Nairo Quintana has won stage 18 of the Tour de France on a day where Egan Bernal surged into contention and potential leadership of Team Ineos.  Quintana won the stage ahead of Romain Bardet and Alexey Lutsenko with Egan Bernal leaping from 5th to 2nd overall.

The first major day of defence in the final week for Julian Alaphilippe was to be stage 18 of the Tour de France.  After a day for the sprinters and a day for the breakaway, stage 18 went back into the high mountains with a 208km slog through four categorised climbs.  A third category climb followed by a first category and two HC climbs – the last of which being the legendary Col du Galibier – provided the first big opportunity for the likes of Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, Steven Kruijswijk and co to launch an assault on Julian Alaphilippe’s yellow jersey.

The race early on, however, was all about getting into the breakaway and it took some 50+km for a break to finally form.  Alexey Lutsenko of Astana was particularly animated early on alongside Pierre-Luc Perichon of Cofidis.  The duo held a slender early lead over the category 3 climb, but were brought back into a chasing group that eventually swelled and swelled to the point where eventually a massive group of 36 riders formed the break of the day.  

It was a star-studded breakaway that featured Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale, Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, Michael Woods of EF Education First, Adam Yates of Mitchelton-SCOTT, Greg Van Avermaet of CCC Team, Sergio Henao of UAE Team Emirates and Tim Wellens of Lotto Soudal.  Also present were Dylan van Baarle of Team Ineos, Max Richeze of Deceuninck-Quick Step, Bardet’s teammates Mickaël Cherel and Mathias Frank, Nibali’s teammate Damiano Caruso, Groupama-FDJ’s Matthieu Ladagnous, Quintana’s teammates Andrey Amador and Carlos Verona, Astana’s Lutsenko and Gorka Izagirre, Jumbo-Visma’s Amund Grøndahl Jansen and Mike Teunissen, Woods’ teammate Alberto Bettiol, Yates’ teammates Daryl Impey and Chris Juul-Jensen, Van Avermaet’s teammates Simon Geschke and Serge Pauwels, Trek-Segafredo’s Julien Bernard, Team Sunweb’s Nikias Arndt and Lennard Kämna, Perichon and Stephane Rossetto of Cofidis, Wellens’ teammates Tiesj Benoot and Jasper De Buyst, Total Direct Energie’s Paul Ourselin, Katusha-Alpecin’s Nils Politt and Arkea-Samsic’s Amaël Moinard.

Second place for Romain Bardet, but first in the KOM classification, photo Sirotti

The biggest risk in the breakaway was Nairo Quintana.  While not such a risk to the overall lead of Julian Alaphilippe, there were surely a number of riders in the top ten who had to be wary of the time gap to the Columbian.  Quintana began the stage 12th overall at 9.30mins and if the breakaway were relaxed enough there was no reason why he couldn’t make up 5 minutes in the GC battle and comfortably surge into the top 6 or 7 overall.

After the initial fury of the first 50+km the break were finally let loose to build their advantage and the escapees duly obliged, building a 4.30min lead with 144km to go.  Behind them Deceuninck-Quick Step and Team Ineos led the way in the peloton, keeping the bunch reasonably strung out with a steady intensity that wasn’t going to allow the big 20 minute time gap that they permitted yesterday.

The first category climb of the Col de Vars saw the breakaway lose one or two passengers, but it also saw the emergence of a challenger to Tim Wellens’ KOM jersey.  Romain Bardet contested the points with Wellens, and while it was the polka dot jersey who took maximum points there it did raise the question of what might happen later on with Bardet – on paper at least – being the superior climber.  The duo led the break over the summit with a 6.30min lead, but by the time Deceuninck-Quick Step led the peloton over the top of the climb the time gaps had extended to 7.36mins; provisionally elevating Quintana up to fifth place overall.

At the head of the race Nikias Arndt went on a solo effort before the climb of the Izoard, but as the peloton neared the base of the climb a crash brought down three riders including George Bennett of Jumbo-Visma and Nicolas Roche of Team Sunweb.  Bennett looked to be in serious pain, and he was quickly attended to by a doctor, but he was slowly able to remount and launch and chase back towards the main field.  The Kiwi had a lot of chasing to do on his own, with a 1.34min deficit to make up to reach his team leader.  In his favour was the fact that the peloton relaxed somewhat at the feed zone; eventually allowing him to get back on board.

Onto the Izoard and Greg Van Avermaet and Julien Bernard took over at the front of the race, attacking together and building a lead of 1.30mins over the still large group behind.  In the group itself Nairo Quintana was looking very comfortable, so too a number of others, while behind them Deceuninck-Quick Step continued to simply bide their time with the gap now 8.36mins with 83km to go.  Things changed in the peloton, however, with a serious change of pace from Movistar.  In an interesting move, given the presence of Quintana up the road, the team took over at the front of the main field and immediately put the hurt on a number of riders as BORA-Hansgrohe moved up behind them.

