Tour de France Stage 18

The riders had the Izoard in their sights all day, but still had to wait 165km to climb it. However, when it finally came, there were fireworks.

Thomas Voeckler started the attacks right away out of Briancon, and was chased by the riders who wanted to be first to break. Thomas de Gendt also tried his luck multiple times in the first 5 kilometers, and was eventually successful, going clear with De Marchi, Gesbert and Calmejane. However, the peloton wasn’t content with the break going out, so attacker after attacker launched from the front to try and shut the move down.

This continuous attacking saw the peloton split in two, and a group of 50 go off the front. With no GC threats in the front group (the highest placed, Brice Feillu, was 33 and a half minutes down), Team Sky let the break go. The lead was out to 5 minutes by 50km, and by the foot of the Cote des Demoiselles Coiffees the lead was approaching 6 minutes quickly. Lilian Calmejane launched the first attack on the Cat 3 climb, and Thomas de Gendt followed suit, setting a quick tempo to catch the one-time stage winner. De Gendt bridged and took the 2 points on the climb, with Nicolas Edet overtaking Calmejane for the only other points.

After the Cote des Demoiselles Coiffees, the breakaway became restless and started to attack each other. Eventually, Simon Clarke, Brambilla, Vachon, Swift, Chavanel, Tulik and Pauwels broke away with just over 100km to go. They were given a lead of around 40” over the rest of the break, but were slowly reeled in with the intermediate sprint approaching. Sonny Colbrelli had the opportunity to leapfrog onto the podium of the Green Jersey standings with a win at the Les Thuilles sprint. He launched with around 250m to go with De Gendt and Dion Smith on his wheel, but neither rider could overtake the Italian as he overtook Kristoff in the standings.

Straight after the sprint point, the groups prepared themselves for the Col de Vars – the opening ensemble to the main piece of the Izoard. The 9.3km climb averages 7.5%, with a steep section 6km into the climb averaging 11%. The surges of pace before the climb as riders wanted to breakaway saw the break split in 2, with the break now consisting of 25 riders. The numbers slowly dwindled as Serge Pauwels set the pace on the climb, but it was Darwin Atapuma who launched an attack 3km from the summit. Romain Sicard followed immediately, with Gallopin and Lutsenko not too far behind. This group of 4 summitted the Col de Vars together, with Lutsenko powering on the front for the points, but they kept riding hard to really establish a gap between the split field.

On the technical Col de Vars descent, Tony Gallopin managed to gap his 3 companions, but was eventually reeled in. The 54 man break was never able to re-establish itself to its former glory after the Col de Vars, and most riders were absorbed by the peloton on the descent. There were 10 riders together with 10km before the Izoard, but Lutsenko went solo at the foot of the behemoth HC climb, with 15km of harsh solo climbing to come.

The lower slopes favoured the Astana rider when it was less steep, but as the gradients ramped up he really started to struggle. Gallopin, Navarro and Atapuma launched an attack in pursuit of the Kazahk, but with little cohesion in the group, Atapuma decided to ditch the lot and go solo. Lutsenko had around a minute on the Colombian at the base, but was caught with 6.5km to go as the Colombian had his sights set on the stage win. Back in the peloton, the Sky train – with some assistance from AG2R - was putting riders like Aru in trouble. Contador and Barguil launched an attack with 6km to go, and flew past the remnants of the break. Mollema was up the road to help his Spanish leader, as the two top 10 contenders were given space to go clear.

Atapuma dropped Lutsenko with 6km to go, while similarly a few hundred meters down the road Barguil was dropping Contador and the rest of the break. The race for GC time was on in the peloton though as the altitude rose, with Martin pulling the first punch with 5km to go. Kwiatkowski was able to chase the Irishman down, and the increase in tempo put Aru and Quintana in serious danger of being dropped completely. With 4km to go, there were only 4 riders up the road as the Sky train chased the break to Stop Izoard. Atapuma was leading the race, with Gallopin, Lutsenko and Barguil dotted evenly along the 1’20” gap back to the Yellow Jersey Group. Barguil, however, was charging past the dropped breakaway members on his quest to reach Atapuma.

Mikel Landa was given the green light by Team Sky, and went solo with 3.8km to go. In the battle for the White Jersey, Yates was struggling on the climb, and Meintjes took full advantage of this and attacked the Brit with 3km to go. This was only the start of the attacks though, with Romain Bardet launching with 2.5km to go. Only Uran and Froome could follow the Frenchman, with all 3 within 30” of each other on GC. And after the 3 came together, Froome attacked over Bardet on the slight descent 2km from the top. Uran, however, was able to close the gap. Similarly, up the front, Barguil caught Atapuma with 1.5km to go, and the duo would battle it under the Flamme Rouge with only 20” over the chasing Froome / Uran / Bardet.

Atapuma was dropped just after the leading duo passed under the Flamme Rouge. Warren Barguil had a wonderful final kilometre up the Izoard to celebrate a monumental win – one which secured him Polkadot, and one which put him in the record books as a winner on Izoard. 20” back, Chris Froome and Bardet sprinted for the 4 bonus seconds on offer for 3rd, with Bardet gaining 4 crucial seconds over Uran to put him outright 2nd and put him within 23” of Froome. Fabio Aru lost 58” to Froome, while Meintjes put time into Yates – enough for him to be in striking distance for the Marseille TT 2 minutes back.

With 3 riders within 30 seconds, the final TT in Marseille will be crucial. Before that though, the riders have to negotiate one more flat stage – but the finish is in sight, and with such a tight race, these last couple of stages will be exciting.