Tour de France 2018: Movistar's Nairo Quintana runs textbook perfect race as Chris Froome cracks under pressure

What a day we had in the Tour de France 2018! It had novelty, it had drama, it had action, it had crashes, it had race turning moments; in short it had all that a sport fan can ask for. And at the end of a short but action packed stage, we have a rejigged podium and exciting final three stages ahead of us.

 Tour de France 2018: Movistars Nairo Quintana runs textbook perfect race as Chris Froome cracks under pressure

Colombia's Nairo Quintana celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France. AFP

The stage was special right from the start, literally. Not being satisfied with designing the shortest mountain stage in Tour history – just 65 km from start to finish – the organisers added a novel start to the day. For the first time, the riders lined up in a Formula 1 style grid system. The top ten riders were arranged in two arrow head formations, while the next ten riders were in linear grids of five each. The remaining racers were positioned in groups of 20 to make the start manageable.

If the grid was arranged like a F1 race (they even had green lights to signify the start), the pace was not quite as explosive as the start line was at the foot of a climb, the road going uphill with the first pedal stroke. And so it went right till the finish line. For a short stage of just 65 km, the stage had a total climbing of 37 km, which gave no time for tired riders to rest and regroup. So anyone lagging behind was likely to lose a big chunk of time. Not for the faint hearted, Wednesday's stage finish was at the summit of the Col du Portet, which at a heady 2,215 metre, was the highest point of this year’s race.

The grid based start was just the beginning of the excitement. Interesting and novel though it was, it did not have any tactical implication on the race as a whole (more of an organisational requirement or a gimmicky move to attract fans – take your pick). But the entire 65 km were packed with action, making it the most exciting stage of the year. Considering there was so much to catch up with, we have simplified the day’s action for you, analysing the winners and losers on the day (though it’s a bit brutal to call any Tour rider a loser, but forgive the semantics).

Winner: Nairo Quintana

Let’s start with the big winner on the day. Quintana has had a disappointing Tour so far, suffering crashes and mechanical troubles, losing time in most stages and barely hanging on to the top ten in the standings. But it seemed he and Movistar had this stage highlighted in their Tour diary, as they ran a textbook perfect tactical race on Wednesday. Movistar had a strong presence at the head of the peloton all day and three of their riders finished strongly. But it was Quintana who rode a courageous solo attack over the final climb, to earn a much deserved stage victory. This being the highest climb of this year’s route, meant the Colombian also earned the Souvenir Henri Desgrange for his efforts. More importantly, his attack lifted him to 5th overall, just a minute behind third place. With one last mountain stage to come, that podium place would be the target for the diminutive Quintana in the run up to Paris.

Loser: Chris Froome

This will also be remembered as the day Chris Froome finally cracked. To be fair, Froome has not been his imposing self in this race, probably due to heavy legs having competed in four consecutive Grand Tours. But his ambition to also win his fourth consecutive Grand Tour has been no secret. While Froome has competed this race in the shadow of his teammate Geraint Thomas, many had expected that to be a tactical move, with Froome biding his time to attack on a day like Wednesday. Instead, he got ambushed by Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic in the final kilometers of the Col du Portet. The Sky team captain ended up finishing 1’ 35” behind the stage winner and lost in excess of 40 seconds to Thomas, Dumoulin and Roglic. He now sits 32” behind Dumoulin in the race, but more pertinently only 16” ahead of Roglic. Considering his present form, the next three days do not bode well for the defending champion, and it will take all his experience and energy reserves to retain his third place till Paris on Sunday.

Winner: Geraint Thomas, Tom Dumoulin, Primoz Roglic

Froome’s loss was the gain of his immediate competitors. Despite their well rehearsed media lines, nobody discounted the tension in Team Sky with Geraint Thomas leading Chris Froome. It was an awkward situation, but that seems resolved for good with Thomas emerging as the sole leader at the end of Wednesday. The British rider not only cemented his position in his team but also gained 19” over Dumoulin. The time gained probably doesn’t matter so much at this stage, but the expression of intent surely does.

Dumoulin for his part might not mind losing time to Thomas considering what he gained over Froome. Dumoulin’s attack in the final kilometers ended up cracking Froome and ensured that the Dutch rider snatched second place overall from his British rival. Roglic was not a passenger either, as it was his initial attack which laid bare the cracks in Froome’s defence. The Slovak rider looks fit in the mountains and has already defeated Froome in the 2017 Time Trial World Championships. This will give him tremendous confidence to pip the defending champion into third place in the coming days.

Loser: Romain Bardet

The Frenchman was probably the big loser on the day (apart from Froome). He was the only top GC contender to lose sight of the leading pack mid way into the final climb and seemed completely shot by the finish. Bardet ended up a shocking 2’ 35” behind Quintana, losing fifth place in GC to the Colombian. In fact, the Frenchman has slipped to 8th overall, with the hopes for a third consecutive podium finish all but over. Surely a disappointment for the local fans who would have hoped for him to win on the day and rise up to the podium once again.

Winner: Julian Alaphilippe

It wasn’t all bad for the home country though. Bardet’s loss was partly compensated by his compatriot Julian Alaphilippe, who has effectively won the Polka Dot jersey. Alaphilippe has been having a Tour to remember, with two stage wins and an unassailable lead in the King of the Mountains classification. Though he was surely lucky on Tuesday, being gifted stage victory by the late crash of Adam Yates, no one can begrudge the Frenchman his success, as he has been one of the revelation of this year’s race. His attacks are always exciting to watch and his long range solo victory on stage 10 showed the talent this young rider has.

Loser: Peter Sagan

This one is tricky as Sagan did not lose anything, but he did come very close to it. The Slovak has an unbeatable lead in the green jersey standings and all he needs to watch out for is a crash till the race finishes in Paris. Wednesday was always going to be a tough day for the sprinters, and Sagan had tweeted about this on Tuesday. His difficult day turned into a nightmare, when he suffered a nasty fall coming down the Col de Val Louron-Azet. There was a scare whether the Slovak will finish the stage in time, but he fought back to finish 26 minutes behind the winner, within the permissible time cut. Sagan crossed the finish line in severely bruised condition and would surely be sore for the rest of the race. There is no clarity regarding the extent of his injuries, though knowing Sagan, it will take nothing short of a surgery to keep him from racing the final four days. The latest update from Sagan and his team (as of going to print) are mentioned in their tweets below.

Winner: Tour Organisers and Cycling Fans

The last word goes out to the Tour organisers, who designed an epic stage to ensure the fans were the big winners of the day. This short stage seemed a gamble, but has paid off fantastic dividends. Going by the action on the day, it is sure to be a classic and will likely be repeated in future races as well. So kudos to Monsieur Prudhomme and his team who have innovated the format and brought an exciting addition to the race. As with any sport, there were winners and losers, but as a fan, I can happily say chapeau and Vive le Tour!

Updated Date: Jul 26, 2018 17:46:27 IST