A revenant Nairo Quintana annihilated his rivals on the high-altitude slopes of the Galibier to take stage victory, as Julian Alaphilippe survived a shaky day to hold the yellow jersey on stage 18 of the Tour de France.
Quintana (Movistar) jumped into the huge 34-rider breakaway on stage 18, having repeatedly lost time on GC over the last three weeks, and made the elite selection of climbers on the early slopes of the Galibier.
The Colombian then unleashed an enormous effort 7.5km from the summit, rapidly pulling out a gap over Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), which he extended over the summit to descend alone into Valloire and take victory.
The brutal and decisive day in the Alps, including three major climbs, was another missed opportunity for the general classification favourites to crack Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step).
In the GC group, Alaphilippe held on until the last few turns of the final climb, only being dropped when Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) attacked near the top, but comfortably rejoining his most dangerous rivals on the descent.
Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) attacked the GC 2km from the summit, riding away and finishing 32 seconds ahead of the Alaphilippe and Thomas group.
Alaphilippe still leads the race by 1-30 over Egan Bernal, who now moves into second place after his move, with Thomas still 1-35 down on the race leader.
How it happened
After a dramatic turn of events after stage 17, with Luke Rowe (Team Ineos) and Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) being kicked off the race, stage 18 was expected to offer up plenty more action, this time on the roads thankfully.
The first Alpine stage of the Tour de France 2019 was a monster, over 208km from Embrun to Valloire, with four classified tests along the way.
Climbing started in the opening 10km, with the third category Côte des Demoiselle Coiffées kicking off the day, at 3.9km-long with an average gradient of 5.2 per cent.
Then came a false flat run of around 50km, which took the peloton to the first real test of the day – the 9.3km, 7.5 per cent Col de Vars, a first category climb.
A descent from the Vars was followed by another gently climbing stretch into the monstrous Col d’Izoard (14.1km at 7.3 per cent), before the final mountain of the day, the iconic Col du Galibier.
The 2019 race climbed the (marginally) easier, but longer, side of the climb, with 23km of rising roads at 5.1 per cent average.
As the Tour enters the final few stages, the fight for the breakaways has become increasingly desperate, and it was 50km of frantic racing before a 34-rider group finally went clear.
That huge breakaway included a scattering of domestiques for the overall favourites, like Dylan Van Baarle (Team Ineos) and Matthieu Ladagonous (Groupama-FDJ), plus some hopefuls for the stage like Nairo Quinta (Movistar), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
The gap to the break grew rapidly, hitting the four-minute mark after just 9km.
Leader in the climber’s classification, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) was the first rider over the top of the Col de Vars, collecting maximum points in his bid for the polka dots, the gap out to seven minutes and growing.
On the approach to the Col d’Izoard, with 93km to race, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) launched an attack, followed by Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo), as the remaining riders in the breakaway upped the pace too and riders start to drop out.
With 3km left to the summit of the Izoard, a small group including Bardet, Quintana, and Yates caught Van Avermaet as the nine-rider unit crested the climb together and began the descent towards the Galibier.
Back in the bunch, the size of the peloton was rapidly reduced, with just 20 riders left on the Izoard, including the yellow jersey of Alaphilippe. Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) was one of the surprise casualties on the climb, losing contact with 80km still to ride.
Quick-Step, Movistar and Team Ineos took up responsibility for setting the pace in the overall favourites.
At the foot of the Galibier, there was a regrouping in the front group, with 11 riders hitting the lower slopes together, including Yates, Bardet, Quintana and Michael Woods (EF Education First), who held around five minutes over the peloton.
Ineos took control of the main bunch on the Galibier, with Jonathan Castroviejo putting in a monster turn and handing over to Dylan Van Baarle who had sat up from the breakaway. All of the main contenders were still in the group, with Thomas and Bernal there, along with Alaphilppe and Thibaut Pinot with 10km of the climb left to tackle.
The fight for the stage win then kicked off with 9km to the top of the Galibier, 27km from the line, as an attack by Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Merida) was followed by Bardet, Quintana, Woods and Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko, with Adam Yates unable to follow and rapidly dropping back.
After a few small attacks from the escapees, it was a Nairo Quintana who launched the decisive attack 7.5km from the summit, putting in a huge acceleration and immediately pulling clear.
Bardet and Lutsenko set off in pursuit but Quintana rapidly extended his gap from 30 seconds to almost 50 with 3km left of the climb.
Quintana hit the top of the Galibier with a 1-44 advantage over Bardet with 19km to descend to the finish.
He then successfully held onto the gap and rode into the finish town alone, taking an emotional victory after a disappointing Tour for him.
Bardet finished 1-35 down in second, with Lutsenko rounding out the podium 2-28 down on the winner.
Back in the GC group, Quintana’s compatriot Egan Bernal (Ineos) took off from the stalemate GC group six minutes further down the road, riding away from the likes of Thomas and Alaphilippe with just over 2km left to the summit. Thomas then launched his own huge attack near the top, as Alaphilippe finally cracked and was forced to put in huge efforts to hold the wheel before losing contact on the final few turns.
The rest of the GC favourites, including Kruijswijk and Pinot were able to follow Thomas, but the long descent to the line in Valloire wiped out any advantage they had as Alaphilippe, the superior descender, easily caught his rivals.
Bernal crossed the line 32 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe and Thomas, with the favourites all crossing the line together.
The young Colombian jumps three places on GC into second, 1-30 behind Alaphilippe, with Thomas now third a 1-35 with just two mountain stages remaining.
Racing continues on stage 19 with a short 126km Alpine stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Tignes, with five categorised climbs the tackle.
Tour de France 2019, stage 19: Embrun to Valloire (208km)
1. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, in 5-34-15
2. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, at 1-35
3. Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana, at 2-28
4. Lennard Kämna (Ger) Sunweb, at 2-58
5. Damiano Caruso (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at 3-00
6. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at 4-46
7. Michael Woods (Can) EF Education First
8. Egan Bernal (Col) Team Ineos
9. Serge Pauwels (Bel) CCC Team, at same time
10. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at 5-18
General classification after stage 19
1. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, in 75-18-49
2. Egan Bernal (Col) Team Ineos, at 1-30
3. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Ineos, at 1-35
4. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at 1-47
5. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 1-50
6. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2-14
7. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 3-54
8. Mikel Landa (Esp) Movistar, at 4-54
9. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First, at 5-33
10. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 5-58