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Having won Wednesday’s 11th stage and taken the yellow jersey, Geraint Thomas was again first to the line on Thursday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez. The Team Sky rider rode for Chris Froome on the final climb but was able to come back to him after his subsequent attack was snuffed out by Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb). These three plus Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) continued their tussle to the top, with lulls in pace enabling a dropped Mikel Landa (Movistar) to get back on with a kilometre to go.
The five then sprinted it out for the win, with Thomas diving into the final corner, getting a gap and holding off Dumoulin to the line. The race leader beat the Dutchman by two seconds, with Bardet and Froome a further second back. Landa was at seven seconds, while Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) took sixth and seventh, 13 seconds behind.
Nibali might have been in contention for the stage win, but was inadvertently brought down by a fan just inside the final four kilometres. He was marking a surge by Froome, but ended up on the ground. He finished, but later withdrew from the race due to a fractured vertebra.
“I am speechless. I don’t know what to say,” admitted Thomas. “There is not a chance in hell I thought I was going to win today. I just followed Dumoulin, Bardet and Froomey. I rode over [Nibali’s] back wheel, I nearly came down myself. It is just unbelievable. I did say yesterday this race is made [up] for me now. Today that’s it – I can be happy now, for sure.”
However although Thomas gained three seconds plus a ten second time bonus on Froome, extending his advantage to one minute 38 seconds, he played down suggestions that he could keep yellow to Paris.
“Maybe for the next few days. But look, this race is so hard,” he said. “You never know how the body reacts. Like I said yesterday, I am still riding for Froomey. Froomey is still the man. He knows how to ride for three weeks. [The word] legend gets used way to much, but he is probably the best ever. I am just going to enjoy this. I can’t believe it. Alpe d’Huez, man. I am speechless.”
Dumoulin picked up a time bonus for second place and this plus his second gap over Froome moved him from 19 seconds to 11 seconds behind him. He ends the day one minute 50 seconds off yellow.
“Today was absolutely mental,” he said. “Lots of GC riders attacked early on and it was a full on chase the whole day. It was really crazy. I could have had a chance to win if I did everything well, but I ended up in last position before the sprint started and that’s when I lost the stage. I think that if I was in good position then I would have had a chance.
“I am disappointed for sure – I hope that I stay strong but anything can happen in the third week.”
Nibali was disappointed with his fall, not least because he appeared to be riding well. “I have some back pain after the crash, will check with my osteopath at the hotel. There were many motos around. I tried to follow Froome, and I crashed into a moto when it stopped.” His view may have been obscured by smoke from spectators’ flares.
Despite Nibali’s quote, footage emerged after the stage which suggested that his fall was due to a fan rather than a motorbike.
Tour neophyte Egan Bernal did impressive work for Team Sky, riding several kilometres of Alpe d’Huez on the front and causing riders such as Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) to lose contact.
“We did a good effort on the last climb and it was a great feeling for me. It was a great experience to work for the team,” he said.
“I’m in one of the best teams in the world. I knew I had to control things. I like to work for this team and I’m proud of myself.”
How it played out:
Following the fireworks on stage 11, the Tour continued with another summit finish: a climbing clash to the top of Alpe d’Huez. Stage 12 of the race began in Bourg-Saint-Maurice and, over a 175.5 kilometre distance, would take in the hors category Col de la Madeleine [km 53.5), the second category Lacets de Montvernier (km 83), then the hors category pairing of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer (km 121) and Alpe d’Huez.
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) started the day in yellow, one minute 25 seconds ahead of teammate Chris Froome and one minute 44 up on Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb). Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) competed the top six. There was one non-starter; last year’s runner-up Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac). Also missing were Mark Cavendish and Mark Renshaw (Team Dimension Data), plus Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin). They each finished outside the time cut on Wednesday.
Early attackers were Ed Theuns (Team Sunweb) and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), both of whom tried solo moves but were brought back. However Chavanel attacked again on the foothills of the Col de la Madeleine, causing others to surge too and putting sprinters such as Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) under pressure.
The Fortuneo-Samsic team of Warren Barguil were trying to get him clear; he duly got away, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) joined him. Others also got up, swelling the breakaway group to approximately 30 riders. Behind, Team Sky was chasing.
Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) was also in the move and put in an attack 13 kilometres from the summit. This whittled down the numbers of riders out front. Also in the move were Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who started the day sixth and 11th overall. Kruijswijk was just two minutes 40 seconds back, while Valverde was at 4 minutes 28 seconds.
Their GC prominence prompted concerns from the other riders in the break, who were worried about the bunch trying to keep close tabs on them. However the two wouldn’t agree to drop back.
