Jonas Vingegaard stamped his authority on the Tour de France with a vengeance, winning stage 18 to Hautacam and gaining time on all his rivals.
Playing off a mind-blowing breakaway ride by Wout van Aert that threatened to overshadow the utter dominance of the Dane, the Jumbo-Visma riders cracked Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and the maillot jaune rode off to win the stage and cement his position as race leader.
The Tour de France almost went south for both Vingegaard and Pogačar on the hair-raising descent of the Spandelles where the yellow jersey went sideways and almost fell and Pogačar, not soon after, slid out.
The crash was only a minor footnote to Jumbo-Visma's confident ride that saw Van Aert make his way into the breakaway, add points to his already sealed points classification lead, lead the breakaway over the penultimate climb of the Col de Spandelles, and still be in front deep into the closing kilometres of the hors categorie climb at Hautacam.
Sepp Kuss and Tiesj Benoot brought Vingegaard into the base of the climb and Kuss passed him off to Van Aert to finish off the Slovenian. The green jersey, yellow jersey and white jersey together until the Belgian emptied his tanks and distanced Pogačar.
Pogačar gamely fought to the finish to take second on the day at 1:04, keeping his lead as best young rider and second place in the GC.
Van Aert, having done the work of sprinter, rouler and climbing domestique, held on for third on the stage and adding some unnecessary points to his tally.
"It's incredible," Vingegaard said. "This morning I said to my girlfriend and daughter I wanted to win for them and I did. I'm really really happy and proud I won for them. This one is really for my two girls at home.
"I have to thank all my teammates, they're incredible. You see Wout van Aert dropping Tadej Pogacar in the end, Sepp Kuss was incredible, everyone was incredible, Tiesj [Benoot], Christophe [Laporte], Nathan [van Hooydonck] - they were all incredible. Thanks so much to my teammates, I could never done this without them."
After the stage, the Dane said he was happy it was over. "It was incredibly hard. I'm also really happy I won the stage. Now there's still two more days to come before we are in Paris so we need to keep focus and we'll take it day by day again."
In the rest of the drama for the top 10 overall, Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) was the next best on the day, finishing fourth together with David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) to extend his advantage over the podium challengers and remain third on GC. He lies third a massive eight minutes behind Vingegaard.
Gaudu climbed over Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) into fourth with his ride, but is 11:05 down.
Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) made gains on Romain Bardet (Team DSM), who had another day of struggle and lost 2:40 to drop behind them, taking up the next two spots in the top 10.
Bardet had plenty of room to breathe on the rest with Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan) four more minutes back in ninth and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) now 10th at 20:17.
How it unfolded
Stage 18 from Lourdes to the relentlessly steep climb at Hautacam started with only 140 riders left in the race. Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), Imanol Erviti (Movistar) and Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech) did not start after contracting COVID-19.
It was another searing day in the Pyrenees with three major climbs in the final major mountain showdown of the 2022 Tour de France. All eyes were on Vingegaard and Pogačar but riders who were fighting to move up the top 10 ladder were keen to go on the attack.
The first kilometres saw green jersey Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) attack first and try to lure some companions out of the peloton by dangling tantalisingly just 10 seconds ahead. Powless decided to head back to the bunch so Van Aert eventually joined him.
Another attack from his teammate Christophe Laporte drew out a group whose gap ebbed and flowed as Van Aert tried to form an alliance to bridge across. He kept forcing the pace and eventually went across with Nils Politt, Dylan Van Baarle, Bob Jungels, Dylan Teuns, Jakob Philipsen, and Andreas Leknessund to the 27 leaders.
Van Aert duly won the sprint over Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious) and Politt but disaster struck for Nils Eekhoff (Team DSM) and Jack Bauer (BikeExchange-Jayco), both of whom were taken down by unexpected moves by race motorbikes.
As the leaders headed up the Col d'Aubisque, the breakaway shattered. Simon Geschke (Cofidis), the mountains classification leader, fought to bridge as Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) threatened his polka dot jersey, but he couldn't make it.
