Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz produced a memorable performance from the break on the final day in the Alps at the Tour de France, crossing the line at La Roche-sur-Faron arm in arm, the stage victory going to the Polish former world champion, while the Ecuadorian, winner of last year's Giro d'Italia, moves into the polka dot jersey by just 2 points from Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates.
With defending champion Egan Bernal abandoning the race prior to the start of yesterday's stage, Ineos Grenadiers had to readjust its goals, with one being the mountains competition after Carapaz had managed to get into the break on each of the past two days, giving him a realistic shot at the jersey.
Kwiatkowski, whose victory on today's 167.5km Stage 18 from Meribel is, remarkably, his first ever Grand Tour stage win, got into today's break with his team-mate and initially was their to provide support to Carapaz.
But once the pair had dropped their final breakaway companion, Pello Bilbao of Bahrain-McLaren and it became clear they would not be caught by the GC group, they clearly enjoyed the final kilometres of a stage that will have given cause for celebration following what has been, until now, a hugely disappointing race for the team.
Back in the overall contenders' group, Lotto-Jumbo's race leader, Primoz Roglic, crossed the line alongside his closest rival, Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates, and with a stage tomorrow favouring a breakaway win or a stage finish, looks likely to carry his 57-second advantage into Saturday's individual time trial.
Carapaz, winner of last year’s Giro d’Italia, led Kwiatkowski over today’s final climb, the Hors-Categorie Montée du Plateau des Glières, picking up 20 points to overhaul Pogacar in the leadership of the mountains classification.
It was touch and go, however, with Pogacar attacking from the front of the GC group to try and pick up the 8 points that would have drawn him level with the Ineos Grenadiers rider but only gaining 6 points as Carlos Verona of Movistar, drifting back with his day in the break over, crossed the line just ahead of him.
Three opportunities to pick up points in the contest remain – 1 each on the single Category 4 climbs tomorrow and on the way into Paris on Sunday – and a maximum of 10 points on Saturday’s time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles, with the time taken from when the climb begins, rather than the stage as a whole.
The contest for the polka dot jersey could have been closer still had Team Sunweb’s Marc Hirschi, also in the break and who led Carapaz over the day’s first two categorised climbs, not crashed on the descent of the Col des Saisies.
The Swiss rider remounted and finished the stage in 13th place, in the process picking up his third combativity award of the race.
Meanwhile, there was a shuffling in the middle of the top 10 in the overall standings today, with Mikel Landa of Bahrain-McLaren and Movistar’s Enric Mas each moving up two places, to 5th and 6th respectively – replacing Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates, who drops to 7th, and Rigoberto Uran of EF Pro Cycling, who is now 8th.
Today’s intermediate sprint came after just 14km, the earliest in this year’s race, and saw Sam Bennett of Deceuninck-Quick Step add a further 5 points to his leadership of the points classification over Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan.
With a sprint finish on the cards tomorrow, unless Sagan’s team can somehow distance the Irishman before the run-in to the line, Bennett’s current 52-point advantage makes him favourite to take the green jersey in Paris on Sunday and deny the Slovak three-time world champion a record 8th points jersey.
Stage winner Michal Kwiatkowski
That was some day. I can’t describe how grateful I am to the whole team and also to Richard. That was an incredible day for us and I will never forget that. I’ve had some nice moments in cycling but that was something else – a new experience – I’ve had goosebumps for the last I don’t know how many kilometres. The gap was so big that we were going to make it. Both of us we really enjoyed the last kilometres. It’s incredible.
Egan (Bernal) was sad when he was leaving the race but he was wishing us good luck. Hopefully he enjoyed that on the television because that was some race. Collectively we tried in the last three days everything we could to be in the breakaway and win the stage and finally today – most of us we found the best legs ever I have to say. The way we rode with Richard was just incredible.
We’re going to celebrate big time tonight. We all deserve it after so many stages. We put on some show today and for sure we have to celebrate that.
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