Also in the break was Wednesday’s longtime stage leader Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott), who was caught close to the line and missed out on the stage win, as well as mountains leader Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep Floors) and Barguil. The latter jumped to try to get the mountains points, but Alaphilippe was able to get by him before the line. Serge Pauwels (Team Dimension Data) was third.
The Sky-led peloton went over the top two minutes 45 seconds after Alaphilippe. That made Kruijswijk race leader on the road, and the gap continued to grow. Rolland attacked in the feed zone and got away before the Lacets de Montvernier climb (km 83), staying clear to the summit and taking top points there. Alaphilippe and Pauwels were next.
Rolland continued to gain time and raced down the descent and through the intermediate sprint. He was still clear starting the Col de la Croix de Fer, four minutes 20 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey group, and was joined soon afterwards by Valverde and Kruijswijk. The latter then pushed ahead with 72 kilometres remaining, starting a big solo move. He increased his advantage over the yellow jersey group to five minutes 40 seconds, consolidating his virtual lead.
Further back, sprinters such as Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Fernando Gaviria (QuickStep Floors) and Rick Zabel (Katusha-Alpecin) retired from the race. Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was also in difficulty and slid out the back of the group of GC riders.
In contrast, Kruijswijk was riding strongly. He was over three minutes clear of Barguil, Nieve and Majka at the top of the Croix de Fer, while the peloton was a full six minutes back.
Team Sky upped the pace in response and with 16 kilometres remaining, had narrowed the lead to four and a half minutes. However Kruijswijk was resisting well and still had had over four minutes seconds starting Alpe d’Huez.
Battle on the Alpe
Team Sky was gradually losing riders and on the early slopes of the climb, Thomas and Froome had just Egan Bernal left working for them. He rode strongly and caused Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) to crack. In contrast, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was feeling well and put in an attack. Bernal was able to gradually reel him in, then Nairo Quintana (Movistar) had a go.
The accelerations put Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) into difficulty. However the pace settled somewhat when Bernal brought Quintana back, and the Dane was able to recover. However that didn’t last long; Fuglsang went south again when Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) attacked.
Landa cracked and Bardet continued alone, trying to stretch things out over Bernal. The surges had had a big effect on Kruijswijk’s lead, which was down to two minutes and five seconds with 6.5 kilometres left. Hopes were high amongst the Movistar team that Quintana could make a big move, but instead he cracked and was dropped by the pace of his compatriot Bernal.
The Colombian continued to set the tempo, belying his status as the youngest rider in the race. He limited Bardet’s gains for some time, but the Frenchman then started to draw clear. Bernal ramped up the pace in response, then blew; race leader Geraint Thomas took over, apparently riding for Froome.
Further ahead, Kruijswijk was digging deep, trying to stay clear. His gap was down to just 40 seconds with four kilometre left; meanwhile, Bardet’s advantage was being chipped away by Thomas, who set things up for a Froome attack. Froome duly jumped, bridged to Bardet and dropped him, while behind Nibali crashed.
Froome caught Kruijswijk with 3.5 kilometres to go and continued up the mountain, facing boos and catcalls by some spectators. He had earlier been shoved by a spectator. Dumoulin was leading the chase and gradually dragged Froome back, making the junction with three kilometres to go. Thomas and Bardet were also there, while Nibali was chasing hard behind and trying to limit his losses.
Bardet still had something left and surged again with 2.8 kilometres left, only to be marked by Froome. This led to a big stall in pace amongst the four leaders, with the statemate enabling Landa to get back up. Bardet went again with 2.6 kilometres left, getting a gap. Froome again tried to close, and gradually inched up to him. Dumoulin surged once the junction was made, but Thomas was the able to go with him. Froome and Bardet then came back.
Landa had been distanced but bridged with one kilometre to go. This made it five in contention for the stage win. He attacked soon afterwards, but was marked by Thomas and the others. Thomas lead around the final corner and went flat out for the line, getting a gap and taking the win. Dumoulin chased hard and got second, two seconds back, while Bardet and Froome were next over the line.
Landa finished fifth, with Roglic and Nibali sixth and seventh. Thomas’ stage win saw him extend his lead to one minute 39 over Froome and one minute 50 on Dumoulin; Nibali is two minutes 37 seconds back, with Roglic at two minutes 46 and Bardet at three minutes seven seconds.
Kruijswijk had started the day sixth overall but his gamble saw him drift down to eighth. Still, he enlivened the stage, gained plaudits for his strong ride and helped put pressure on Team Sky. He and Roglic will continue to look for opportunities in the days ahead, as will Sky’s other rivals.