Omar Fraile (Astana) rode to victory on stage 14 of the Tour de France after reeling back lone breakaway rider Jasper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) in what was a fascinating chase up the final climb of the Côte de la Croix Neuve.
In the GC battle, which ensued a good 20 minutes after Fraile crossed the line, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) held his lead at the top of the general classification as he crossed the line with team-mate Chris Froome and rival Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) in tow.
After Fraile caught and passed Stuyven close to the top of the climb the battle for the stage win was a foregone conclusion with the Spaniard time trialling to the line.
But what many wanted to see was what would happen when the leaders hit the tough 3.5km climb up to Mende airfield. On a day which could have been dangerous for Team Sky they managed to stay out of trouble and shut down moves from Dumoulin and Mikel Landa (Movistar) in the early part of the climb, as Thomas continued to look strong.
As for any other winners on the GC it was a good day for Primož Roglič (LottoNL-Jumbo) as he took some time from Dumoulin in third. But for Dan Martin (UAE Team-Emirates) it was a day to forget as his bad luck continued after puncturing at the foot of the climb meaning he finished two minutes down on his GC rivals.
How it happened
It was billed as a race within a race on the 188km road to Mende, and that proved to be correct.
The race was animated early as a 32-man group which included the eventual stage winner Fraile and the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Philippe Gilbert and Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) went clear.
The advantage was a healthy 7-02 over the peloton as they hit Bessèges where the intermediate sprint took place with 90km remaining. There was no surprise that it was Sagan who took 20 more points in the intermediate sprint to strengthen his grip on the green jersey.
When the breakaway finished their ascent of the Col de la Croix de Berthel, the attacks within the lead group began to come as the race for the stage win began to hot up.
It was Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain Merida) who instigated the first meaningful attack as he broke clear before the summit. On the descent he was a joined by Dimension Data’s Tom Jelte Slagter and Stuyven as they built up a 58 second advantage with 48km of the race remaining.
With the trio still at the head of the race with 37km remaining, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) decided to up the pace in the chase group as he looked to claw back the trio up the road. In doing so, he managed to drop Van Avermaet and Sagan momentarily as the race headed towards the all important final showdown of the day on the Croix Neuve.
Behind the lead trio there was a classic case of cat and mouse as the chasers couldn’t decide on who would bring back the front three. But while that was kicking off down the road, Trek’s Stuyven decided to try his luck with a solo break 30km from the finish. The chasers managed to reel in Izagirre and Jelte Slagter as all efforts were focussed on pulling back the Belgian rider who had a 1-50 advantage heading into the final 10km.
Stuyven hit the bottom of the final climb with a relatively healthy advantage of 1-44, but behind De Gendt kicked again as he took Fraile with him as he looked to close the gap to the 26 year-old Belgian.
De Gendt seemed to pay for his efforts earlier on in the stages as Fraile went solo. Behind, Alaphilippe then launched his attack in an attempt to pick up a second stage victory.
With the Frenchman in pursuit of Stuyven, it was Fraile who managed to catch him first just before the summit. With the trio inside the final kilometre it was the Spaniard Fraile who kept Stuyven and Alaphilippe at bay to claim a stage victory by six seconds.
As Fraile soaked in the adoration of claiming his maiden Tour stage victory, further down the road attention turned to the GC battle as the peloton hit the Croix Neuve.
It was expected that attacks would come as others looked to test Sky’s resolve. There were brief forays from Landa and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) but they didn’t amount to anything serious. But when Dumoulin looked in trouble, it was the perfect opportunity for Thomas and Froome to take advantage, but as they hesitated the Dutchman got back on the wheel and even launched a dig of his own.
But in the end Thomas got through another stage in possession of the yellow jersey as the Tour heads onto Carcassonne tomorrow.
Tour de France 2018, stage 14: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Mende, 188km
1. Omar Fraile (Esp) Astana Pro Team 04-41-57
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 6 seconds
3. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo at same time
4. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe at 12 secs
5. Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 17 secs
6. Simon Geschke (Ger) Team Sunweb at 19 secs
7. Nicolas Edet (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits at same time
8. Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie at 23 secs
9. Daryl Impey (RSA) Mitchelton-Scott at 30 secs
10. Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 37 secs
General classification after stage 13
1. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky, in 58-10-44
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, at 01-39
3. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 1-50
4. Primoz Roglic (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 02-38
5. Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 03-21
6. Mikel Landa (Esp) Movistar , at 03-42
7. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 03-57
8. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 04-23
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 06-14
10. Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates, at 06-54