschi, the Basque climber who is a vital climbing lieutenant for Landa, will feel good that he had a chance to stretch his legs. Landa rolled in with the peloton today and stays 10th, within one daring mountain attack of the podium.

The race is more than half-over, but still seems to stretch out with limitless possibilities, an unending, ever-evolving narrative. One dares not look away.

Thanks to Russ Ellis and Chris Auld for capturing the race. See more of their work on Instagram @cyclingimages & @cauldphoto.