Stage 18: Gap to Alpe d’Huez, 172.5km
France got its first stage winner of the Tour on its most prestigious climb, Nairo Quintana leapfrogged into the podium position and there was controversy over late gels and bike weights.
This highly anticipated stage started with fireworks. Saxo-Tinkoff set a relentless pace on the first of six climbs, the Col de Manse. Although targeting Sky’s Chris Froome, the tactic that did more to put other riders in jeopardy, with both Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Cadel Evans (BMC) among those dropped. The break finally settled down to nine men, including Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) and Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Once the break reached six minutes, Saxo-Tinkoff sent Nicolas Roche and Sergio Paulinho off the front of the peloton, presumably to serve as a tactical staging post for a later attack. However, none materialised and they dropped back into the bunch on the first climb of the Alpe. With Froome’s Sky train reassembled, they set the pace on the front of the peloton.
Van Garderen, Riblon and Moser went clear on the Alpe, cycling through a wall of sound and overenthustiastic fans. Riblon nearly got decked by a few flags and had to elbow through a few of his more aggressive fans.
Several riders took fliers from the yellow jersey group, including Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler, Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Andy Schleck (RadioShack), but none came close to bridging to the leaders, who by now were over eight minutes up the road. It was on the descent of the Col de Sarenne, earmarked as dangerous by several riders, Saxo’s Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger attacked. Unlike Tuesday, however, Froome let them go and continued at their own pace, controlling the gap and eventually reeling the pair in. Exciting but futile.
Van Garderen, Riblon and Moser hit the second ascent of the Alpe at the front, to be rejoined by Voigt, much to the delight of the crowd. Behind them, Movistar drove the yellow jersey group to set up Quintana and to try to distance Contador and Kreuziger after the former had stopped to change bikes. But it was Froome himself who attacked and then attacked again, and though Quintana held his wheel, Contador was distanced.
At 5km to go, van Garderen had over 40 seconds on Riblon, having had to punch a spectator in the stomach to make sure he doesn’t get knocked off, but started to rock and roll all over his bike, whereas the chasing Riblon looked frisky and fresh. He caught him at 2km and continued on past him, sending the French crowd wild. In a Marc Madiot moment, Riblon’s team car pulled up beside him, with his DS screaming encouragement. Riblon powered on to the line to give France their first victory of this 100th Tour, riding himself into the hearts of the nation and falling, in tears, into the arms of his wife. Van Garderen followed 59 seconds later, with Moser third a further 28 in arrears.
Further back the drama had not finished yet. Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) dropped Froome and teammate Richie Porte. Froome, apparently ‘bonking’, raised an arm, Porte got some gels from the team car to hand to Froome, way past the cut-off point for doing this. An illegal feed.
Quintana pulled away from Rodriguez to claim fourth, while Porte and Froome were next to arrive just over a minute later. Contador was 11th, dropping nearly a minute to the yellow jersey, effectively ending his title hopes.
VeloVoices rider of the day
There are a few riders I would love to give Rider of the Day to: Tejay van Garderen for a ride full of heart that ended in heartache, Jens Voigt for being 41 and still showing the youngsters how to ride the Tour with fierce joy, Nairo Quintana for picking the right moment to attack and move up to a podium position. But it has to be Christophe Riblon. He was out front the whole day, he nearly came a cropper on the tricky descent after hitting a little wet patch and riding into the weeds, then clawed his way back to win. It was a beautiful ride and a beautiful victory. Christophe, France is proud of you.
Opinion & analysis
First things first: both Froome and Porte were docked 20 seconds for the illegal feed 5km from the finish, an academic penalty given that Froome nonetheless extended his advantage over Contador. No matter what the problem is, no matter what difficulty he finds himself in, Froome always seems to come through in the end. I don’t see anyone else riding into Paris in yellow.
Therefore it is now all about the scramble for the other two podium places. We saw some of the tactics today – Movistar and Saxo are no longer allies and it’s every man for himself. With only 21 seconds separating Contador and Quintana, the next two days will see Bertie in the crosshairs and so far he’s not been able to answer the questions put to him by Quintana. It will take a mammoth effort on the part of Saxo to hold off the Movistar juggernaut and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Quintana takes the second step of the podium in Paris.
There were also rumours – unconfirmed at the time of writing – of Contador’s original bike being underweight, leading to his change. The only other big question of the day was whether all the sprinters would make the time cut. They did, including green jersey Peter Sagan. Two more stages and they can strut their stuff on the Champs on Sunday night.
Stage 18 result
1. Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale) 4:51:32
2. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +0:59
3. Moreno Moser (Cannondale) +1:27
4. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +2:12
5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +2:15
1. Chris Froome (Sky) 71:02:19
2. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) +5:11
3. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +5:32
4. Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) +5:44
5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +5:58
6. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) +8:58
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +9:33
8. Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff) +14:26
9. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +14:38
10. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +14:56
Green jersey: Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Polka dot jersey: Chris Froome (Sky).
White jersey: Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Team classification: Saxo-Tinkoff.
Link: Official website
Header picture: That’s Panache on the Alpe.