Movistar's Nairo Quintana attacked the remains of the day's break on the Col du Galibier to ride away to a fine solo victory by more than a minute and a half from AG2R-La Mondiale's Romain Bardet, who moves into the lead of the mountains classification.
Behind them, in the overall contenders group they would have hoped to be in at the start of the race nearly three weeks ago, Team Ineos rider Egan Bernal attacked on the upper slopes of the Galibier and rode into second place overall, 5 seconds ahead of his team mate Geraint Thomas.
The defending champion also attacked towards the top of the climb, his move distancing race leader Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-Quick Step. The Frenchman seemed destined to lose time, but put in a terrific descent to the finish in Valloire to cross the line half a minute or so behind Bernal, but alongside the rest of the overall contenders.
With two more stages in the Alps left - both of them summit finishes - Alaphilippe now leads by 1 minute 30 seconds from Bernal.
Today’s 208-kilometre stage from Embrun is one of a trio in the Alps that will decide the overall winner of what has become the closest fight for the yellow jersey in years.
But neither of the two that remain – to Tignes tomorrow, and Val Thorens on Saturday – will afford Alaphilippe the opportunity he had today of using his descending skills to make up for any time lost on the last climb.
The Galibier today, crested 19 kilometres from the finish, was preceded by the Category 1 climb of the Col de Vars and the Hors-Categorie Col d’Izoard.
Once again, it took a long time for the break to form and among the 35 members was Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates – whose team-mate and twin brother Simon has picked up two stage wins – Quintana and Bardet, who having fallen out of overall contention in the Pyrenees is targeting the polka dot jersey.
Tim Wellens, the man who has led the mountains classification ever since Stage 3, was also in the break but the quality of climbers in the break and the high mountains meant he was unlikely to hold onto it today, and so it proved.
Quintana’s decisive attack came 26 kilometres out, and in finishing 5 minutes 18 seconds ahead of the GC group today, he moves from 12th to 7th overall, 3 minutes 54 seconds behind Alaphilippe and fully one minute ahead of his Movistar team-mate, Mikel Landa.
It’s the second consecutive mountain stage in which the Colombian has got into the break, and while his ascendancy means he won’t be afforded the leeway to get into the break again, with stage tomorrow’s stage including Europe’s highest road pass, the Col d’Iseran, the altitude native, whose home town of Combita lies 2,825 metres above sea level, may fancy his chances again.
Stage winner Nairo Quintana
The intention this morning was to go to the front to be up there in support to Mikel [Landa]. I managed to squeeze into the breakaway group.
I followed the rhythm which was pretty high on the Col d’Izoard. Remaining at the front enabled me to ride for the stage win. But it’s been complicated.
I told Andrey Amador to close on all the gaps. Towards the finale, people started struggling and I felt I was in good shape.
I waited for the right moment to make my move. It took me some time to recover after my crash before the Pyrenees. Now in the Alps, I find climbs that I prefer due to the altitude.
Race leader Julian Alaphilippe
I took some risks in the downhill of the Galibier after I took a gel and ten seconds to recover from my efforts.
Then I stayed focused on three curves and I had a motorbike in sight. The only mistake not to be made was to crash.
I was at the limit but I took the first position of the group after I came across because I love going fast downhill and I wanted to show them that I was back.
I promised to give it all in the mountains and I did.
It’ll be the same again tomorrow and the day after.
I won’t give up. I realise what’s happening in the country. The expectations are huge. All I can do is to do my best.
Egan Bernal, now second overall
It’s a very nice day for Colombia. I’m very happy for Nairo Quintana, he deserves it. He’s a rider who has given a lot to our country and today he showed that he’s one of best riders in the world.
Geraint Thomas told me to attack to animate the race in the last climb. We have two very hard days ahead of us. We have to remain calm and not lose our focus because of today’s joy. Let’s keep our feet on the ground.
Romain Bardet, who will wear the polka-dot jersey tomorrow
I didn’t get what I wanted in the Pyrenees. There’s still some way away but today it was my goal to make the breakaway.
Tim Wellens is someone I appreciate. I spoke with him before the climbs and we made clear that it would a loyal fight between us.
To defend the polka dot jersey is the only goal I have for the remaining of this Tour.
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.