Surviving to the last kilometres of the Col d'Aubisque were Tiesj Benoot, Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Daniel Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Carlos Verona (Movistar), Valentin Madouas and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Victorious), Alexey Lutsenko, Alexandre Riabushenko (Astana Qazaqstan), Andreas Leknessund (Team DSM), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-EasyPost), Ciccone and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech), and Nick Schultz (BikeExchange-Jayco).
Lutsenko was the best-placed rider at 16:50 from Vingegaard. Perhaps threatened or looking to move up from seventh in the GC, Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) was on the attack and was joined by Luis Léon Sanchez (Bahrain Victorious). They picked up Chris Hamilton (Team DSM), and Movistar riders Gorka Izagirre and a struggling Enric Mas along the way up.
Ciccone claimed the 20 points on the hors categorie climb, narrowing the gap to three points, leading Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Van Aert over the summit.
At the Col de Spandelles, the Meintjes group chased at two minutes, the yellow jersey group at four minutes and Mas couldn't stay with the chasers.
Col de Spandelles
Wout van Aert continued to ride at the front of the breakaway, cracking everyone but Martínez and Pinot before the summit.
Pogačar launched his first attack with 6km still to go to the top and pulled Vingegaard nearly across with 5km to climb. Kuss managed to dash across to help his teammate and the action lulled for a while, allowing Quintana and Thomas to rejoin.
Pogačar attacked again with 4km to climb and Vingegaard matched him easily. As they sat up to look at each other, Thomas decided to make a move and kept going to maintain a steady tempo, inspiring Kuss to up the pace for the race leader.
It was a feint, because when Pogačar attacked again with Vingegaard still glued to his wheel, the pair picked up Meintjes, caught and passed Thomas, and set out to have their duel on Hautacam mano-a-mano.
On the descent, race radio called out a warning of gravel, but Pogačar insisted on pushing the pace, trying to force an error out of Vingegaard. It nearly worked - the Dane caught some gravel in a bend and went sideways but held it up.
Not long after, Pogačar overcooked a bend, ended up in the gravel shoulder and clipped the edge of the tarmac and low-sided. His shorts torn and his nerves rattled, he was back up and riding quickly as Vingegaard sportingly waited. As the Slovenian rejoined, they shook hands and called a détente as Pogačar went back to the team car for water.
Van Aert, Martínez and Pinot held two minutes over the yellow jersey at the bottom, with Thomas and Meintjes pacing themselves to within 10 seconds of the Vingegaard-Pogačar skirmish. When Kuss and Benoot joined, towing Thomas, Meinjtes, Madouas and Houle, who they picked up along the way, towing the group to the maillot jaune before the climb.
It was the last chance for visits to the team car and the Jumbo-Visma helpers loaded up with cold water.
Martínez led Pinot and Van Aert into the climb with Lutsenko and Verona chasing between them and the maillot jaune group 2:25 behind. Gaudu and Quintana were chasing in a group with Vlasov and Yates at 45 seconds further back.
The Gaudu group would come apart as Gaudu took off with Madouas with 10.5km to go, dropping Quintana and setting off in pursuit of Meintjes, who had been dropped from the yellow jersey group ahead.
With 9km to go, Van Aert attacked as the gradient eased but Martínez was quick to react but Pinot missed the green TGV.
As the kilometres ticked down, Thomas began to show some weakness, losing touch with around 8km to climb as the road tilted more steeply up. Kuss paced the two race rivals and began closing in on Van Aert and Martínez rapidly on the 10-11% pitches.
They made the catch with 5.3km to go with Kuss passing off the pacing duties to the incredibly versatile Belgian and, insanely, Van Aert upped the pace on another flatter section with 4.3km to go and dropped Pogačar, launching Vingegaard to complete his utter dominance of the Tour de France.
The UAE Team Emirates rider gamely chased, limiting his losses but the race was all but over as Vingegaard celebrated at the infamous summit of Hautacam.
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.