Tour de France 2018: Quintana wins on Col du Portet as Froome cracks and Thomas strengthens GC grip
Geraint Thomas strengthened his grip on the yellow jersey after Sky team-mate Chris Froome struggled on the Tour’s first ever ascent of the unforgiving Col du Portet, where Colombian Nairo Quintana marked a return to form by soloing clear to secure his first stage victory in five years.
At just 65 kilometres long and boasting three climbs and 48 kilometres of ascent, the shortest but sharpest stage in modern Tour history always promised to pack a punch – and it delivered in buckets, including perhaps a knock-out blow for Froome’s hopes of a record-equalling fifth Tour win.
If Movistar climber Quintana bounced back with a welcome return to form and an impressive Stage 17 win ahead of a chasing Dan Martin of Ireland, it was Thomas who stole the show by responding to all the attacks levelled against him – and then riding clear of his rivals in the closing moments.
Welshman Thomas took third place on the stage ahead of Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) after Froome was distanced inside the final couple of kilometres following a medley of attacks from the Dutch and Slovenian time trial specialists.
Froome, who had started the final climb bullishly with an attack which momentarily distanced his rivals, suffered the ignominy of being distanced by his 21-year-old team-mate Egan Bernal – the youngest rider in the race – after the Colombian pulled his leader towards the line some 48 seconds behind Thomas.
To add insult to temporal injury, the boos rained down on the four-time Tour champion as he struggled to limit his losses on the highest peak of this year’s Tour, which was being used for the first time in the race’s history. On this showing, it won't be the last appearance.
Froome, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion and winner of the previous three Grand Tours, dropped to third place in the general classification and now trails team-mate Thomas by 2’31” as Dumoulin emerged as the major obstacle to what would be an unlikely maiden Tour win for Thomas.
Team Sunweb’s Dumoulin is 1’59” down on the yellow jersey with one final mountain stage and the decisive penultimate day time trial the two major remaining tests ahead of the Tour finale in Paris on Sunday.
Froome may now find himself carrying out a domestique role for Team Sky for the first time since begrudgingly guiding Bradley Wiggins to yellow in 2012. While doing so, he will have to defend his place on the final podium from the impressive Roglic, who lies just 16 seconds behind in fourth place.
After his second win of the season – and his first on the Tour since his Stage 20 triumph at Le Semnoz in 2013 – Quintana rises into the top five at 3’30” at the expense of Frenchman Romain Bardet, who cracked with 6km remaining.
Ag2R-La Mondiale’s Bardet, the runner-up in 2016 and third last year, now finds himself more than five minutes down in seventh place and behind Mikel Landa (Movistar) and the solid Steven Kruijswijk, who rode to an excellent sixth place on the stage after animating the Col du Portet with a series of co-ordinated attacks alongside LottoNL-Jumbo team-mate Roglic.
Meanwhile, an early attack by double stage winner Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) saw the Frenchman cement his lead at the top of the polka dot jersey standings after cresting the summit of the Montee de Peyragudes in second place and the Col de Val Louron-Azet on the front.
Another Frenchman, Pierre Latour of Ag2R-La Mondiale, buried himself for team-mate Bardet and, although dropped on the penultimate climb by the big boys, extended his lead over compatriot Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) to 6’27” in the white jersey youth classification.
And despite a nasty crash on the descent of the second climb, world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) remained on track to secure a record-equalling green jersey in Paris.
INNOVATIVE START: The highly-anticipated motorsports-style staggered grid start failed to deliver the fireworks the race organisers may have anticipated – with the Team Sky ‘whale pod’ taking less than a kilometre to reassemble as the race hit the opening climb from the gun.
Early attacks nevertheless rained down with Estonian Tanel Kangert (Astana) riding clear with around 20 riders zipping off in pursuit, including Quintana’s Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde and the ubiquitous polka dot jersey of Alaphilippe, the new darling of French cycling.
Kangert took maximum points over the Montee de Peyragudes with Alaphilippe leading a chasing trio over around 20 seconds behind.
Meanwhile, the omens were not entirely favourable for Quintana, who required two wheel changes after a puncture near the summit. But with Luke Rowe still setting a relatively tame tempo for Sky in the main pack, the Colombian did not have to bust a gut to get back into the mix.
