Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida has won stage 20 of the Tour de France.  After attacking repeatedly throughout this year’s Tour de France, Nibali won the penultimate stage ahead of Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. 

The destiny of the Tour de France title was still unknown heading into stage 20.  The day’s racing had been reduced from 130km down to 59.5km from Albertville to Val Thorens; a day that would take in just one long 33.4km climb to the finish line after a flat opening section.  Attacks predictably flew from the start, with Dylan Teuns of Bahrain Merida, Alberto Bettiol of EF Education First, Lilian Calmejane of Total Direct Energie, Magnus Cort of Astana and Kevin Van Melsen of Wanty-Gobert going up the road to form the initial breakaway.  

Alejandro Valverde sprinted to second place in the final mountain stage, photo Sirotti

They were followed by a large group that contained Vincenzo Nibali, with the six caught by Nibali’s group of 23.  The new formation of the breakaway now included Elia Viviani of Deceuninck-QuickStep, Tony Gallopin of AG2R La Mondiale, Sebastien Reichenbach of Groupama-FDJ, Nelson Oliveira of Movistar, Gorka Izagirre and Omar Fraile of Astana, Michael Woods of EF Education First, Daryl Impey of Mitchelton-SCOTT, Joey Rosskopf of CCC Team, Rui Costa and Vegard Stake Laengen of UAE Team Emirates, Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo, Nicolas Roche of Team Sunweb, Pierre Luc Perichon of Cofidis, Jens Keukeleire of Lotto Soudal, Niccolo Bonifazio and Anthony Turgis of Direct Energie, Ilnur Zakarin and Nils Politt of Katusha-Alpecin, Frederik Backaert of Wanty-Gobert, Steve Cummings and Ben King of Dimension Data; and Maxime Bouet of Arkéa-Samsic.

With the blessing of Team Ineos who led the peloton the break were free to build a lead in excess of 2 minutes.  Never since 2012, when Bradley Wiggins won the first of the team’s six Tours to date, had the team taken the jersey so late in the race; and now for the first time the team were on the cusp of seeing the yellow jersey go to a non-Brit but also to a Colombian for the first time in the Tour’s 116 year history.  A team who seven years ago made history for Great Britain were on the verge of doing it again for South America.

The breakaway reached the foot of the climb with a lead of 2.40mins.  Behind them Ineos and Deceuninck-QuickStep led the way with the latter still holding on to hope that Julian Alaphilippe could at least salvage a podium place for Paris.  From the peloton a two-up time trial had emerged from Tim Wellens and Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal as they went in pursuit of an unlikely comeback in the king of the mountains classification; with the polka dot jersey sitting on the shoulders of Romain Bardet.  They faced an uphill battle – no pun intended – to get across to the break and it proved an attack too far for Wellens; with De Gendt continuing to press on with a 2 minute deficit to the leaders.

Vincenzo Nibali needed to attack from a long way off to guarantee the stage, photo Sirotti

Attacks began in the breakaway early on the climb to Val Thorens.  As Jumbo-Visma went to the front of the peloton, Ilnur Zakarin, Vincenzo Nibali and Pierre-Luc Perichon went to the front of the breakaway that quickly lay in tatters on the tough opening kilometres of the climb.  Perichon couldn’t quite hold on to the pace of Nibali and Zakarin, but Gallopin and Woods weren’t done yet; gradually pulling back the deficit and making a group of four at the front.

With 29.7km to go George Bennett hit the front of the peloton with Jumbo-Visma showing blatant intent to not just challenge for the podium but potentially for the yellow jersey itself.  Bennett was sporting the scars from his earlier crashes in stage 18; but his condition looked unaffected as he set a powerful tempo that began to whittle down the peloton.  Team Ineos looked relatively composed for the time being, with Julian Alaphilippe doing what he could to hold his position close to the front of the peloton.

Steadily Bennett’s efforts on the front began to reel the break’s lead back beneath 2 minutes; keeping that gap stable with 23km to go.  The four leaders and the peloton kept steady from there, with George Bennett finally cracking with 18.5km to go; his work for the Tour de France complete, having had one of the most extraordinary three weeks of work in his life.  Whatever would happen from here for Kruijswijk it had been a fantastic Tour de France from George.

