It was the last chance saloon for the climbers. A last opportunity to try and take time from Chris Froome before Saturday’s time-trial. A final battle between Louis Meintjes and Simon Yates in the white jersey contest. One last chance to stop Warren Barguil’s claim on the polka-dot jersey. And the little matter of someone winning the stage.
This was a stage race within the race in which there were many mini-races taking place. Once they hit the final climb of the Col d’Izoard, you didn’t know where to look. There was always something going on. It was the first time the race has finished up this Alpine Giant and you have to wonder why it took so long? It was a brute and it wore the very best down to exhaustion.
And in the end it was fitting that the man who should come over its summit in front was the man in the King of the Mountains jersey. Warren Barguil has been in the thick of the mountain action throughout this Tour. He came in with no intention of trying to place high in the general classification, focusing on a stage win and that mountains prize. Well, he has won two stages now, he’s sealed the polka-dots jersey and as a byproduct he has climbed up to 9th in the standings.
A crack at yellow must sure come sooner than later for the 25 year old. Along with Tom Dumoulin, winner of this years Giro d’Italia, Sunweb have a strong pairing. The Dutch team have been brilliant throughout this Tour, winning four stages. Two for Barguil, who has won the mountains jersey, and two for Michael Matthews who has won the points jersey. Sky may win the teams classification, but Sunweb have put in the best performance.
And Barguil’s victory came out of the yellow jersey group, which makes it all the more impressive. This wasn’t as though he went up the road early and clung on. He stayed with the fierce pace being set before going on alone. Alberto Contador tried to go with him but couldn’t hold the wheel.
The times are very much a changing.
And indeed, changing too when you consider the team setting the pace. It wasn’t Sky, but rather Bardet’s AG2R team. They took over at the front as the race approached the Izoard. It’s refreshing to see a French team back at the sharp end of racing like this. Not since the Festina Scandal rocked French cycling almost 20 years ago have we seen it. In the era that followed as French teams tried to clean up and others left them in their wake, pickings became slim. Now we have a French team bossing the front with a young French rider in a podium position. And elsewhere a young French rider in polka-dots going for the stage win. In doing so it gave the French their 5th stage victory of this race, by four different riders. It’s a crucial, but good sign of where the sport is and the direction it is going in this era.
They couldn’t shake all Froome’s domestiques though and soon Michal Kwiatkowski hit the front. The Pole has been immense for Froome in this Tour. Changing wheels and setting tempo. He once finished 11th in the Tour back in 2013, so he has pedigree. And yet he is now prepared to flog himself for the yellow jersey aspirations of another. Kwiatkowski’s turns on the front have become epic in this race. You often hear talk of riding oneself to a standstill, well Kwiatkowski does exactly that. Once he finished his final effort, he came to a complete stop and had to put a foot down. Kwiatkowski left Froome with Lanada with less than four kilometres to race. By the time he finished he was almost 14 minutes behind. Throughout this Tour, with his job done, he pulls right back and begins the recovery process ahead of doing it all again the next day.
Landa then attacked. An alternative ploy by Sky rather than have him continue setting the tempo. Far enough up the standings to be a threat to all those behind Froome, the idea was to draw out the rest. In doing so it would reduce the group further, giving Froome more control. Dan Martin was the first to try and close the gap, but for two reasons. First, because Landa was a place ahead of him in the standings and a top five finish was still in the Irishman’s plans. And second, because Fabio Aru was two places ahead and every surge in the group was putting the Italian into trouble.
Bardet then kicked a couple of times and then Froome went. The gap opened quick but Uran and Bardet were able to close it, leaving the three set to finish on the podium in Paris, together. The trio caught and past Landa and finished on the wheel of Darwin Atapuma. He was the last remaining man from the early break. Bardet grabbed the 3rd place time bonus ahead of Froome with Uran losing a mere 2 seconds in the sprint. That gap though will split the pair on GC in favour of the Frenchman. It was a hard finish, but it was too late to reach Barguil. He had come in 20 seconds before.
The rest limited their loses well proving how close the ability is of all those contending in GC. The days of contending riders putting minutes into one another appear a thing of the past. Louis Meintjes lost 17 seconds to Froome, Martin lost 19 seconds, Yates 39 seconds, and Aru 1 minute 2 seconds. Yates had done enough to keep his white jersey but Aru lost 4th place to Landa.
Tomorrow should be a stage in which a breakaway prospers as the yellow jersey contenders rest up ahead of Saturday’s time-trail. Froome will need to be alert though. His lead is only 23 seconds on Bardet with Uran at 29 seconds. The Colombian has a decent time-trial but I am not convinced he can make up half a minute. Bardet will need to have the ride of his life against the clock and hope Froome has a problem. With that in mind, the pair might be willing to try ambush Froome. Expect Sky at the front keeping control of things. They’ve done a good job of it thus far, they need only do it for one more day.
General classification after stage 18:
1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 78h8’19”
2. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +23″
3. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +29″
4. Mikel Landa (Sky) +1’36”
5. Fabio Aru (Astana) +1’55”
6. Dan Martin (Quick-Step) +2’56”