Dylan Teuns rose to a magnificent victory atop La Planche des Belles Filles as the yellow jersey slipped away from Julian Alaphilippe despite a desperate fight on stage six of the 2019 Tour de France.
The glory went to the breakaway as Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) outlasted 12 other escapees to fight for victory at the summit of the brutal climb, with the Belgian riding Ciccone off his wheel in the final 50 metres.
Disappointment at missing out on the stage win was short lived for Ciccone however, as he stole the yellow jersey from the hands of Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), now leading the race by just six seconds.
Alaphilippe climbed with the best in the general classification group, but his Quick-Step team were unable to bring the breakaway back within a manageable advantage, and despite a last-ditch attack on the gravelled final kilometre the Frenchman couldn’t keep the jersey.
Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) proved himself the best of the GC riders on the day, launching an all-out attack inside the final kilometre, catching Alaphilippe to finish fourth on the stage.
Thomas leapfrogs his team-mate Egan Bernal by four seconds, now sitting fifth overall.
How it happened
Stage six of the Tour de France 2019 was by far the most hotly anticipated of the first week, owing to the severe gradients of the La Planche des Belles Filles summit.
But before the peloton could consider the GC battle on that final climb, they had six other classified climbs to handle over the 160.5km run from Mulhouse.
The climbing started early with the category one Le Markstein ascent which ramped up after just 20km, at 10.8km-long and 5.4 per cent average gradient, followed immediately by the category three Grand Ballon (1.3km at nine per cent).
After a long descent the peloton faced the easier Col du Hundsruck climb (5.3km at 6.9 per cent), which topped out 90km from the finish, before another first category ascent, the 11km-long Ballon d’Alsace which averages 5.8 per cent.
A short and sharp run up the 3.3km and 6.1 per cent Col des Croix followed, before the sharp end of the race.
The penultimate climb was the Col des Chevrères cresting 20km from the line, which at 3.5km and 9.5 per cent average was a brutal warm up before the real spectacle of the day.
Finally, the big one – La Planche des Belles Filles, 7km in length with an average of 8.7 per cent, with a new added kilometre of gravel roads to make things that bit more horrendous.
Unsurprisingly on such a relentless day, the race started with a lively fight for the breakaway as some usual suspects put themselves in the wind.
A 14-rider group eventually formed after around 15k of racing, with a combination of general classification domestiques, stage opportunists, climbers and no-hopers making the cut.
Big names in the escape included Thomas De Gendt and polka dot jersey-holder Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), and Andrè Greipel (Arkèa-Samsic), with Giulio Ciccone and Dylan Teuns also going away, expected to work for their respective leaders Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali later in the day.
Ciccone was the best-place rider overall to make it into the breakaway, starting the day at 1-43 down on Alaphilippe.
Deceuninck – Quick-Step took up the pace-setting duties back in the peloton, putting Kasper Asgreen on the front to control proceedings, as the breakaway pulled out more than seven minutes advantage in the opening 40km.
Wellens and Ciccone proved themselves the main protagonists in the opening half of the stage, both fighting for King of the Mountain points on the first climb of the day, Le Markstein, with Wellens taking the full 10 points and Ciccone claiming eight.
At the top of the second climb, Le Grand Ballon, Thomas De Gendt fired up the road from the break to take maximum KoM points with Ciccone second once again.
The breakaway’s advantage continued to extend, reaching eight minutes with around 70km left to race, as Asgreen put in a huge amount of work on the front of the bunch.
Over the third classified climb of the day, the Col du Hundsruck, Cofidis rider Natnael Berhane was the first man from the break to crest, ahead of Wellens and Ciccone.
With 65km left to race, the altitude gain started to take its toll on the riders in the escape, as André Greipel began to struggle after an outstanding climbing performance for such a big rider.
General classification teams began to take on some responsibility back in the peloton, with Team Ineos and Movistar putting in some turns on the front of the bunch.
Wellens claimed full points once again atop the Ballon d’Alsace, extending his lead to 20 points over his nearest rival, while Ciccone scored once again and kept himself in the fight.
Into the final 40km, the break began to look to the finish as they held a six-minute lead over the peloton, sparking breakaway specialist De Gendt into action with an attack near the top of the Col des Croix.