AG2R-LA MONDIALE AGGRESSION: Unhappy with the pace going onto the second climb, the Ag2R-La Mondiale team of Bardet muscled Sky off the front of the pack to set a fierce tempo that soon blew things apart. But once Latour followed Oliver Naesen and Sylvan Dillier off the back, Bardet was left isolated ahead of the final climb.
Having caught Kangert before the summit, it was Alaphilippe who took maximum points over the Val Louron-Azet ahead of the Estonian and Kristijan Durasek of UAE Team Emirates, with a select chase group containing Valverde and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) just a minute down.
Sagan crashed badly on the descent, having only lost contact with the yellow jersey group half-way up the second climb. The Slovakian took a while to get back on his bike but did manage to finish the stage – albeit bloodied, hobbling and with his jersey in tatters some 26 minutes in arrears.
QUINTANA DRAMA: So often accused of leaving it too late, Quintana made his move at the start of the final 16km climb of the Col du Portet, latching on to an acceleration by Ireland’s Martin before zipping clear of the yellow jersey group.
Quintana passed the remnants of the early break – including Alaphilippe and Mitchelton-Scott's Adam Yates, the rider whose fall on Tuesday enabled the Frenchman to secure his second victory – en route to joining team-mate Valverde and Majka in pursuit of the lone leader, Kangert.
Back with the favourites, an early attack from Roglic was covered by Froome as Dumoulin kept his cool and paced the yellow jersey back into contention alongside Kruijswijk, Landa and Bardet.
Sky’s power in numbers then became apparent after an elite group of 10 riders formed in which Thomas and Froome had Bernal, Wout Poels and Jonathan Castroviejo to lean upon.
Valverde was dropped with 10km remaining as Quintana and Majka passed Kangert with the determined Martin just 20 seconds down. Quintana then made his decisive kick to drop the Pole with 6.5km remaining on the series of steep hairpin bends winding their way to the 2,215m summit.
FROOME FALTERS: Bardet had already been dropped by the time an attack by Kruijswijk inside the final 5km further reduced the main elite group and had Froome on the ropes. The Dutchman was working superbly in tandem with his fellow LottoNL-Jumbo rider Roglic, whose stinging attack with 3km remaining drew out Thomas and Dumoulin, but put both Landa and Froome on the rivet.
The killer blow then came from Dumoulin, the 2017 Giro champion, who partially paid Froome back for beating him to this year’s maglia rosa by dropping the Kenyan-born Briton inside the final two kilometres.
On the front of the race, Quintana kept his cool to win the stage ahead of Martin, while Thomas looked very much the champion-elect as he rode with the assuredness of a Tour winner alongside Roglic and Dumoulin – dropping the duo in the closing moments to take the bonus seconds for third place and end perhaps definitively the on-going debate over Sky’s leadership.
“I don’t let myself think about it, it’s honestly just day by day,” said Thomas after quizzed about his chances of becoming the first Welshman to win cycling’s biggest prize.
" Obviously Dumoulin and Roglic were strong today and they were active. They’re the closest to me along with Froome, but I don’t classify him as a rival, we’re teammates. He’s a fighter, for sure he’ll keep fighting all the way. It’s good to keep the advantage for myself and the team is in a good position now."
As for Quintana, his well-earned victory marked a turning point after a frustrating opening two weeks of the race, starting as early as the opening stage where a mechanical cost him the best part of two minutes.
“I went through some difficult moment in the first part of this Tour and lost some time,” said Quintana after winning both the stage and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange on the race’s highest peak.
" But I still felt strong and had the energy to finish the race on a high. I usually improve in the third week of the Tour and it’s going that way. I wanted to win for my people in Colombia, after months of hard work. All the support I’ve had from everyone, as well as my family and friends, really helped me today. We were a bit down in the last days, so we needed this win. It’s a wonderful day today."
COMING UP – Stage 18: Trie-sur-Baise to Pau (172km)
The calm after the storm? An interlude in the battle for yellow? Although the breakaway specialists will hope to take advantage of two lower-category climbs and defy the sprinters, the fast men will be chomping at the bit for glory in Pau before the race returns to the mountains for one final day in the Pyrenees.
But given Peter Sagan’s nasty crash, this flat stage could provide hope for the likes of Frenchman Arnaud Demare, the Groupama-FDJ sprinter who managed to scrape through the time-cut for a second successive day on Wednesday.