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Tour de France Stage 12: Thomas wins again on Alpe d'Huez

Martin James
19 Jul 2018

Back-to-back stage wins for the Welshman caps remarkable day of action

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) won his second straight stage of the 2018 Tour de France at the summit of Alpe d'Huez, winning a five-man sprint for the line to cap an incredible day's action in the Alps.

After Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was brought down in a crash in the final 4km, the leading GC contenders fought out a fascinating battle for glory over the final kilometres, but Thomas was last man standing on the line, beating Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Chris Froome in the sprint.

Nibali recovered from his crash to finish within sight of the leaders, but Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was dropped midway up the climb to leave his hopes of winning the race in tatters. 

An early attack from the breakaway group had seen Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk spend most of the day in the virtual yellow jersey, but he was finally reeled in just 3km from the end as the pace among the favourites increased.

The story of Stage 12

The Col de la Madeleine… the Col de la Croix de Fer… Alpe d’Huez. Three climbs woven into the very fabric of Tour de France folklore, and all three to be faced on Stage 12, the third of three straight days in the Alps.

There’s a lot of talk these days about what the Tour needs to do to make racing more exciting and unpredictable, but few would disagree that stages like this one are what the Tour does best.

So many of pro cycling’s greatest names have conquered, and been conquered, on these hallowed roads, and rolling out of Bourg-Saint-Maurice in warm sunshine, with 175km of punishment lying ahead, there were plenty of riders in need of a career-defining performance of their own if they were to break Team Sky’s dominance of this year’s race.

Sky’s tactics played out almost perfectly yesterday, yielding the stage win and yellow jersey for Thomas and a late flourish from Froome that left almost all his rivals floundering.

Yet as much as Sky had ridden well, the likes of Bardet, Quintana and Nibali had to take some of the blame themselves for playing into Sky’s hands tactically. The sight of the trio looking at each other on the final climb, reluctant to work together against a common enemy, will surely have boosted Sky’s morale as much as anything they themselves were able to do on the bike.

Regardless, the time for hedging bets was over. If anyone had been riding within themselves yesterday and letting Sky do the hard work to keep something in reserve, today was the day to prove it.

Plenty to think about, then, over the early kilometres as the race went through its usual ever-evolving cycle of attack and counter-attack from those looking to get in the day’s early break.

There was 30km of riding to get through before the start of the 25.3km Col de la Madeleine (hors categorie, 6.2% average), by the end of which a strong selection of 26 riders had been made.

Among them were names of the calibre of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Robert Gesink and Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) as well as serial breakaway offenders like Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors).

Holding station

Behind, Sky took up their customary position at the front of the peloton. The gap was held at around two minutes most of the way up the Madeleine, but with Wout Poels and Luke Rowe starting to struggle, the pace was dialled back a bit. Were Sky starting to pay for their relentless pacemaking at the front of affairs? Time would tell.

Over the top of the Madeleine, Alaphilippe’s explosive sprint secured another hatful of points in his quest for polka dots, with Barguil second and Serge Pauwels (Dimension-Data) third. The peloton following suit at a far more leisurely pace some 2’45” later.

The Col de la Croix de Fer (29km at 5.2%) loomed large as the second big climb of the day, but first the race had to negotiate the tight switchbacks of the Lacets de Montvernier, just 3.4km long but averaging 8.2%, enough to earn it 2nd category climb status.

For reasons best known to himself, Pierre Rolland (EF Education-Drapac) had decided to go it alone from the break group, and crested the summit 30 seconds clear of his erstwhile companions, led – inevitably – by Alaphilippe, and 4’10” up on the main field.

Maybe he was thinking back to his stage win on Alpe d’Huez in 2011, and his chances of an unlikely repeat improved when a select group of 10 arrived to give him some company, including Valverde, Kruijswiik, Gesink, Zakarin, Barguil and a handful of others.

Virtual yellow jersey

Technically, Kruijswijk was now in the virtual yellow jersey, with a key teammate riding tempo in front of him in Gesink, and the gap continuing to ease out. More significantly, Rowe and Gianni Moscon had already been unhitched from the Sky express.

