Young Frenchman Romain Bardet has taken a courageous solo victory on Stage 18 of the Tour de France and yet again no one could shake race leader Chris Froome in the overall standings.
It was fitting that a Frenchman would reign supreme on this stage from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne that followed the route the great French Emperor, Napoleon, took when he returned from exile in 1815.
Bardet was part of a strong 29 man breakaway that escaped on the day’s first climb but was kept on a tight leash by Giant-Alpecine and Trek Factory Racing throughout the early racing.
Spainard Joaquin Rodriguez gathered the early King of the Mountain points with little competition from the rest of the break as the race rolled over the early hills.
When the race hit the foot of the giant 20km climb up the Col du Glandon it looked like the peloton would reel in the escapees small 2 minute gap.
However a series of attacks within the break shed the excess baggage in the group leaving the likes of Bardet, Rodriguez, Pierre Rolland, Andrew Talansky, Jakob Fuglsang, Bob Jungles and Winner Anacona to build their momentum up the day’s biggest climb.
1km from the summit and 45km from the finish was when Bardet made his move, leading the race over the Glandon and descending beautifully to build up a 30 second lead.
On the day’s final climb up the Montvernier, Bardet managed to hold off the chasing group and despite a valiant effort from runner-up Pierre Rolland, descend untouched to take his second ever Tour stage win.
Bardet’s effort to lead over the Glandon and Montvernier also pulled him up into equal first of the King of the Mountains with Joaquin Rodriguez.
With plenty of points on offer over the next two stages we could see those two fight it out for the right to wear the polka-dot-jersey into Paris on Sunday.
In the General Classification battle a number of riders threw some heavy jabs but nothing was able to stick, as Chris Froome and team Sky methodically chased down every move thrown against them.
The crowd was particularly roused by an attack on the Glandon from Alberto Contador, who followed a move by 10th, 8th and 6th placed Warren Barguil, Mathias Frank and Robert Gesink and built up a lead of 45 seconds over Froome.
The attack put a number of riders in difficulty, 9th placed Baulk Mollema was struggling off the back and it shed a number of Froome’s support riders including Richie Porte, leaving him with only Geraint Thomas as support.
However the promising move was eventually reeled in with the help of Movistar and was caught at the start of the Glandon descent.
Those looking for life in the GC battle will be bouyed by the ease with which Quintana seemed to accelerate after attacks from Nibali and Contador but the Columbian is really leaving it to the last minute to chase down the 3 minute advantage Froome has on him.
While Froome does not look like the rider that destroyed the peloton on Stage 14 in the Pyrenees, even an uncomfortable looking Froome managed everything Valverde, Contador and Nibali could throw at him.
The next shorter stages suit the Columbian much more than this one but he will have a hard time reeling in such a large deficit in just two stages.
1. Romain Bardet (AG2R)
2. Pierre Rolland (Europecar) +0.33
3. Winner Anacona, (Movistar) +0.59
4. Bob Jungels (Trek) +0.59
5. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +0.59
1. Chris Froome (Sky)
2. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +3.10
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +4.09
4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +6.34
5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) +6.40
6. Robert Gesink (LottoNL Jumbo) +7.39
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) +8.04
8. Mathias Frank (IAM) +8.47
9. Baulk Mollema (Trek) +12.06
10. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +13.02
The second day in the Alps awaits the peloton on Stage 18 as the finish line of the 2015 Tour de France grows ever closer, join The Roar live from 10:00pm (AEST) for updates and race commentary.
Some serious alpine climbing awaits today on the trip from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with over 10 summits of torture spaced out over 186.5-kilometres.
The first 120-kilometre ‘warm up’ crosses five second or third category climbs and a number of unrated smaller peaks before the peloton hits the 22-kilometre monster: The Col du Glandon.
22-kilometres at an average of 6.9 per cent, The Glandon hits it’s steepest 12 per cent slopes at the summit when the riders are already reaching their limits.
The Glandon summit dangles 40-kilometres from the finish and the steep 20-kilometres is followed by the new climb to the Tour, the hair pin filled Lacets de Montvernier.
With 18 hairpin turns in just 3.4-kilometres The Montvernier looks likes someone has strung a shoelace along the side of a mountain and many are already comparing it to the legendary Alpe D’Huez.
Once the peloton hits the top of Montvernier it will be a race to the bottom with a flat finish.
It’s an absolute brute of a stage that will take no prisoners and could see the big teams really play cat and mouse all day long, particularly up the day’s biggest climb, The Glandon.
Realistically though, The Glandon probably comes too early for any sustainable attacks from the favourites, however, the long descent down it could be the perfect place for an all or nothing attack from Vincenzo Nibali or Alberto Contador.
Both are known for taking risks on descents and would fancy their chances of keeping a gap across the Montvernier, a real pure climbers slope.
Quintana is a threat every day the race is in the Alps so all eyes will be on him but the descents down The Glandon and Montvernier mean this is probably his least suited of the mountain stages.
The sheer volume of climbs will mean any breakaway will have it’s work cut out for it if it is going to last but there are a number of big name riders who haven’t managed to make an impact this Tour, so they will be on the prowl for a win.
Rigerberto Uran, Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and last year’s runner up Jean Christophe Peraud are just some of the names who have been confined to playing second fiddle this Tour, if a break gets down the road don’t be surprised to see these riders in it.
Joaquin Rodriguez could also be back out on the prowl for King of the Mountain points after losing his lead in the competition on yesterday’s stage.
It is near impossible to tell who could figure in a breakaway but I’ll tip Romain Bardet to try and snag his first win of the Tour after coming second twice in the Pyrenees.
On the GC front I think today will be a quieter day as the route’s descent into a flat finish will mean it’s hard to keep away from the main pack. However don’t be surprised if you see Contador, Gessink or Nibali attack.
But who do you think will take this monster stage? Let us know in the comments and join us on The Roar from 10pm for live updates, commentary and chat.