Italy’s Giulio Ciccone was denied victory by Belgium’s Dylan Teuns in Stage 6 at La Planche des Belles Filles but took over the race lead from Julian Alaphilippe in dramatic circumstances on the first summit finish of the Tour de France.
Tour debutants Ciccone and Teuns were the last men standing of a 14-man breakaway and traded blows in slow motion on the graveled ramp to the summit of La Super Planche des Belles Filles.
But after Bahrain Merida’s Teuns rode clear in disbelief to snare a maiden Grand Tour stage win, Trek-Segafredo’s Ciccone looked a broken man as he missed out on adding a Tour stage win to his Giro d’Italia scalp from earlier in the season.
Watch the gruelling mountain-top finish as Teuns takes Stage 6 and Ciccone claims yellow
Belgium’s Xandro Meurisse (Wanty-Gobert) held on from the break to take third place 1’05 back while Frenchman Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) rode clear of the chasing pack of main favourites on the stinging double-digit ramp.
Alaphilippe, however, hit the wall towards the top, dropping back to finish sixth behind Britain’s Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) and local rider Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
And by virtue of the six bonus seconds Ciccone picked up for finishing second, the Italian unexpectedly took the maillot jaune from the shoulders of Alaphilippe to give the 24-year-old something to smile about after the disappointment of losing out to Teuns.
Ciccone, who won the king of the mountains competition in May’s Giro, put himself in a good position to double up at the Tour after pushing polka dot jersey Tim Wellens of Lotto Soudal - who was also in the break - for points over the day’s succession of seven peaks in the Vosges.
Of all the race favourites, defending champion Thomas was the big winner of the day, coming home 1’44” down to take time off all his rivals - most notably Frenchman Romain Bardet, who dropped a chain just ahead of the finish line en route to conceding more than a minute.
Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 champion, struggled on the maximum 24% ramp of the dirt-track finale to come home 2’35” down on the winner, his teammate Teuns, and 51 seconds behind Thomas.
Thomas is up to fifth place in the general classification, 49 seconds down on the new leader Ciccone, and four seconds clear of teammate Egan Bernal after the Colombian tyro was tailed off near the summit.
Despite his late rally, Alaphilippe, the Stage 4 winner, is six seconds behind Tour debutant Ciccone, with Teuns third at 32 seconds and New Zealand’s George Bennett fourth at 47 seconds.
Bennett’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Steven Kruijswijk struggled on the savage final test to drop five places to eighth, 1’04” down, and behind Bernal and Pinot. EF Education First duo Michael Woods and Rigoberto Uran complete the new-look top 10 after the race’s first major summit meeting.
Brutal Stage 6 highlights as Giulio Ciccone takes yellow and Geraint Thomas makes big gains
Teuns, 27, was delighted with the biggest win of his career. “It’s unbelievable,” the Belgian said. “I knew in the Dauphine that I was good but to win already this week is incredible and I didn’t expect it. I knew there was a chance today and I took it by going in the breakaway.”
“On the second-last climb, the four strongest came out of the breakaway. I know Giulio Ciccone was the main guy on the final climb and I’m happy that I managed to hold on.”
#TheBreakaway - A great day for Geraint Thomas as defending champion flies under the radar
Stage 6 - Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles
As expected at the start of a stage featuring seven categorised climbs, a fierce battle ensued from the gun as multiple riders vied to infiltrate the day’s break.
Just as they had done 24 hours earlier, Lotto Soudal pair Wellens and Thomas De Gendt were both particularly active at the start of the 160.5km stage - and the duo were rewarded with berths in the 14-man break which finally stuck after 10km of racing.
Wellens and De Gendt were joined by Teuns, Benoît Cosnefroy (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Serge Pauwels (CCC), Julien Bernard and Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), Nikias Arndt (Sunweb), Natnael Berhane (Cofidis), Fabien Grellier (Total-Direct Energie), Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin), Andrea Pasqualon and Meurisse (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and André Greipel (Arkéa-Samsic).
The gap grew to over eight minutes over the rolling roads of Alsace as the Deceuninck-QuickStep team of yellow jersey Alaphilippe appeared content to keep just a cursory check on things on the front of the peloton, slipping in Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert in front of the Ineos train.
