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After 18 stages of assignments, pop quizzes, and midterms, the Tour de France peloton faced its final exam Friday in the Pyrenees, with a 200km stage that featured six categorized climbs, including the fearsome 17.1km climb of the Col du Tourmalet, the highest point of this year’s route, as well as the 16.6km Col d’Aubisque.
It was a day that saw courageous attacks, pure suffering, and daredevil descending, and it may have just set the final podium in place.
Yes, there is still Saturday’s 31km time trial, which won’t decide the overall winner, but may impact the other podium positions. But for all intents and purposes, the Stage 20 TT really only matters to perhaps a dozen riders. For nearly everyone else, it’s a stay-within-the-time-cut day before Sunday’s ceremonial ride to Paris, where the sprinters will have one last shot at glory.
Because the top four on the overall classification are all TT specialists — second through fourth overall made up the podium of last year’s world time trial championship, in that order — it’s really too close to say who might win the stage.
Geraint Thomas’ 2:05 lead over Tom Dumoulin is, barring catastrophe, insurmountable; Dumoulin wil not take back four seconds per kilometre on the Welshman. For that reason, it’s reasonable to expect that Thomas won’t be taking the same kinds of risks as the others, and may not be in with a shot to win the stage.
Instead, Dumoulin needs to worry more about Primoz Roglic, who sits just 19 seconds behind. Dumoulin is normally the superior rider against the clock, but not by a large margin, and Roglic has shown to be stronger in this final week.
Meanwhile Chris Froome now sits fourth overall, 32 seconds behind Dumoulin and 13 seconds behind Roglic. Given how Froome has struggled the past few days, and who he’s up against, it’s not likely he’ll take time from either man, but anything is possible as Froome has two Olympic bronze medals in the discipline.
A sensible prediction is that the top four on GC will remain in the same order after Saturday’s time trial, with Thomas still holding a lead of over one minute, with the strong possibility that Roglic could overtake Dumoulin, and with Froome most likely off the podium.
But first, a look back at Friday’s final exam. Let’s hand out some grades, shall we?
(Note: Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, winner of the 65km Stage 17, dropped from fifth to ninth overall on the day, suffering from the effects of a heavy crash on Stage 18. For this reason, his performance won’t be graded.)
Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo): A+
The Slovenian was the star of the day, attacking and countering on the Col du Soulor, the steep uncategorized climb between the Col des Bordères and the Col d’Aubisque, before riding away with 10km left on the 19km descent to Laruns, taking the stage win by 19 seconds, as well as the 10-second time bonus. Roglic’s attacks on the final climb put Froome into trouble and forced Dumoulin to react; his attack on the descent put every GC contender into difficulty. For the second consecutive year, Roglic won the queen stage of the Tour; this time, he climbed into third place on the general classification. Roglic started this race as a dark-horse pick, having never finished in the top 35 of a Grand Tour. Now he’s in contention for second overall, and given how well he’s riding, who would bet against him?
Self-assessment: “It’s crazy, but it’s a very nice feeling. I had great legs today. I really tried a lot of times. It was perfect. Going downhill, I opened a little gap and I knew it would be hard for anyone to close it, so I pushed harder and harder. When I heard I had 10 seconds lead, just 5km before the finish, I gave it all till the end. I wasn’t thinking of the podium, I was fighting for the stage win, and it worked out very well. The time trial is tailor-made for me. but it’s the same for everyone. Tomorrow it’ll be a new day and a new focus. I’m not thinking about Tom Dumoulin or Chris Froome. I’m thinking about myself.”
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky): A+
The Welshman played it cool all day long, positioned behind his Team Sky domestiques as they chased — and behind LottoNL-Jumbo once Steven Kruiswijk’s and Primoz Roglic’s GC positions were threatened. When Roglic and Dumoulin took turns attacking on the final climb, Thomas followed dutifully, keeping his cool when Froome and Bernal had lost contact. It wasn’t Thomas’ job to chase after Roglic slipped away on the descent of the Aubisque, so he didn’t. Instead, Thomas sprinted for the line in Laruns and finished second, pocketing six bonus seconds and extending his overall lead over Dumoulin to 2:05, with only Saturday’s time trial standing between him and Paris. As race commentator Matthew Keenan said, Thomas had the answer to every question on today’s exam.
Self-assessment: “I’m really happy to get through that. We expected a hard day but the racing was really on. It was quite stressful at one point when Landa went so early and took a lot of time with Bardet. LottoNL-Jumbo rode hard and it was on all day. It was a quite a fast descent so it was nice to get through that in one piece. I knew all I had to do was follow Tom Dumoulin as I knew he’d be chasing Roglic. It was all under control and the guys rode really well. I’m really happy to tick that off. It’s obviously getting closer. One more day and I need to do a good TT now. I’ve got a nice advantage but I’ve still got to be on the ball. It’s never comfortable.”
