Michal Kwiatkowski won stage 18 of the Tour de France in La Roche-sur-Foron after spending the last 60km off the front in the company of his Ineos teammate Richard Carapaz on the race’s final day in the Alps.
The pair had an unassailable lead by the time they navigated the gravel atop the Plateau des Glières with 30km remaining, and they were able to sit up and savour their exploit in the finishing straight, where Kwiatkowski eased across the line ahead of his companion.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) won the sprint for third – and the remaining 4-second time bonus – after he led the yellow jersey group home at 1:51, and his effort helped to ensure that Primoz Roglic maintains his 57-second lead over Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) atop the overall standings with just three days remaining.
“It was two hard days in a row, yesterday and also today. Again the team did a great job – I was there, so one day less,” said Roglic, who downplayed the idea that the race was all but decided.
“After the time trial there will be a decision known of the rankings but also tomorrow is another day to be really focused. It's far from being really safe.”
Roglic and Pogacar had been the main drivers in the elite group that formed on the hors categorie Montée du Plateau des Glières and the tricky gravel section over the top, where third-placed Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), an improving Enric Mas (Movistar) and the ever-impressive Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) were also present.
“Roglic and I were both happy that nothing happened in the gravel because there was a possibility to puncture,” Pogacar said.
Perhaps still smarting from the way he fell flat after his team had laid down foundations on his behalf on the Col de la Loze 24 hours earlier, Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) was the principal aggressor among the GC contenders on the final mountain stage, attacking with purpose at the foot of the Montée du Plateau des Glières, while the group of favourites fragmented behind.
Although Landa was caught by the yellow jersey group on the gravel, his effort was not in vain, as he moves up to 5th overall after Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) were both distanced on the climb and crossed the line almost three minutes down on their podium rivals.
“It was our last opportunity,” Landa said.
“We had our team up toward the front but it’s a shame that we couldn’t do any better because Jumbo-Visma’s pace was too high.”
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) remains in fourth place after finishing alongside Roglic et al, though he endured a scare when he punctured on the gravel section, but he was able to chase back on in the company of Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) over the final, uncategorised ascent of the Col des Fleuries.
Van Aert, whose pace-making had whittled down the yellow jersey group to its bare bones on the Glières, also summoned up the strength to chase back on and he still had enough left to mop up the final bonus seconds.
“Primoz is pretty fast but it was safer to go for Wout, so I did a small lead-out into the finish for Wout,” said Dumoulin. “That guy can do anything – sprints, climbing, whatever you ask from him.”
Up until Sunday, Ineos would have expected to have been engaged in the battle for yellow at this point of the Tour, but instead they had men minutes up the road in pursuit of stage victory. Kwiatkowski and Carapaz were the last survivors of the day’s early break, which formed ahead of the first climb, the Cormet de Roseland. 32 riders were in the initial move, but only five remained over the top of the Col des Saisies, where the Ineos duo had Marc Hirschi (Sunweb), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) for company. Hirschi’s crash on the descent changed the complexion of the stage.
The Swiss rider had appeared to be the dangerman, and though he made a spirited lone pursuit, he would never get back on terms. Edet, meanwhile, was distanced on the Col des Aravis, while Bilbao lost contact with Carapaz and Kwiatkowski on the Montée du Plateau des Glières, though he provided some robust support for his teammate Landa near the summit of the ascent.
There were shades of Saunier Duval on Hautacam in 2008 or Mapei at Paris-Roubaix in 1996 as Kwiatkowski and Carapaz made their way to the finish, and there was never any prospect of the pair sprinting it out for victory. Each man could argue he deserved the victory.
Kwiatkowski has been a selfless part of Sky’s operation for many years, while Carapaz, a late addition to the Tour team, has been on the offensive for the past three days and done more than anyone to help retrieve something from a disappointing race.
In the end, length of tenure ensured that Kwiatkowski got the nod, though Carapaz has the consolation of taking possession of the polka dot jersey. “That was some day. I can’t describe how grateful I am to the whole team and to Richard,” Kwiatkowski said.
“It was an incredible day for us, and I will never forget that. I’ve had some nice moments in cycling but that was something new. I had goose bumps for the last kilometres because I knew that the gap was so big that we would make it.”
How it unfolded
The final mountain stage of the Tour doubled as the final opportunity for many riders and teams to salvage a tangible reward from their race, and there was a wave of early attackers once the peloton left the start in Méribel.
A group of 32 riders escaped in the opening kilometres, but the would-be stage winners knew they would have cede the floor initially to Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), as they continued their debate over the final destination of the green jersey at the intermediate sprint.
The sprint was in Aime, at the base of La Plagne, which was perhaps a good omen for the Irishman – 1987 and all that – and he duly beat Matteo Trentin (CCC) and Sagan to the line to extend his advantage to 52 points.
Once the road began to climb on the Cormet de Roseland, the front group duly splintered, while there were frissons, too, in the main peloton, as Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-McLaren) attacked to bridge up to the break, while Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) made a speculative effort that was shut down swiftly by Jumbo-Visma. At the very back of the race, meanwhile, an ailing André Greipel (Israel Start-Up) abandoned, while the hostile terrain saw Caleb Ewan and Lotto Soudal teammates Roger Kluge and Frederik Frison already settling into a stage-long battle against elimination.
Out in front, Hirschi outsprinted Carapaz for the king of the mountains points atop the Cormet de Roseland and that duo pressed on together on the descent, while the rest of the break shattered behind them. When the dust settled at the other side, they were joined by three more riders – Kwiatkowski, Edet and Bilbao.
