Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) took second place behind surviving breakaway rider and stage winner Pello Bilbao (Astana) to extend his overall lead and close in on victory in the 2018 Critérium du Dauphiné.
On a stage that was almost a carbon copy of stage 11 of this year’s Tour de France Thomas had briefly found himself short of team-mates earlier in the stage as Ag2r La Mondiale set a tough pace on the Col du Pré, the second of four climbs on the day, to set up attacks by Pierre Latour and Romain Bardet.
However while Latour was able to bridge to the day’s large break, Bardet’s attack on the descent of the Cormet de Roseland was quickly neutralised meaning that the stage would all come down to the 12.7km climb to La Rosière.
Up front the break was whittled down with attacks by Latour and Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), before Bilbao attacked to go solo and stage a heroic effort to hold off the GC contenders and take a prestigious stage win.
In the peloton a hard pace by Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky) had whittled the group down to just a handful of riders, with second place overall Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing) among those dropped, before attacks by Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) were followed by Bardet and Thomas to form an elite four-man GC group.
Both Martin and Bardet tried to distance Thomas in the latter part of the climb, but the Welshman was equal to them before launching a huge attack of his own with 500m to go that no one was able to follow.
That saw Thomas cross the line 21 seconds behind Bilbao with a small gap back to Martin and Bardet, and a little more back to Yates.
The result means that Thomas now holds the race lead by 1-29 over Yates and 2-01 over Bardet with just one stage remaining.
How it happened
Stage six of the Critérium du Dauphiné saw yet another summit finish, but with the riders having to tackle the tough climbs of the Montée de Bisanne, Col du Pré, and Cormet de Roselend on the way to the finish in La Rosière midway up the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard.
The climb of the Montée de Bisanne came early in the stage and saw a large move of 25 riders get away. In the break were Pello Bilbao, Dario Cataldo, Bakthyar Kozhatayev and Hugo Houle (Astana), Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates), Axel Domont and Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Lukas Pöstleberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Jesus Herrada (Cofidis), Hector Carretero (Movistar), Pieter Serry (Quick-Step Floors), Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ), Ian Boswell and Pavel Kotchekov (Katusha-Alpecin), Robert Power and Carlos Verona (Mitchelton-Scott), Warren Barguil, Romain Hardy and Amaël Moinard (Fortuneo-Samsic), Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac), Thomas Degand (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo) Arnaud Courteille (Vital Concept), Tsgabu Grmay (Trek-Segafredo) and Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data).
That large group reached the top of the first climb with a lead of three minutes with Cataldo in his polka dot jersey taking maximum points at the summit.
After a short stretch through the valleys around Beaufort the Col du Pré began to make itself felt, with the break and peloton being whittled down on the narrow roads and steep gradients.
In the bunch Ag2r La Mondiale were particularly prominent, setting a high tempo on the double digit gradients that saw Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), and Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) among those being dropped.
Ag2r’s pace seemed to be to set up a move by Romain Bardet, but it was in fact Pierre Latour who attacked close to the summit and over the short descent that followed, the short climb to the summit of the Cormet de Roseland, and the long descent towards Bourg St Maurice, he was able to work his way across to the slimmed down break.
The technical descent off the Cormet de Roseland also gave a chance for Bardet to test Thomas’s descending skills, the Frenchman putting the pressure on and opening a gap of around 10 seconds. However Thomas still had a couple of Team Sky team-mates at his side, and by the base of the final climb the group of favourite was back together.
The first attack out of the peloton on the final climb came with 12.7km to go as Marc Soler (Movistar) accelerated clear, while Pierre Latour attacked from the break. Latour’s move didn’t get very far but Soler was more successful, linking up with Carretero who had dropped back from the break.
Latour attacked again with 10km to go, but was countered by a strong move by Ian Boswell who was able to get a bit more daylight.
In the peloton there was another attack as Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) tried to get away, with the German quickly able to open a gap of around 10 seconds but not being allowed to get much further as Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky) continued to set the tempo with the yellow jersey of Thomas in his wheel.
While Bilbao worked his way up to Boswell then dropped the American, Geoghegan Hart’s pace setting was enough to see second place overall Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing) dropped from the group of favourites and the gap to the front of the race down to 26 seconds with eight kilometres to go.
However the pace was not enough to put Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) in trouble, the Irishman bridging across to an intermediate group including Buchmann and team-mate Valerio Conti.
The next attack came from Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and this time Thomas responded immediately, jumping onto his compatriot’s wheel with Bardet close behind with Yates’s effort being enough to close the gap to Martin.
As Conti pulled off that left an elite group of seven riders chasing down Bilbao, whose lead was down to just 13 seconds with six kilometres remaining, before Yates and Buchmann started to pay for their efforts as the were dropped by Martin, Thomas, and Bardet.
A kilometre later and with Buchman suffering, Yates put in a sustained effort to regain contact with the Thomas group, before Dan Martin attacked to try and get away with 3.4km to go.
Having seen Martin ride away with a similar move on Friday, Thomas was not going to make the same mistake twice and quickly jumped on the Irishman’s wheel.
With his move neutralised, Martin was soon back on the front with the four riders swapping turns well but not riding hard enough to close the gap to Bilbao, whose lead had crept up to 24 seconds with a kilometre to go.
That gap looked certain to be enough for Bilbao, and the Spaniard duly crossed the line with his arms aloft in what was a fine breakaway performance.
However behind the attacks were still flying with Thomas launching a massive attack with 500m to go that no one was able to match. The Welshman immediately opened a gap and crossed the line a couple of seconds ahead of Martin and Bardet, with Yates slightly further back.
That result means that with one stage remaining, Thomas now leads the Critérium du Dauphiné by 1-29 over Yates, and now has only 135.8km standing behind him and becoming the fifth British rider to win the race overall.
The final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné sees the riders face 135.8km starting in Moûtiers and covering five classified climbs including the Cormet de Roseland from the opposite direction than they tackled today and a first-category summit finish to Saint Gervais-Mont Blanc.
Critérium du Dauphiné 2018, stage six: Frontenex to La Rosière Espace San Bernardo, 110km
1. Pello Bilbao (Esp) Astana, in 3-34-11
2. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky, at 21 secs
3. Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates, at 23 secs
4. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at same time
5. Adam Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, at 26 secs
6. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 1-02
7. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, at 1-20
8. Pierre Latour (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 1-40
9. Tao Geoghegan Hart (GBr) Team Sky, at 1-45
10. Valerio Conti (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at same time
General classification after stage six
1. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky, in 20-51-19
2. Adam Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, at 1-29
3. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 2-01
4. Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates, at 2-30
5. Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing, at 2-39
6. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 3-10
7. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, at 3-29
8. Marc Soler (Esp) Movistar, at 3-40
9. Pierre Latour (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 3-49
10. Pierre Rolland (Fra) EF Education First-Drapac, at 4-00