Alaphilippe struggles but retain jersey
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was the weakest of the yellow jersey contenders today, but battled resiliently to hold on to his yellow jersey.
Better still for the Frenchman, he only lost time to one of his immediate rivals - Egan Bernal (Ineos), who finished 32 seconds up the road after breaking clear from the group of favourites on the Col du Galibier.
Alaphilippe did crack towards the top of the Galibier, and crested the climb with a deficit of around 20 seconds to make up.
This was where his peerless descending skills came into play. Despite being visibly exhausted, he shot down the descent like a stone, and bridged that sizeable gap within no time.
He won't have the luxury of a downhill finish in either of the next two Alpine stages, which both culminate in summit finishes. But with his lead over second place Egan Bernal still a healthy 1-30, a stunning overall victory is getting closer and closer.
Quintana wins the stage...and rides himself back into overall contention?
He’s back! Having endured another underwhelming Tour de France up until now, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) found his very best form to claim a spectacular stage victory.
Having got into the day’s break, along with other quality riders including Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), the Colombian launched a deadly attack halfway up the Galibier that no-one could respond to, and subsequently rode the remaining 26km to the finish for a stunning solo victory.
It was still not exactly evidence of joined-up thinking on behalf of his Movistar, who had Marc Soler set a pace that obliterated the peloton on the preceding climb of the Col d’Izoard for no apparent reason, but does somewhat redeem the team’s Tour de France.
Quintana’s ride was reminiscent of his success atop the Col de Portet during the third week of last year’s race, which he won with a similar long-range attack at the bottom of the final climb, but this victory was significantly different with regards to the amount of time he gained in the process.
The yellow jersey group did not arrive until 5-18 after Quintana had finished, meaning he leaps up to seventh overall - intriguingly, now just 3-54 behind Alaphilippe, and 2-24 behind Bernal in second.
They’re still substantial time margins, and probably too big to be bridged with just two mountain stages left to ride. But with a rider like Quintana, who, at his best, can be absolutely devastating in the mountains, you never know - could there be yet another twist in this intriguing Tour de France?
Bernal leapfrogs Thomas to become Ineos’ highest rider on GC... just
The only change at the top of the GC today might prove to be a race-altering one, as Egan Bernal leaped from fifth to second overall, just five seconds ahead of his Ineos teammate Geraint Thomas.
The attack that gained Bernal the time was a decoy move, with the Colombian making the move on the Galibier after team-mate Dylan van Baarle swung off the front to force the other favourites to chase while Thomas followed their wheels, but the acceleration was so strong that no-one could follow.
Their lack of a response prompted Thomas to attack himself soon after, but this time the other favourites did show more urgency, with Pinot accelerating near the climb’s summit to reel the Welshman back in.
All this puts Ineos in a very strong position, with both riders second and third on GC, but also complicates their situation. Which rider is the leader? It seems too close to call - both appear to be similarly strong, and just five seconds separate them.
Dave Brailsford and co. are going to have to play a very delicate balancing act to keep both riders happy, but if they ride harmoniously together, there’s a very good chance one of them will win the yellow jersey. The question is, which one?
The other yellow jersey candidates race conservatively
Aside from Bernal and Thomas, there was a reluctance among the yellow jersey contenders to go out on the attack.
No audacious moves were launched on any of the stage’s earlier climbs, and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Emaneul Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) were all content to ride tempo up the Galibier.
Their conservatism was somewhat understandable, given how tight things are in the GC and the risk of substantial time losses if anyone were to go into the red on a climb as fearsome as the Galibier.
However, the fact remains that Alaphilippe remain at least 1-30 ahead of all of them with just two stages left. He was evidently weaker than the rest, as shown when he was eventually dropped, but the lack of flat out racing until near the top of the Galibier meant that he was distanced only by a margin small enough to recuperate comfortably on the descent.
If Alaphilippe arrives in Paris with the yellow jersey still on his shoulders, the others might live to regret not taking a bolder approach today.
Romain Bardet the new King of the Mountains leader
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) was left frustrated in his attempt to win the stage, having to settle for second at 1-35 behind Quintana, but did earn the considerable consolation prize of the polka-dot-jersey.
Gaining that jersey had been his immediate target of the day, as made clear when he sprinted for second at the top of the Col de Vars behind Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), the man he was seeking to overhaul.
As a far superior climber to Wellens, it was always likely that Bardet would drop him on the still-sterner mountains to come, and indeed the Frenchman remained right at the front of the race to summit the Col d’Izoard second (behind Bahrain-Merida’s Damiano Caruso), by which time Wellens had long since been dropped.
Bardet was again second over the final climb, the Galibier, which was enough to see him move to the top of the mountains classification, 12 points ahead of Wellens and 26 points ahead of Caruso.
His GC hopes ambitions may have been horribly thwarted, but Bardet might still get to ascend a podium in Paris.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.