Laurens De Plus took over from the Kiwi, with Steven Kruijswijk close behind him and Jonathan Castroviejo of Ineos.  The gap was coming down to the leaders, but the leaders were bolstered by the presence once again of Perichon an Fraile.  With 13.3km to go the gap to the bunch was down to 55 seconds and Vincenzo Nibali took the opportunity to go on the attack and he gradually cracked the rest of the break.  As he did that, Julian Alaphilippe lost contact with the yellow jersey group; a major plus for Jumbo-Visma, whose work was beginning to pay off.  Kruijswijk needed to make up 38 seconds on Alaphilippe to move onto the podium and Laurens De Plus was riding powerfully to ensure it.

Julian Alaphilippe lost his place on the podium, kept his place in the top 5, an won his way win to cycling hearts the world over, photo Sirotti

Meanwhile Vincenzo Nibali was doing the same thing at he head of the race, actually building his advantage over the maillot jaune group that was fighting in a race of its own.  Jumbo-Visma were potentially the big victors while Team Ineos also stood to gain and move into 1st and 2nd on the GC with Bernal and Thomas.  It wasn’t long before Alaphilippe dropped off of the virtual podium, and it wasn’t clear whether the Frenchman would be able to hold on to the top five overall.

With 9km to go the gap for Nibali to the main field was up to over 1 minute.  The 2014 Tour de France winner was showing great composure as behind him Alaphilippe found himself cracking even from the wheel of teammate Enric Mas; it was a long day of struggle for the man who was the hero of France in this year’s Tour.

De Plus was tireless in his relentless pace-setting, and although it wasn’t putting Team Ineos under pressure it was looking more and more likely that the team could secure a place on the podium.  The yellow jersey group were picking up the remnants of the breakaway at a rapid rate, but it was an attack from Simon Yates that lit the fuse from here.  For the Mitchelton-SCOTT rider it was a case of dual motives as a win in stage 20 would guarantee the overall win in the king of the mountains classification.

Behind Yates Warren Barguil and Marc Soler went on the offensive, with Nairo Quintana then making a move and spelling the end of De Plus’ time on the front.  He was succeeded on the front by BORA-Hansgrohe’s Gregor Muhlberger who was working hard for Emanuel Buchmann who himself had an opportunity to make his way up the GC standings; having ridden consistently throughout the three weeks.

Romain Bardet had a tense wait on the final mountain stage to secure the polka dot jersey, photo Sirotti

While all this was happening, however, Vincenzo Nibali arrived at 5km to go with a 33 second lead.  Marc Soler was stronger than any of his fellow attackers, dropping even his teammate Quintana who found himself back in the yellow jersey group swiftly.  Still it was Muhlberger who led the group, biding his time to bring back Marc Soler, who suddenly began to see the gap to Nibali increase yet again.  Meanwhile Alaphilippe was continuing to lose time, a 2.45min deficit growing to 3 minutes with less than 4km to go.

With just over 2km to go Muhlberger sat up, leaving Wout Poels to set the tempo for the maillot jaune.  The gap to Nibali was closing, down to 30 seconds with 1.7km remaining, and it was not certain whether Nibali’s lead would last to the end.  A welcome downhill reprieve greeted Nibali with 1km to go though, giving the Italian the slight gap he needed to guarantee his stage win at this year’s Tour after so many days of trying.  

Back in the yellow jersey group Emanuel Buchmann made a move that was then countered by Mikel Landa.  Poels didn’t respond and the Spaniard powered onwards towards a stage upset if only he could catch Nibali.  The Italian dug deep though, with the Shark of Messina finally crossing the line to take a hard-earned stage win.  Behind him Alejandro Valverde attacked to take second place ahead of Landa, and an elated Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal; with the latter crossing the line to slaps on the back from the former.

The clock continued to tick over with Julian Alaphilippe finally crossing the line 3.17mins behind Nibali.  The result for the Frenchman meant that he slipped from 2nd to 5th, but he kept his place in the top five.  

1st and 2nd on GC, Egan Bernal & Geraint Thomas finish hand in hand, photo Sirotti

Overall Egan Bernal had done enough to ensure he would become the third youngest winner of the Tour de France, with just the sprinters’ stage in Paris to come.  Bernal is 1.11mins ahead of teammate Geraint Thomas with Steven Kruijswijk up to third at 1.31mins; with Emanuel Buchmann 4th at 1.56mins and Alaphilippe 5th at 3.45mins.

Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde were all in the top 10 for Movistar at 6th, 8th and 9th respectively; with Rigoberto Uran 7th and Warren Barguil moving up to the top ten on the final mountain stage.

George Bennett completed the Tour’s final mountain stage in the company of compatriot Tom Scully of EF Education First.

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