Geraint Thomas started the Tour’s 11th stage second overall in the general classification, and in line to take over the yellow jersey if Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) cracked. The Belgian did indeed falter in the high mountains, with Thomas proved best in the hunt for the stage win and reaching the line first.
He had attacked from the group of GC contenders on the final climb and bridged up to 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), who had gone clear on the previous descent. Thomas refused to ride and, after Dumoulin drove the pace up the mountain to try to preserve his gap on those behind, Thomas attacked with a kilometre to go.
He overhauled longtime stage leader Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), while behind his teammate Chris Froome jumped clear of Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and bridged to Dumoulin and Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing Team). Froome tried to get clear for second but Dumoulin led him across the line, 20 seconds back, with Caruso a further two seconds down.
Martin finished 27 seconds behind in sixth, while other GC riders Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) were eight through to 11th, finishing 59 seconds back.
Mikel Landa, who was spoken of before the race as a co-leader of the Movistar team, blew and finished one minute 47 seconds back. Alejandro Valverde had attacked from a long way out earlier in the stage and lost even more time, leaving Quintana as the team’s leader but now on the back foot.
“It is unreal,” said Thomas. “I didn’t expect it all. We were low on numbers, so it was more instinct when I went. I got a little gap and obviously Froomey didn’t have to ride. I committed and got across to Dumoulin. I was able to sit on him because Froomey was coming across. I could see Frosty [Nieve] – he is a good mate, it was a shame, but I had to go for that win.”
He ends the day one minute 25 seconds ahead of Froome, with Dumoulin third overall, one minute 44 back. Nibali is fourth overall at two minutes 14 seconds, with Roglic, Steven Kruijswijck (LottoNL-Jumbo), Landa, Bardet, Quintana and Martin now occupying the other places in the top ten.
Thomas commented about moving into the yellow jersey. He had started the day two minutes and 22 seconds behind Van Avermaet, who freely admitted he expected to lose the Maillot Jaune. “I knew there was a good chance, obviously,” he said. “But I didn’t know how anyone else was going to ride. To wear the yellow jersey is a massive honour. I managed to do it last year and to do it two years on the trot is really nice.”
He and the team had the pressure of seeing Valverde and Dumoulin both attacking before the final climb. “We were expecting attacks,” he said. “When they go, it is never nice to see them riding away. But we had confidence in each other and I rode really well.”
Froome described the outcome as “an amazing position for us. I don’t think we quite expected that going into today’s stage. I think initially everyone thought Alpe-d’Huez would be the decisive stage, and it still very well could be, but I think it puts us in a fantastic position ahead of tomorrow’s stage.
“I think [Thomas’ attack] was a bit of a spur of the moment thing for us but I think it made sense. It was perfect, we didn’t even have to talk and it was the right thing for G to do to push on there. I let the wheel go because I knew the onus would be on the rest of the guys to chase.
“[Dan Martin] put in a big acceleration there and I was surprised that I was the only one on his wheel. I think the main guy who stands out right now as a threat to us is Tom Dumoulin. He rode a very impressive stage today. I guess it depends how everyone is going to back up tomorrow as tomorrow is a really big stage.”
Martin was initially dropped when the attacks came on the final climb, but steadily rode back up to the Froome group, and then attacked hard. Froome was the only one able to go with them, and the two then chased the riders ahead. Martin did most of the riding, but Froome also contributed.
“I was really grateful to Chris for riding with me, as I knew with G up front he didn’t need to,” he said. “But, damn, he was strong and he was killing me… I was pretty tired at the end there, but considering how I felt, it was a pretty good operation. After the crash I wasn’t really thinking about the GC, just trying to do my best every day.
“I just love racing in the mountains. The last few days haven’t felt like racing as I have enjoyed it so much. It’s a shame that I enjoy something that hurts like hell. Racing on this mountain with this crowd – there is no feeling like it!”
