Today at the Tour: Quick-Step’s emotional rollercoaster across the Pyrenees

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Even when it seems as though everything is going wrong, the Quick-Step Floors team finds a way to keep on winning.

Stage 16 of the Tour de France from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon, with five categorized climbs, was not off to a good start for the Quick-Step team, and yet it ended in another victory — their 51st win in 2018. Call it an emotional rollercoaster across the Pyrenees for the Belgian squad.

After 80km of racing, Tim “The Tractor” De Clercq abandoned due to stomach problems, bringing the team down to six remaining riders. Two hours later, Philippe Gilbert had a scary crash on the descent of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet while leading the race, flying over a parapet and into a ravine.

And yet another 90 minutes after that, Julian Alaphilippe closed out the day with a stage win and a near lock on the King of the Mountains competition — with Gilbert also on the podium as the day’s most combative rider.

Alaphilippe soloed to a second stage victory of this Tour — one in the Alps and now one in the Pyrenees — adding to the team’s two wins by Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria during the opening week. Eight teams have won at least one stage at this Tour; 14 teams have not. Quick-Step leads, with four stage wins.

It wasn’t the happiest of endings, however. After leaving the podium, Gilbert, who finished 31 minutes behind Alaphilippe, required assistance to get down a short flight of stairs. The 2012 world champion told a group of reporters that his Tour was over before getting into an ambulance to go to a local hospital where he would have an MRI on his left knee.

Toon Cruyt, Quick-Step’s team doctor, told Sporza that Gilbert had an accumulation of blood in the knee joint, and that he’d also landed hard on his lateral collateral ligament [LCL].

“We are going to take an MRI for sure, but the chance that he will start tomorrow is zero,” Cruyt said. “It is a small miracle that he has reached the finish, he was in so much pain, he really had to bite his teeth.”

Gilbert was one of many riders seen wiping his eyes after pepper spray, fired by a policeman to subdue farmers protesting a revision to a national subsidy program by dropping hay bales on the course, wafted into the bunch around the 30km point. Little did Gilbert know it would be far from the most eventful moment of his day.

The injured left leg of Philippe Gilbert following Stage 16 from Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon. Gilbert went on the podium to be presented with the combativity award, but then headed to a local hospital for an MRI, saying his Tour was over.

Gilbert and Alaphilippe were two among a breakaway group of 44 riders that formed after 100km of racing. Gilbert went clear of the group on the Portet d’Aspet, opening a gap of around one minute, while behind, Alaphilippe out-sprinted Barguil across the summit to add to his KOM lead.

On the descent, Gilbert overcooked a lefthand turn; the Belgian locked up the brakes but could not control his bike as he struck a stone wall and flew into a ravine. After a few tense moments, Gilbert was assisted out of the ravine, checked for injuries, and helped back onto a new machine.

X-rays ultimately revealed that Gilbert had finished the stage with a patella fracture.

“First of all, I want to say that I’m happy to be here after that tough moment,” he said. “I landed pretty hard on some stones, and initially I didn’t want to move, but someone from Mavic came and helped me stand up and crawl back from that ravine. This isn’t how I wanted to finish my Tour, and leaving it like this really hurts.”

Alaphilippe benefitted from a separate crash, hours later, when Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) lost traction on his front wheel through a lefthand turn on the descent of the Col du Portillon while leading the Frenchman on the descent with 7km remaining on the stage. The Quick-Step rider passed Yates and went on to win alone, 15 seconds ahead of Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), while Yates finished third.

“I came here for a training camp so I knew the finale with the tricky downhill,” Alaphilippe said at the finish line. “Adam Yates crashed, and I feel sorry for him. I waited a bit, to see if he was okay. I also took some risks and it paid off. I’m super happy to win. It was my goal to win a stage, and now I’ve got two.”

Gilbert and Alaphilippe shared an embrace at the podium presentation, where the Belgian rider had his left knee bandaged above his sock, which had been soaked with blood. A few hours after the stage, the Tour de France announced that Gilbert had abandoned.

“Seeing [Gilbert’s] bike on the ground, I got a bit scared, so I slowed down on the descent,” Alaphilippe said. “It’s a real pity he crashed and is now out of the Tour. He’s been a huge helper for the team during the race, and he deserves a lot of credit for the role played in our success.”

Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe shared an embrace at the podium presentation in Bagnères-de-Luchon after Stage 16.

The Flèche Wallonne champion is now in prime position to win the KOM competition, leading Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) by 49 points, 122 to 73. Barguil also crashed on the descent of the Portet, though he finished 19th on the stage, 6:29 down.

“I feel an enormous joy,” Alaphilippe said. “It leaves me speechless. It’s been a hard day of suffering. It look a lot of time for the breakaway to go. Eventually it was a big group at the front. Honestly, everyone was at the limit. I wasn’t at 100%, but luckily I wasn’t the only one who was tired, otherwise I wouldn’t have won.”

And it’s that fighting spirit, along with a deep roster of sprinters, classics specialists, and opportunists, that has seen Quick-Step win so prolifically all season long. The team’s 51 victories in 2018 have been achieved by 13 different riders, buoyed by a near-sweep of the Belgian classics in March and April. Italian sprinter Elia Viviani has won 14 races in 2018, while Gaviria has won nine and Alaphilippe has won seven. By comparison, EF Education First-Drapac and Katusha-Alpecin, both ranked last among 18 WorldTour teams, have each won just four races all season.

Five stages remain in this Tour de France, and five Quick-Step riders remain: Alaphilippe, Niki Terpstra, Bob Jungels, Yves Lampaert, and Max Richeze.

Given their track record this season, would anyone be surprised to see them win another before this Tour is over?

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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