Ahead of the succession of climbs came the small matter of the intermediate sprint, which sparked unexpected interest in the break as Germany’s Paris-Roubaix runner-up Politt went shoulder-to-shoulder with Italy’s Pasqualon.
Pasqualon edges Politt and Greipel in intermediate sprint
Behind, Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) cut Peter Sagan’s lead in the green jersey competition by a single point after out-sprinting the Bora-Hansrohe rider for the final remaining digit on offer.
Wellens consolidated his lead in the polka dot jersey competition by picked up maximum points going over the Le Markstein and the Ballon d’Alsace, the latter being the first ever climb to feature in the Tour back in 1906 and the first mountain to host a summit finish sixty years previously in a stage won by the great Eddy Merckx.
In between those two first-category ascents, De Gendt neutralised the Cat.3 Grand Ballon for his teammate before Berhane upset the apple cart by zipping ahead of Belgian Wellens.
Meanwhile, Italian youngster Ciccone chipped away to kick off his bid to become the first rider since Claudio Chiappucchi to win the king of the mountains classification in both the Giro and Tour in one season.
But the Trek-Segafredo climber may have been forgiven for having loftier ambitions, for Ciccone, the best placed rider of the break on GC, rode most of the day as the virtual maillot jaune.
How bonus seconds helped Giulio Ciccone usurped Julian Alaphilippe
Back in the peloton, the Movistar team of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde massed to the front to up the tempo on the descent of the Ballon d’Alsace as the race hit the final 50km.
The increase in tempo split the pack and momentarily distanced local rider Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) as the advantage of the leaders came down to 6’30”.
With the break down to 13 riders following the expected distanting of German veteran Greipel, Belgian breakaway specialist De Gendt danced clear near the summit of the Cat.3 Col des Croix to protect the polka dot lead of teammate Wellens.
Having soloed clear to build up a lead of 35 seconds, De Gendt’s short-lived time on the front came to an end on the 20% ramp of the Col de Chevreres when, pedalling squares, he was passed by an elite quartet that featured his teammate Wellens, Teuns, Ciccone and Meurisse.
It was Ciccone who pipped Teuns over the summit of the penultimate climb to keep the pressure on Wellens in the polka-dot battle and pocket eight bonus seconds in the special bonus sprint - seconds which would prove key in his quest for the yellow jersey.
Ciccone and Teuns rode clear of the Belgian companions on the final 7km climb of La Planches des Belles Filles - being used for the fourth time in Tour history, but this time with an additional 900m steep gravel track ahead of the heightened summit which necessitated the prefix ‘Super’.
Behind, world champion Valverde set a fast tempo at the start of the climb as the five-minute gap started to reduce dramatically, before Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski came forward to lead teammates Thomas and Bernal on the front.
French champion Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic) put in a half-hearted attack before Spaniard Landa rode clear in pursuit of the leaders.
Ciccone and Teuns, who had played a bit of cat-and-mouse earlier in the climb, started to combine well as they hit the start of the final gravelled ramp.
Aware that his yellow jersey was under threat, Alaphilippe danced clear of the Ineos-led pack as things started to fragment on the series of double-digit segments leading through the trees to the roof of the Vosges.
Teuns dropped Ciccone in the final 50m, shaking his head in disbelief as he turned round and saw his rival defeated, and almost coming to a standstill before celebrating his victory over the line.
Ciccone settled for second place and seemed to have forgotten about his chances of taking the yellow jersey as, behind, Alaphilippe zipped past Landa as he swung onto the final straight.
But the Frenchman started to pay for his efforts and was caught by the Thomas and Pinot, whose earlier pacing with Groupama teammate David Gaudu had blown the group of favourites apart.
So, Ciccone was rewarded with both the yellow and white jerseys, and finished the day 13 points down on Wellens in the polka dot standings - quite a significant haul for a rider who had appeared so downcast on completing the stage.
But the big winner of the day, besides Teuns, was defending champion Thomas, who performed well on a finish perhaps not best suited to his strengths to take time off all his main rivals.