Van Avermaet also found that he couldn’t keep pace with Bernard, dropping back as the time gap between Bernard and a small group containing Quintana decreased.  Along with Quintana were the likes of Michael Woods and Adam Yates, with Yates and Lutsenko setting a healthy tempo with 76km to go.  Crucially though, in the fight for the general classification, the surge from Movistar had brought the gap back to Bernard to a much more manageable 5 minutes.

George Bennett recovered from a mid-race crash to support team leader Kruijswijk, photo Sirotti

At the summit of the climb Damiano Caruso and Romain Bardet just managed to catch Bernard, with the former accelerating to take maximum points.  With Tim Wellens among those to have dropped back, there was an earnest opportunity for a change in the polka dot jersey.  Gradually a small group managed to form at the front of the race, with a near-minute lead over the group containing Tim Wellens and with the maillot jaune group at 6 minutes with 55km left to race and the big one – the Col du Galibier – still to come.  

Eventually the Wellens group made the catch up ahead but allegiances were over and the leading group continued to splinter even before the commencement of the final climb.  Back down the road Team Ineos now took over on the front as a new formation hit the foot of the 23km long Galibier with a slight lead over the chasers that included Adam Yates, Nairo Quintana, Simon Geschke, Andrey Amador and Romain Bardet.  The chasers once again found their way back to the front of the race and from here it was all on with 35km to go and a lead of 5.25mins to the remnants of the peloton.

Steadily, however, the leading group began to take shape with Nairo Quintana now emerging as the strong man of the group.  Bardet, Caruso, Woods and Lutsenko went with him, but with 26km to go Quintana counter-attacked off of a move from Michael Woods; and this time although Romain Bardet took over on the front it was the Colombian who had the advantage.  There was still around 7km of climbing to go before the long descent to the line, but Quintana was fully committed.  Romain Bardet was also not content to wait, attacking with Lutsenko to try and close a 30 second gap at 25km remaining.

While one Colombian was attacking for the stage, another attacked for time back in the GC group as Egan Bernal launched a move of his own.  After Alejandro Valverde joined him briefly the white jersey went away from the rest of the GC group; forcing Enric Mas to chase.  Bernal was well at home on the climb, however, and he began to make significant gains.  

Quintana reached the summit of the Galibier with a 6 minute lead over Julian Alaphilippe, but it was his advantage over Romain Bardet and then Egan Bernal that had the most intrigue.  Bernal had a 20 second lead over the Alaphilippe group that also included Bernal’s teammate Geraint Thomas.  Romain Bardet crested the summit at 1.43mins behind Quintana, but he’d done enough to take over the polka dot jersey; a potentially significant consolation for what had been a disastrous GC campaign.  He wouldn’t catch Quintana but he was well in contention for a podium place for the stage.

Next to attack from the GC group was Geraint Thomas.  The defending champion’s move thinned out the yellow jersey group a little further, forcing Emanuel Buchmann and Thibaut Pinot to launch the chase.  The chase once again put Julian Alaphilippe on the ropes and he finally cracked with the summit nearing, along with Richie Porte.  Thibaut Pinot, Rigoberto Uran, Mikel Landa and Emanuel Buchmann all eventually managed to get across with Alaphilippe finally cresting the summit of the climb a handful of seconds later.  

Alaphilippe’s deficit was a decent one, but he was by far the superior descender.  Thibaut Pinot took the lead on the descent, but his compatriot in yellow was doing a sterling job in getting back on board with his rivals.  Bernal was another matter, however, with a 24 second lead over the Thomas group.  The Colombian was descending very well, and even managing to gradually extend his lead.  Alaphilippe was 22 seconds behind Geraint Thomas and co but he easily mopped up that deficit and having done so he went straight to the front and began to put pressure on them too.

Julian Alaphilippe has shown cracks in his armour, but he still holds the overall lead with just two big mountain stages remaining, photo Sirotti

Up ahead the gap between Quintana and Bardet was stable, with Egan Bernal still continuing to lead the yellow jersey group, but it was beginning to look like it might be a solo yellow jersey; with Alaphilippe descending fiercely.  Gradually, though, Uran, Thomas, Porte, Kruijswijk, Buchmann and co rallied themselves to match the maillot jaune as Quintana arrived at the wet roads that welcomed him with just over 2km to go.

Quintana wouldn’t be caught, but he was also facing a significant advance in the GC standings, so he kept the pace high through the final tight turn with 800m to go and from there sprinted onward, finally sitting up to celebrate a famous win with just over 100m to go.  Behind him Bardet crossed the line safely in second with the polka dot jersey waiting for him, with Alexey Lutsenko valiantly holding on for third after a huge day in the saddle.  

Bernal finally caught not only Serge Pauwels but also a handful of other breakaway riders, and together they managed to hold off the other GC contenders, crossing the line at 4.46mins while Steven Kruijswijk led home the yellow jersey group at 5.18mins.  

The result means that Alaphilippe’s lead has now been cut to 1.30mins to Bernal, with Thomas still at 1.35mins but now behind his teammate in third place.  While Kruijswijk and Pinot also dropped a place, Quintana moved up from 12th to 7th.

George Bennett’s day was a day of battling with his earlier crash, but the Kiwi still managed to move up a place to 21st overall.


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