HOW IT PLAYED OUT:
Following Tuesday’s first day in the high mountains, Wednesday’s stage was through similar terrain but promised to be more decisive. While stage 10 finished with a descent and a very brief ramp up to the finish, stage 11 had a much harder conclusion in store and it was likely that the GC riders’ group would blow apart.
Expectations of an explosive day were furthered by the distance: the stage from Albertville to La Rosière was just 108.5 kilometres in length. It featured uphill roads almost from the start, and an early intermediate sprint after just 11.5 kilometres. That was located at the foothills of the first of four categorised climbs, namely the hors category Montée de Bisanne (km 26). The others were the identically-ranked Col du Pré (km 57.5), the Cormet de Roselend (km. 70) and the final climb, the category one La Rosière.
As anticipated due to the short stage distance and the early intermediate sprint and KOM points, the breakaway attempts started immediately after the drop of the flag. Very active early on were the green jersey Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe), the 2017 King of the Mountains Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic), Romain Sicard (Direct Energie), Dani Navarro (Cofidis) and Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing Team). These were chased by a big group, but stayed clear through the intermediate sprint, where Sagan picked up top points.
Once past that sprint line, the world champion slipped backwards, job done for the day. The other four remained out front and were joined by Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) on the Montée de Bisanne ascent.
Before the top, 15 others also got up to them. The additions were Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), Darwin Atapuma (UAE Team Emirates), Gorka Izagirre Insausti (Bahrain-Merida), Marc Soler (Movistar Team), Rein Taaramäe (Direct Energie), Thomas De Gendt and Tomasz Marczynski (Lotto Soudal), Michael Valgren Andersen and Tanel Kangert (Astana Pro Team), Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Mitchelton-Scott), Mathias Frank (AG2R La Mondiale), Pawel Poljanski (Bora-Hansgrohe), Anthony Perez (Cofidis) and Amaël Moinard (Fortuneo-Samsic).
Alaphilippe jumped clear of the group to take full points atop the Montée de Bisanne (km 26), thus strengthening his grip on the mountains jersey. The peloton was a long way back and with 34.5 kilometres covered, was six minutes behind.
Alaphilippe, Barguil and De Gendt got a gap on the descent prior to the start of the Col du Pré, but were subsequently joined by the chasers. This group had increased slightly in side and was up to 30 riders; the additions were Fortuneo-Samsic’s Maxime Bouet and Elie Gesbert, Groupama-FDJ’s Rudy Molard and Arthur Vichot, Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac), Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), Stefan Küng (BMC Racing Team), Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
That made for a big, and somewhat unwieldy group. Fortuneo-Samsic realised this and drove the pace on the climb in order to thin out the list of those out front. It also wanted to target the KOM jersey for Barguil.
Meanwhile, back in the bunch, Movistar had taken over from Team Sky and increased the pace in the peloton, causing yellow jersey Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) to crack and lose time. Also suffering was Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), last year’s Tour runner-up, Trek-Segafredo’s GC rider Bauke Mollema and Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe).
Movistar’s driving at the front paved the way for a big attack by one of its three leaders, Alejandro Valverde. He surged just under four kilometres from the top of the climb, and approximately 53 from the finish. Two kilometres later he joined up with teammate Soler, who had dropped back from the break.
Alaphilippe had been Tuesday’s most impressive rider but was paying for his efforts, being dropped from the break. Barguil duly grabbed top points at the summit of the Col du Pré, content that his rival was losing out.
Further down the mountain, Soler was driving the pace in the chase, sheltering Valverde. They went over the top approximately four minutes behind Barguil and with the peloton over a minute further behind them.
CRACKS IN THE GC GROUP
Heading up the next climb, the Cormet de Roselend, the Bahrain-Merida team put the pressure on briefly. This enabled Vincenzo Nibali to test his rivals, but the surge in pace didn’t last long.
Out front, Barguil again took top points at the summit of the climb, with Valverde and Soler reaching that point two minutes later. The thinned-out peloton was a further one minute 15 seconds back.
On the descent, Matthias Frank (Ag2r La Mondiale) crashed out of the break. He flipped over a barrier but was fortunately not badly hurt. Further back, 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) attacked on the descent and was helped by teammate Søren Kragh Andersen.