The pressure was on, and Kruijswijk dialled it up still further by breaking clear on his own on the Croix de Fer – a brave move with 20km of the climb still to go, not to mention Alpe d'Huez itself. But with another GC man in Primoz Roglic nestled safely in the peloton, LottoNL-Jumbo had several options to play with.

For now, though, Kruijswijk was proving to be a pretty good Plan A. 10km from the summit his lead had grown to 1'10" over the rest of the break, and 5'40" on the yellow jersey. And still the gap increased.

Sky then lost another two riders, Poels and Jonathan Castroviejo, and suddenly AG2R and Movistar took over the pacesetting for Bardet and Quintana (or Landa) respectively. But with Kruijswijk now six minutes down the road, this was increasingly becoming as much about countering the Dutchman as attacking Sky. 

Kruijswijk was clearly starting to tire as he approached the summit, but was maintaining his six minute advantage over Thomas and the rest of the favourites and now led what was left of the breakaway by over three minutes.

He was surely starting to dream of being the first Dutchman in nearly two decades to win on 'Dutch Mountain', as Alpe d'Huez is known, but with another 43km of riding to go before the start of the fabled climb, there was plenty of work to be done before he even got there.

The change of terrain saw Sky take up station again at the front of the peloton, but Kruijswijk, aided by a tailwind, was doing a good job of defending his lead. The peloton by now had caught everyone else from the original breakaway group, leaving just one man out front.

21 bends to go

And so on to Alpe d'Huez and the inevitable showdown that would unfold over the course of its 21 switchback bends. With a little over four minutes of his lead remaining, could Kruijswijk hold on and win the stage?

A lot would depend on how the tactical games being played behind unfolded. All he could do was ride on and hope.

The peloton numbered 25 or so riders at the foot of the climb, five of them from Team Sky. But nearly straight away a half-dozen were distanced, among them Sky's Castroviejo, as Michal Kwiatkowski took up the baton up front. A kilometre later he too sat up, leaving just Egan Bernal to ride for Thomas and Froome. 

Riders continued to drift off the back as Bernal kept the rhythm high, but still Quintana, Landa, Bardet, Nibali, Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Roglic held their position.

The first to make a move was Irishman Martin, but sadly it was a move off the back rather than off the front, his attacking efforts on yesterday's stage clearly telling.

It was just a matter of time before one of the big names attacked, and Nibali duly obliged with 9.5km to go, not going all in but testing the water to try and soften his rivals up.

He was quickly reeled back in, then it was Quintana's turn, and again the move was covered. Kruijswijk's lead was now 2'35", with nearly 8km to go and – worryingly for the Dutchman – nobody having yet committed to a full-blown attack behind.

Now Bardet went clear, and still Thomas and Froome remained tucked behind Bernal's wheel even as the Frenchman opened the gap. Then came the shock of Quintana dropping off the back, unable to respond having only just been brought back from an attack of his own.

Bardet now led the yellow jersey group by 15 seconds with 5km to go, with Bernal still on the front ahead of Thomas, Froome, Nibali, Roglic, Landa and Dumoulin, who was holding on grimly at the back.

Finally the Colombian sat up, leaving the yellow jersey of Thomas riding ahead of Froome. But then an incident with a spectator brought Nibali down, and in the chaos Froome went on the offensive, catching then dropping Bardet then overhauling an exhausted Kruijswijk 3.5km from the summit.

The rest of the favourites regrouped, however, with Dumoulin suddenly showing a turn of pace to lead Thomas and Bardet back onto Froome's wheel.

Bardet feinted another attack, and the lull in hostilities allowed Landa to regain contact. But Bardet wasn't done, and another fierce attack saw Landa distanced again. Then it was Dumoulin's turn to attack, and now only Thomas was able to respond. But again the pace eased, and again the four came back together, and again Landa – belatedly – joined them.

Even Nibali and Roglic were getting back of terms, leaving a five-man sprint for the line to decide the honours for the day.