AG2R's Christophe Riblon survived from a long breakaway, a detour into some bushes, two climbs of Alpe d'Huez and a strong challenge from BMC's Tejay van Garderen to win Stage 18 of the Tour de France today. Riblon and van Garderen spent much of the stage up the road by many minutes, often with Cannondale's Moreno Moser in tow, and the four-plus minutes they began the final climb with were enough to settle the stage battle. And while van Garderen took up the charge first, he couldn't finish it off. Riblon, in fact, seemed to grow stronger as the final ascent of the iconic Alpe d'Huez drummed on, and he passed the completely spent American as they entered the barriers of the final 2km. Riblon soloed home comfortably for France's first stage win and high point of the Tour.
Among the favorites, leader Chris Froome of Sky held on to enough of a lead, and gained significant time over several faltering rivals, including the Saxo-Tinkoff duo of Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger, and the former challenging duo of Belkin's Laurens ten Dam and Bauke Mollema. But two elite climbers form the GC group, Movistar's Nairo Quintana and Katusha's rapidly improving Joaquim Rodriguez, left Froome behind, consolidating his losses to the pair who now look likely to join Froome on the podium in Paris. They each beat Froome by a minute, and perhaps more importantly, took two minutes or more from everyone else in the top ten.
On a day when bad weather was predicted, the peloton summited Alpe d'Huez and descended the Col de Sarenne, skinny, rough roads and all, in relative peace, setting up the showdown on the final climb. Moser led all riders over the top, just ahead of van Garderen, who accelerated out of the breakaway group at the foot of Alpe d'Huez pass #1, and Riblon, who led the bridge to Tejay. The American and the Frenchman dropped the Italian en route to the second mini-summit, but Moser rejoined them going down the Sarenne, as van Garderen pulled over with a disastrous mechanical issue, literally stranded in a wilderness.
Contador and Kreuziger finally launched the day's fireworks about halfway down the descent, below the worst of the corners but still in a tricky section. They gained a couple dozen seconds, with Froome still in the company of two lieutenants, before being reeled back in. Andy Schleck, who left the peloton on the first Alpe ascent, maintained a 90 second advantage with Mikel Nieve of Euskaltel, Wout Poels of Vacansoleil and Sylvain Chavanel of OPQS, before they too were overtaken.
Moser and Riblon approached the second climb together, but van Garderen joined back on before the road turned back up, and then attacked Riblon shortly afterward, as Moser dropped off right away. Back in the leaders' group Froome tested his rivals with a short acceleration before installing Richie Porte back on the front. The Belkin duo were among the first to fall off, and Kreuziger was next. Froome put in another attack, which only Nairo Quintana of Movistar could follow, joined in a bit by Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez, and the race for the podium in Paris was on.
Halfway up the climb Froome started to crack, and with Porte by his side he finally let Quintana and Rodriguez go, instead content to preserve his large lead over both. Meanwhile, Riblon was valiantly pulling back a struggling van Garderen, and came past him with 2km to go, quickly getting a cushion for the stage lead. Van Garderen could only watch helplessly, completely out of gas, though he held on for second, nearly a minute back. Moser, amazingly, rolled in third.
Contador was the big loser of the day. His team employed every trick in the books, sending lieutenants up the road, attacking on the descent, etc., but in the end he didn't have the legs to go up the Alpe one more time with the Sky train and Froome. Froome, for his part, rode smartly enough, not obsessed with reeling in everyone given the size of his overall lead (now over five minutes). He didn't win gloriously, but his hold on yellow is stronger than ever.
- Christophe Riblon, AG2R
- Tejay van Garderen, BMC, at 0.59
- Moreno Moser, Cannondale, at 1.27
- Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 2.12
- Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha, at 2.15
- Richie Porte, Sky, at 3.18
- Chris Froome, Sky, s.t.
- Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 3.22
- Mikel Nieve, Euskaltel, at 4.1
- Jakob Fuglsang, Astana, s.t.
- Alberto Contador, Saxo-Tinkoff, at 5.11
- Quintana, at 5.32
- Roman Kreuziger, Saxo-Tinkoff, at 5.44
- Rodriguez, at 5.58
- Bauke Mollema, Belkin, at 8.58
- Fuglsang, at 9.53
- Michal Kwiatkowski, at 9.06
- Froome, 104 points
- Quintana, 97