“The attack was improvised, we went on intuition,” Dumoulin explained afterwards. “Søren was in the break and he is a mad man in the downhills. I told him to go at the front and go fast, but not take any risks and suddenly we had a gap.”
The duo got up to Valverde, with the trio dropping Soler. They were 40 seconds clear of the peloton, which was led by Team Sky. Meanwhile further up the road, Barguil, Valgren, Caruso and Nieve were clear and riding to try to get the stage win.
Heading into the final ten kilometres, Dumoulin was doing all the work with Valverde sitting on. The Team Sky-led peloton was just 20 seconds back and inching closer; it was initially unclear if Valverde was trying to save energy for when the junction was made, but his fatigue became apparent when he was dropped by the Dutchman. Also slipping back were Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and the white jersey, Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale), both shelled by the GC group.
Further ahead, those bidding for the stage win were pushing hard. Navarro and Jesus Herrada (both Cofidis) had been chasing the leaders and were drawing close to them. Nieve attacked hard just before they made the junction and gapped the others, with Caruso next in line.
As was the case on stage 10, Ilnur Zakarin, the Katusha-Alpecin leader got into difficulties and was dropped. Ditto for Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Valverde also went south, losing contact with the GC group, but the rider who he had been with a couple of kilometres earlier, Dumoulin, was riding well and extending his gap on the Sky group. With six kilometres left he was 55 seconds behind Nieve, and continuing to close in on the Spaniard.
WITH YELLOW ON THE HORIZON, THOMAS SURGES
With each passing kilometre the pace, and the stakes, became higher. The Team Sky train was losing riders, leaving less and less support for Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome. Egan Bernal was dropped, while Michal Kwiatkowski was looking more and more fatigued. The Polish rider then blew, with Thomas immediately attacking.
The Welshman got a big gap, and while Bardet went some way towards closing him down, the Frenchman was marked by Froome and eased back. Froome then attacked, but his surge was covered by Quintana and Bardet. The other GC riders were momentarily dropped, with Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) amongst those under pressure.
The stop-start racing continued with another jump by Bardet, followed by another counter by Froome. This was again marked by Quintana and Bardet, with Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) close by.
Martin had been dropped but gradually got back to the others. Once there he attacked hard, and Froome was the only one who could get up to him. “I saw that they had stopped and I was coming up behind, so I thought why not give it a go?” he said after the stage. “I knew on that last four kilometres that everyone would be looking at each other and if you could get a gap it could stay.”
Nieve was still out front and with three kilometres left, he was 31 seconds ahead of the Dumoulin/Thomas/Caruso group. Froome and Martin were 50 seconds back at the point, with the Bardet group 22 seconds further down.
Nieve was digging deep to try to stay ahead. He still had several seconds’ lead going under the kite, but Thomas attacked hard when he reached the same marker, flew past the Spaniard and went on to win. Froome dropped Martin approaching the kite and got up to Dumoulin and Caruso; he then kicked, but Dumoulin was able to cover him and both finished 20 seconds behind Thomas.
Dumoulin said that the stage finish location has special significance for him. “I actually learned to ski in this village when I was a little kid. My uncle rented a house here and the whole family came. This spring he passed away, just two weeks after my aunty also passed away. So my dad lost his brother and sister within two weeks of each other.
“Today I really wanted to perform well for them and I hope that I did them proud. I’ll keep doing my best every day. Today I had a good day. Maybe tomorrow I pay for it, but I’m happy with today.”
Martin feels that the ability to deal with repeated efforts will be what makes the difference in Paris. “This Tour is going to be about who has the least bad ‘bad day,’” he stated. “If I haven’t had the crash I would be a lot better off by now. I am just going to keep going what I am doing.”
As for those who went backwards rather than forwards, they will hope to step things up on Thursday and beyond. Quintana, Bardet, Nibali and others simply must do far better than they did on stage 11.
A modified version of this article originally appeared on CyclingTips
Imagery Courtesy of CorVos
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