Movistar's Rui Costa has won his second stage of the Tour de France in just four days, and the third of his career. The Portuguese rider deployed a similar tactic on today's Stage 19 to Le Grand Bornand that had served him so well on Tuesday's Stage 16 to Gap; he attacked from the break on the final climb, then on the descent - wet today - kept ahead of his closest pursuer, RadioShack-Leopard's Andreas Klöden, to take the win.
Team Sky's Chris Froome, in the yellow jersey of race leader, came over the top of the final climb around ten minutes behind Costa, alongside the men closest to him on the General Classification, Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff and Nairo Quntana of Movistar. The trio came down the descent together, along with several other riders.
Froome retains a commanding lead of 5 minutes 11 seconds with just one mountain stage to come before the concluding stage in Paris.
Assuming he makes it through tomorrow's Stage 20 summit finish at Mont Semnoz without that deficit being overturned, and barring misfortune on the final day, he will succeed team mate Sir Bradley Wiggins as Tour de France champion on Sunday.
Today’s 204.5-kilometre stage from Bourg-des-Oisans featured two Hors Categorie climbs early on, the Col de la Madeleine and the Col du Glandon, with three more ascents thrown in. The last of those being the Category 1 Col de la Croix Fry, crested 13 kilometres out.
Without the incentive of a summit finish and the significant gains or losses they offer, the action today centred around the day’s break rather than the group of riders occupying the top slots in the General Classification.
Saxo-Tinkoff, leading the teams classification, did much of the pace-setting at the front of the GC group, but throughout the day, Froome and his Sky colleagues including Richie Porte, remained vigilant to potential threats.
Plenty of teams, however, had an incentive to try and get into the break today as the race heads towards its conclusion, and early on in the stage around 40 riders – nearly one in four of those left in the race – had got off the front of the peloton.
As they headed up the Col du Glandon, the first climb of a day punctuated by intermittent rainfall, two riders were out in front on their own: 2012 Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Sharp; and Euskaltel’s Jon Izaguirre.
Hesjedal was first over the summit, and onto the next climb, the Col de la Madeleine, found himself with Europcar’s Pierre Rolland for company after the Frenchman attacked from the escape group as he sought to pick up points in the mountains classification, currently headed by Froome.
Rolland was first over that summit, which came with 116 kilometres still to ride, and with Hesjedal now dropped he would lead the race until being overhauled by Costa with less than 20 kilometres remaining as they headed up the final climb of the day.
The Europcar rider now lies second in the mountains classification, just 1 point behind Froome, although evidence from the summit finishes of the race to date suggest that Rolland will find it impossible to overhaul the Team Sky man tomorrow and succeed his team mate Thomas Voeckler to the polka dot jersey.
Meanwhile, Cannondale’s Peter Sagan almost certainly needs only to make to the end of the race in Paris to retain the green points jersey he won last year, which would make him the first rider since Erik Zabel whose sixth consecutive victory came in 2001 to win it in consecutive editions.
The Slovak has a near-unassailable lead of 102 points over Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Mark Cavendish, winner of the green jersey in 2011.
Just two days from Paris, several riders saw their race come to a premature end today.
Garmin-Sharp’s Jack Bauer crashed out of the race on the descent of the Col du Glandon, and also abandoning today were Marcel Seiberg of Lotto-Belisol, and the Cofidis rider, Christophe Le Mevel.
Tomorrow’s penultimate stage from Annecy to Annecy-Semnoz is the shortest road stage of the 100th edition of the Tour at 125 kilometres. That distance, plus two tough climbs in the latter half of the stage, now stands between Froome becoming the second Briton, and the first African-born rider, to win cycling’s biggest race.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.