Chris Froome survived attack after attack to extend his yellow jersey lead on an epic stage ending with a dramatic double climb of Alpe d’Huez. Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale) took the stage win but the real drama was behind, as fatigue and gradient took its toll on all the general classification rivals.
Froome lost time on Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana but gained on overnight rivals Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger to extend his overall lead to over five minutes.
Stage 18 was the one that everybody was waiting for, 172.5 kilometres from Gap culminating in a historic double climb of Alpe d’Huez, facilitated by a treacherous descent of the ultra technical Col du Sarenne.
It was frantic from the start with Team Sky attacked from all sides on first climb of the day, the second category climb of the Col de Manse. Team Saxo Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador was desperate to try to unsettle race leader Froome from the start; the yellow jersey was briefly isolated but despite the drama, Froome kept his general classification nemesis close as they reached the summit.
Onto the descent and nine rider group went away: Jens Voigt (RadioShack), Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), Christophe Riblon (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Lars Boom (Belkin), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Moreno Moser (Cannondale).
With no GC threats in the group the nine riders built a healthy lead as the race headed toward the third category Rampe du Motty. Then came Team Saxo’s next chess move, with decoys Nicholas Roche and Sergio Paulinho breaking off the front. Team Sky did not react, keeping their sights firmly on Saxo’s GC contenders, Contador and Roman Kreuziger.
Team Sky reasserted control and an uneasy calm descended as the peloton climbed the Col d’Ornon. If a decisive attack on Froome’s reign was to come, it was to be on the famous hairpins of d’Huez.
With the peloton onto the first ascent of the Alpe, Saxo’s carrots Roche and Paulinho were reeled in by the Team Sky led peloton.
Up ahead the nine man group was disintegrating, with BMC Racing’s Tejay Van Garderen, Christophe Riblon (AG2R Mondiale) and Moreno Moser leading the race over Alpe d’Huez for the first time. Back in the bunch eight minutes behind attacks came thick and fast but Froome only had eyes for Contador and Kreuziger’s wheels.
The race moved onto the remote yet much talked about Col du Sarenne section and a further short, sharp climb before the controversial descent to the foot of the Alpe.
Van Garderen crested the Sarenne first but then suffered a jammed chain at the start of the descent as Riblon and Moser plummeted down the narrow twisting road. Next to suffer drama was Riblon who ran off the road on one of its many hairpin bends. Spots of rain began to fall making the plunge even more treacherous as Van Garderen chased back on.
Yet the real drama came as Contador attacked on the descent. Sensibly Froome, flanked by two teammates, sat back and let Contador and Kreuziger go, deciding that caution was wise in the face of sheer, unprotected drops at the edge of the narrow, rough roads. Contador and Krueziger had different ideas and opened around 20 seconds on the descent as the roads began to widen toward the valley floor and onto the foot of the Alpe for the second decisive time.
As the final climb approached Contador’s audacious move was nullified thanks to Movistar joining forces with Team Sky in an attempt to give their man, white jersey Nairo Quintana, a chance of glory on the climb. However with the three leaders over seven minutes behind, stage victory looked unlikely. Contador then played another card, dropping back to the team car to change to a special bike for the final climb.
Onto the climb proper and the gap to the leader Tejay Van Garderen began to tumble, Froome and Richie Porte setting the pace. A savage kick from Froome caused an elite selection, with just a small group, including Contador, able to follow. At nine kilometres to go, the gap up to leader Van Garderen was just four minutes and 20 seconds.
Another acceleration and Kreuziger cracked. Froome persisted and opened a gap with only Nairo Quintana able to follow. The pair began to work together as the remainder of the general classification rivals tried everything to get back on terms with the British rider. The only man to rejoin was Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, making an elite trio chasing down Van Garderen and distancing Alberto Contador.
The triumvirate didn’t stay together for long, as Rodriguez attacked followed by Quintana, forcing Froome onto the back foot. Suddenly, Chris Froome had other general classification rivals to contemplate with just six kilometres left to ride. Help then came for Froome as teammate Richie Porte recovered to join the elite trio. A minute back lay Contador and teammate Kreuziger, their battle plan in tatters.
At four kilometres came the crucial moment – Froome looked suddenly spent and in need of energy. Porte dropped back and supplied his leader, against the race rules and eventually attracting a 20 second penalty. Quintana and Rodriguez saw their chance and attacked, distancing Froome who suddenly looked in all kinds of trouble. The British rider had no choice but to let his rivals go, Froome nursed to the line by Porte in an attempt to limit his losses and stay ahead of Contador and Kreuziger.
Up ahead with 2km to go there was another drama unfolding, as Christophe Riblon caught stage leader Van Garderen. Riblon went on to take the first French victory of the 100th Tour and the wait began to see the time gaps between Quintana, Rodriguez, Froome and Contador.
Two minutes and 10 seconds later, following Moser and Van Garderen came Quintana and Rodriguez – then came Froome and Porte one minute and six seconds adrift. Crucially though, almost a minute behind lay Contador and Kreuziger, meaning that despite showing signs of weakness, Froome ended the day a further minute ahead overall at five minutes and eleven seconds.
Following the stage Froome assessed the day’s events, in the peculiar situation of being asked to assess the damage in light of gaining time on his nearest rival:
“No huge setback. Richie (Porte) was definitely feeling a lot better than I was today. I was running out of sugars towards the end so I had to ask him to go back and grab me some sugars from the car.
“I’m not sure if it made any difference getting anything from the car at that point of the race.
“Contador and Krueziger were our biggest threats coming into today but a really good feeling to hear on the radio that they had dropped back on that last climb. Really good for Quintana to have got a bit of an advantage today – I definitely predict him finishing up on the podium today at the Tour.”
1 RIBLON Christophe AG2R La Mondiale 04:51:32
2 VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC Racing Team 00:59
3 MOSER Moreno Cannondale Pro Cycling Team 01:27
4 QUINTANA ROJAS Nairo Alexander Movistar Team 02:12
5 RODRIGUEZ OLIVER Joaquim Katusha Team 02:15
6 PORTE Richie Sky Procycling 03:18
7 FROOME Christopher Sky Procycling ,,
8 VALVERDE BELMONTE Alejandro Movistar Team 03:22
9 NIEVE ITURALDE Mikel Euskaltel - Euskadi 04:15
10 FUGLSANG Jakob Astana Pro Team ,,
1 FROOME Christopher Sky Procycling 71:02:19
2 CONTADOR VELASCO Alberto Team Saxo-Tinkoff 05:11
3 QUINTANA ROJAS Nairo Alexander Movistar Team 05:32
4 KREUZIGER Roman Team Saxo-Tinkoff 05:44
5 RODRIGUEZ OLIVER Joaquim Katusha Team 05:58
6 MOLLEMA Bauke Belkin Pro Cycling Team 08:58
7 FUGLSANG Jakob Astana Pro Team 09:33
8 ROGERS Michael Team Saxo-Tinkoff 14:26
9 KWIATKOWSKI Michal Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 14:38
10 TEN DAM Laurens Belkin Pro Cycling Team 14:39