Finhaut-Emosson - Chris Froome said his rivals were battling for only a podium finish after putting time into everyone except Richie Porte on Wednesday's first of four Alpine stages.
Froome finished the 184.5km 17th stage from Bern to Finhaut-Emosson in Switzerland in 11th place, alongside his former Sky team-mate Porte.
But the race leader gained time on all his other rivals and afterwards he said he felt they were riding to beat each other, rather than to take the yellow jersey off his shoulders.
"It definitely did feel like a big battle now, especially for those top five positions, and more so for the podium spots," said Froome, 31.
"Movistar and Astana were trying to move their guys onto the podium, trying to put Bauke Mollema under pressure, and Adam Yates, but he's been really strong."
Astana took up pace-setting at the top of the penultimate climb and the foot of the final ascent as Fabio Aru looked to move up from 10th place, which he managed, gaining two spots.
Movistar were trying to put Froome under pressure to launch an attack from Nairo Quintana, but the Colombian struggled and was unable to make any inroads, losing 28sec to the Briton by the finish line.
He remains fourth with Mollema second at 2min 27sec and Yates third at 2:53.
Froome had more team-mates in the lead group than anyone else and Wouter Poels in particular was exceptionally strong, chasing down every attack until Australian Porte managed to make one stick.
"We were just riding a steady, solid tempo and thinking about the big stages to come," said Froome about the next three days in the Alps, starting with Thursday's 17km uphill time-trial.
In the final kilometre, after Froome had caught Porte, the Australian BMC rider led his former team-leader to the finish line.
It had Froome reminiscing about the good old days before Porte left Sky at the end of last year to take the opportunity to be a leader in his own right.
"It did bring back a few memories for me. It was nice to ride with my old team-mate again," said Froome.
"Although this time he was putting me under pressure so I was just staying on his wheel and following him to the finish."
Porte's attack helped him move up a place to sixth overall and now just 1min 34sec off a top-three podium spot.
"It was a good day. I really want to be on the podium, so these are the moves you have to pull," said the 31-year-old Tasmanian.
"I felt strong today, and I'm happy with how it all went."
Porte insisted he wasn't interested in what Froome was up to, he was simply riding his own race, with his own objectives in mind.
"To be honest I wasn't looking at anyone else. I thought Quintana was the one who was going to go, so I sat on his wheel," he added.
Russian Ilnur Zakarin, who served a doping suspension from 2009-2011, won the 17th stage after getting in the day's breakaway.
He was strongest on the final climb and finished 55sec ahead of Colombian Jarlinson Pantano, who won Sunday's 15th stage.
Zakarin won the week-long Tour de Romandie last year, beating Froome in the process, and was riding fifth at May's Giro d'Italia before crashing on the third last stage.
He believes he will one day challenge for a Grand Tour, but not this one just yet.
"Of course the Tour de France is the most important race of the season, it's my dream to be on the podium and one day win it," said the 26-year-old.
"I'll take a moment to analyse this season (after the Tour)... and decide which Grand Tour will be the first target.
"Of course the Tour de France is the biggest aim, but that's for the future."