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors): A
After winning two stages, Alaphilippe had little left to prove, leading the King of the Mountains classification with 140 points to Warren Barguil’s 73 points. But the Quick-Step rider rode into the early 18-rider breakaway and took maximum points over the Col d’Aspin, mathematically sealing the KOM classification. He held on to take maximum points, as well as the prestigious Souvenir Jacques Goddet award, over the top of Tourmalet; he also set a record as the first rider to crest four Hors Categorie climbs in first position at one Tour de France, which Alaphilippe did over the Glières, Bisanne, Madeleine and Tourmalet. Alaphilippe didn’t end his day there; he continued pull at the front of the group, giving his all to help his teammate Bob Jungels, who moved up into 13th overall.
Self-assessment: “I’m left for words to describe how happy I am. Today, I had Col d’Aspin as my goal to secure the polka dot jersey, after which I tried to help Bob [Jungels]. I’m very satisfied with how I went today. This is way beyond what I had imagined. Coming into the Tour de France, my only goal was to get a stage victory, which was something I was dreaming of for some years now; the KOM jersey wasn’t a priority at that time, but after landing it on my shoulders following the success in Le Grand-Bornand, I began thinking of taking it home. That’s why today, when I led the breakaway group over the top of Tourmalet, which is such a legendary and revered climb, I was so happy. It’s been a really hard and tiring race, but I am extremely satisfied with what I accomplished together with my team.”
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe): A
They say it’s not the day after a crash that hurts the most, it’s the day after that. For green jersey Peter Sagan, that meant all of the stiffness and soreness of his crash descending the Col du Portet caught up with him on the Tour’s queen stage, with a total of 4800 metres (16,000 feet) of elevation gain on the day. Sagan was clearly suffering early on, his position on the bike twisted and contorted, and the concern that he might not make the time cut hung like a cloud over the day. In the end, however, Sagan finished in the grupetto, well within the 45-minute time limit, and will almost certainly claim a sixth green jersey in Paris on Sunday.
Self-assessment: “The whole stage was very difficult for me. It’s the worse day I’ve had on a bike for 10 years. I guess you could see on TV how much I was suffering. Had this been a classic, I would have pulled out. Had I not had the green jersey, I may have acted differently. But I was wearing it and I was going to make it to the finish line, within or outside the time limit. Finishing this stage has been more than a victory for me. It has been really tough and I only made it thanks to my teammates Daniel [Oss], Boddy [Maciej Bodnar] and Lukas [Pöstlberger], who stayed by my side throughout the whole stage to support me.”
Andrey Amador (Movistar); Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo); Egan Bernal (Team Sky): A
Stage 19 was a day where tactics, and teammates, were paramount. And these three domestiques performed to perfection, each in a different way. Andrey Amador got into the day’s breakaway and then pushed the pace once Mikel Landa bridged across, pushing the gap out to 3:30 — and Landa within one minute of the virtual race lead. Behind, Gesink set a hard tempo for his teammates Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruiswijk on the early slopes of the Aubisque. And after Froome had been distanced, Bernal once again put in an impressive ride, helping to bridge the defending champion back to the leaders over the Col du Soulor at 25km to go before setting tempo on the final ramps of the Aubisque.
Mikel Landa (Movistar): B+
It was the move everyone was waiting for — Mikel Landa’s final bid to improve a GC battle hampered by crashes on Stages 9 and 10. Landa, who started the day seventh overall, followed Ilnur Zakarin’s attack from the GC group at the bottom of Tourmalet and then used teammates Daniele Bennati and Andrey Amador, up the road in the breakaway, to get to the front of the race on the Aubisque alongside Rafal Majka, Romain Bardet, and Zakarin. They were caught near the top of the climb, with Landa finishing seventh on the stage. For his efforts, Landa moved into to sixth overall, and was presented the stage’s combatively award for his efforts.
Self-assessment: “We had to try it from afar, and I’m happy to have made this attempt. When I made my move at the Tourmalet, I knew it would be really difficult, but at some points of the race, I even dreamt of the stage win and even a GC podium finish. The team’s work was enormous, most notably from Andrey, who has proven to be an amazing rider and a marvelous person. Sadly, it was a difficult day for many reasons. The downhills required to spend lots of energy to keep a decent speed. The break didn’t cooperate as well as I’d have liked to, and there were some big efforts behind to bring us back before the Aubisque. At that final descent, Roglic put some meters on the rest of the group, and I couldn’t fight for the win into the sprint. It’s also a sad finish because I wasn’t able to pay Andrey back for his work, but there were so many teams looking for something in the finale. Katusha was working during the stage to defend a 10th spot overall. LottoNL-Jumbo put on a big pace and sort of helped out Sky defend the jersey, There’s always someone who spoils the party.”
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo): B+
For a moment on the Col d’Aubisque, it wasn’t two Sky jerseys in the yellow jersey group of four riders, but rather two LottoNL-Jumbo jerseys — eventual stage winner Primoz Roglic and teammate Steven Kruijswijk. The Dutch rider attacked early on the Aubisque, prompting the counters by Dumoulin and Roglic that put Froome into difficulty. He attacked again late, forcing an already struggling Froome to chase. Those efforts would see Kruijswijk lose contact with the lead group over the top of the Aubisque, but his ninth-place finish on the stage, 12 seconds behind Froome, would move him into fifth overall.