Hirschi picked up maximum points on the category 3 Côte de la Route des Villes and again on the category 1 Col des Saisies, where Carapaz made inventive use of a roundabout to try to outsmart the Swiss rider in the sprint.
At that point, the five leaders had 7 minutes in hand on the peloton and looked destined to dispute the stage honours, while Hirschi seemed set to claim the king of the mountains title, but his race would change in an instant on the descent, when his wheels slipped from under him on a left-hand bend. Although Hirschi remounted and gave chase, the Ineos duo up front weren’t minded to wait for a man living such a moment of form, and he was forced into a lone and ultimately forlorn pursuit on the following Col des Aravis.
“He took that corner way too fast. When I saw that I went on my brakes,” said Kwiatkowski, though there was no question of waiting for him. “He wasn’t keen to work before so we just wanted to do our own race and not look behind.”
Edet was distanced from the break on the Aravis, while Carapaz, Kwiatkowski and Bilbao pressed on ahead, with the Ecuadorian now in the box seat for the polka-dot jersey after leading over the summit. Hirschi came over the top a little over a minute down, a group of chasers including Caruso followed at five minutes, while the Jumbo-Visma-led peloton was 8:30 behind as the race reached the final 50km.
As anticipated, the podium contenders held their fire until the Plateau des Glières, with Landa making a game effort to break the Jumbo-Visma hegemony. Before the race settled over the Cormet de Roseland, there had been indications that the Dutch squad might be more vulnerable than in days past, but, not for the first time, Van Aert filled in the gaps on the final climb. His pace-making not only kept Landa’s lead pegged inside half a minute, it also saw climbers of the quality of like Yates, Uran and Martin jettisoned out the back.
“Wout van Aert was once again incredible,” Dumoulin said. “He kept Landa on quite a close distance and in the back a lot of GC riders were already dropping.”
Over the top, meanwhile, Roglic could again rely on Kuss. With three days and one crucial time trial to go, Pogacar remains at arm’s length.
|Place||Rider (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Ineos Grenadiers||04:47:33|
|2||Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers||Row 1 - Cell 2|
|3||Wout van Aert (Bel) Team Jumbo-Visma||00:01:51|
|4||Primoz Roglic (Slo) Team Jumbo-Visma||00:01:53|
|5||Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates||00:01:53|
|6||Richie Porte (Aus) Trek-Segafredo||00:01:54|
|7||Enric Mas Nicolau (Spa) Movistar Team||00:01:54|
|8||Mikel Landa Meana (Spa) Bahrain McLaren||00:01:54|
|9||Damiano Caruso (Ita) Bahrain McLaren||00:01:54|
|10||Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Jumbo-Visma||00:01:54|
|11||Sepp Kuss (USA) Team Jumbo-Visma||00:01:54|
|12||Miguel Angel Lopez Moreno (Col) Astana Pro Team||00:01:54|
|13||Marc Hirschi (Swi) Team Sunweb||00:02:04|
|14||Pello Bilbao (Spa) Bahrain McLaren||00:02:04|
|15||Simon Geschke (Ger) CCC Team||00:04:32|
|16||Nans Peters (Fra) AG2R la Mondiale||00:04:32|
|17||Adam Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott||00:04:34|
|18||Guillaume Martin (Fra) Cofidis||00:04:34|
|19||Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Pro Cycling||00:04:34|
|20||Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team||00:04:34|
|21||Luis León Sanchez (Spa) Astana Pro Team||00:04:34|
|22||Sébastien Reichenbach (Swi) Groupama-FDJ||00:04:34|
|23||Daniel Felipe Martinez Poveda (Col) EF Pro Cycling||00:04:34|
|24||Jan Hirt (Cze) CCC Team||00:04:34|
|25||Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Arkea-Samsic||00:04:34|
|26||Marc Soler (Spa) Movistar Team||00:04:41|
|27||Carlos Verona Quintanilla (Spa) Movistar Team||00:04:41|
|28||Esteban Chaves (Col) Mitchelton-Scott||00:05:10|
|29||Kenny Elissonde (Fra) Trek-Segafredo||00:06:55|
|30||Rudy Molard (Fra) Groupama-FDJ||00:06:55|
|31||Pierre Rolland (Fra) B&B Hotels-Vital Concept||00:06:55|
|32||Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Lotto Soudal||00:08:41|
|33||Mikael Cherel (Fra) AG2R la Mondiale||00:09:11|
|34||Bob Jungels (Lux) Deceuninck-Quickstep||00:09:19|
|35||Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Pro Team||00:10:40|
|36||Valentin Madouas (Fra) Groupama-FDJ||00:13:11|
|37||Alexis Vuillermoz (Fra) AG2R la Mondiale||00:13:11|
|38||Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ||00:13:11|
|39||Nicolas Edet (Fra) Cofidis||00:13:11|
|40||Niklas Eg (Den) Trek-Segafredo||00:13:11|
|41||Hugo Houle (Can) Astana Pro Team||00:13:11|
|42||Jesus Herrada (Spa) Cofidis||00:13:23|
|43||Jan Polanc (Slo) UAE Team Emirates||00:13:28|
|44||Hugh Carthy (GBr) EF Pro Cycling||00:14:07|
|45||David De la Cruz Melgarejo (Spa) UAE Team Emirates||00:17:09|