De Gendt pulled out a 15-second advantage with 25km left to race as eight breakaway riders chased behind, including Ciccone, Wellens, Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) and Serge Pauwels (CCC Team).
The constant climbing and acceleration had cleared out plenty of the day’s breakaway riders and more riders were dispatched as De Gendt held his advantage.
With 20km to the line De Gendt cracked in a big way and was caught by the four riders left in the break, with the Belgian subsequently dropped from the front of the race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) set the pace back in the peloton as the break’s advantage dropped to four minutes, with four riders still out front – Ciccone, Wellens, Teuns and Wanty-Gobert’s Xandro Meurisse.
Race leader Julian Alaphilippe was comfortably holding his position in the peloton at this point but Ciccone, the best-placed breakaway rider on GC at the top of the day, threatened to usurp the Frenchman if the break held its lead at the top of the final climb.
Tuens hit the foot of the brutal last ascent at the front of the race, with the escapees holding 4-04 over the peloton, Ciccone still the virtual race leader.
Valverde continued to lead the peloton as the gap to the front-runners dropped to three minutes, as Tim Wellens was the first rider to lose contact from the break with 4.3km to the line.
Meurisse quickly followed off the back as Ciccone and Teuns pushed on.
With 4km to the line Ineos took up their usual position on the front of the peloton, with Michał Kwiatkowski setting a paralysing pace, Valverde also contributing with Julian Alaphilippe holding on at the front of the race.
French national champion Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) was first to launch an attack from the bunch with 3.3km left to race, pulling out a slender advantage and opening the door for an attack from Mikel Landa (Movistar) who flew past Barguil in his trademark climbing style, out of the saddle and on the drops.
Landa pulled out a 20-second advantage over the bunch with 2km to race, with the two remaining breakaway riders 2-34 up on the GC favourites. But Landa’s move was wound in before the finish and he was forced to fight with the group for a top-10 finish.
Barguil was swept up by the peloton and slipped straight out the back, as Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu set the pace for his team-mate Thibaut Pinot.
Onto the final kilometre, the new gravel addition to the climb, Ciccone was still within reach of both stage victory and the yellow jersey, holding a two-minute buffer over the bunch.
Teuns led the race into the final 500 metres with Ciccone struggling to hold his wheel, the Belgian giving everything to ride his rival out of his slipstream.
Something had to give and it was Ciccone who cracked first as Teuns crawled away to take stage victory, with his companion taking second.
Xandro Meurisse had saved enough on the final climb to stay ahead of the chasers and finish third on the stage.
The GC fight ramped up behind with Pinot hitting the front on a climb he knows well, but it was Alaphilippe who launched a major attack first as he desperately tried to claw back time to hold onto his race lead.
Alaphilippe emptied himself on the incredible final gradients inside the last 500m, but slowed to a crawl with the finish line in sight.
Geraint Thomas then fired and looked untouchable as he rode away from the GC group and overtook Alaphilippe inside 50m, finishing fourth on the stage and jumping up to fifth overall.
The Welshman also left his team-mate Egan Bernal behind to become the best placed Team Ineos in the race.
Ciccone now leads the Tour, with Alaphilippe second just six seconds down. Thomas is now the best-placed overall favourite 49 seconds down on Ciccone, with Bernal sixth overall at 49 seconds.
The Tour de France continues on stage seven with the return of the sprinters, with a lumpy first half of the stage before a flat final section over 230km from Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône
Tour de France 2019, stage six: Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles (160.5km)
1. Dylan Teuns (Bel) Bahrain-Merida, in 4-29-03
2. Giulio Ciccone (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 11 seconds
3. Xandro Meurisse (Bel) Wanty-Gobert, at 1-05
4. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Ineos, at 1-44
5. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 1-46
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, at same time
7. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 1-51
8. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at same time
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 1-53
10. Mikel Landa (Esp) Movistar, at same time
General classification after stage six
1. Giulio Ciccone (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, in 23-14-55
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, at 6s
3. Dylan Teuns (Bel) Bahrain-Merida, at 32s
4. George Bennett (Nzl) Jumbo-Visma, at 47s
5. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Ineos, at 49s
6. Egan Bernal (Col) Team Ineos, at 53s
7. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 58s
8. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at 1-04
9. Michael Woods (Can) EF Education First, at 1-13
10. Rigoberto Urán (Col) EF Education First, at 1-15