Self-assessment: “It’s a beautiful day. It was a very tough stage, but as a team, we played it perfectly. Primoz was very strong today and Robert has also done a tremendous job to decrease the gap to the breakaway. The plan was that I would attack at the ascent of the Soulor and see how they would react. Just before the top, Primoz came back. We both tried it a few times. I’m glad he finished it off in a superb way. We’ve won the stage and we’re now third and fifth overall. We can hardly do any better.”
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb): B
Dumoulin did everything he needed to do to maintain the gap to Thomas — but that wasn’t really the gap that mattered most, as he was never going to make up two minutes in a 31km time trial. Though he tried to contain Roglic, ultimately Dumoulin could not, letting a gap open to Roglic on the descent of the Aubsique with 10km to go, watching his lead over the Solvenian slip away, from 48 seconds to 19 seconds. Dumoulin finished sixth on the stage, and he didn’t win himself any fans by complaining that Roglic had received a draft from a television motorbike, particularly considering Dumoulin had been handed a 20-second penalty for drafting from a team car after a mechanical on Stage 6. Given Roglic’s momentum, it’s entirely possible that the world TT champion will see his second overall position become third overall after Saturday’s time trial.
Self-assessment: “Primoz was the strongest today and I have a lot of respect for his victory. He was flying downhill and eventually I got dropped on a straight part just because he was on his top tube and full in the slipstream of the motorbike. I was sprinting to his wheel and I could not get closer and I just got dropped on the only straight part of the downhill. It’s ridiculous. I wasn’t surprised to be doing most of the work in the chase on the downhill, I made the gap, so it was up to me to close it. Froome helped a bit, but that’s it.”
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale): B
Bardet looked to find redemption in a disappointing Tour by bridging up to Zakarin’s attack on the Tourmalet, courtesy of teammate Silvan Dillier. When Landa accelerated a few kilometres later, it put Zakarin and Bardet straight out the back. Only Majka could follow, while Bardet yelled at Zakarin to help bridge the gap. Ultimately they all came back together and led the race on the Aubisque until they were caught by the yellow jersey group. Bardet charged over the top of the Aubisque, distancing Froome and forcing a reaction from Roglic. He finished third on the stage, and moved from eighth to seventh overall.
Self-assessment: “I did my best, and I believed in my chance for victory until the end. On the descent, facing Dumoulin and Roglic, who are pure rouleurs, I realized that there was nothing more I could do. This Tour de France never quite smiled on me; I don’t know what more I could have done. It’s disappointing, but sometimes it’s like that. I decided to go on the attack on the Tourmalet. I just wanted to have some fun. It was going to be this stage or never to go to the attack and try to make a big difference. In any case, I loved being a major player on the stage today.”
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe): B
On the one hand, Majka jumped on the move with Zakarin, Bardet, and Landa that nearly stayed away; the Polish rider was the last to be caught, just over the top of the Aubisque, and finished fifth on the stage. On the other hand, the Majka that won two stages and the KOM jersey in 2014 would have opened a bigger gap and stayed clear. That version of Majka hadn’t crashed several times in the opening week, however.
Self-assessment: “Today, once again we had a really hard stage. I felt well and I tried again. My legs have been recovering during the last week and I have been attacking a lot and did my best. It’s a pity I missed the win today, but I am also happy about my condition. Today, I was back at my best. In addition to the crashes in the first week, I think the pressure I put on myself for the GC could have been a bit too much.”
Chris Froome (Team Sky): B-
It’s hard not to grade Froome against the curve, and we’re still growing accustomed to seeing the four-time Tour winner struggling, or even working for his teammate in the yellow jersey. Froome was gapped on the Col du Soulor, the steep early part of the Col du Aubisque, though he regained contact courtesy of Egan Bernal, and even chased a move from Steven Kruiswijk over the top, and again in pursuit of Roglic on the descent. Froome finished alongside teammate Thomas, eighth on the stage in the select GC group. The defending champ slipped to fourth overall but remains just 13 seconds off the podium with Saturday’s 31km time trial set to prove decisive.
Self-assessment: “I was just hanging on there, doing the most I could, trying to marshal Roglic a bit, and trying to help out in the final.”
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin): C+
Even on a day when Zakarin was dropped on two descents, his hands on the brake hoods, the Russian initiated the move that launched Landa, Majka and Bardet, and ultimately Zakarin managed to move up two positions on the general classification, to 10th overall, leapfrogging Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Poor descending skills make for wasted energy chasing back on, but Zakarin was able to claw his way back, twice.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott): D
After coming to this Tour targeting the podium, there’s only one way to describe Adam Yates’ performance — disappointing. Yates started Stage 19 sitting 29th overall, looking for a stage win in the mountains to redeem his Tour. He was the first rider to attack on the day, and he and teammate Mikel Nieve ultimately made the day’s breakaway, but Yates was dropped before the top of the Tourmalet and then could not hang on to the main GC group. He finished the stage 29 minutes down, barely ahead of the laughing group.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.