Leader holds on to yellow after death-defying descent
Colombian Nairo Quintana sailed away for a solo victory, but it was Julian Alaphilippe's breathless descent that kept him in the yellow jersey after a rugged Stage 18 of the Tour de France.
On a day where Aussie Richie Porte just kept pace with the Tour leaders, Quintana attacked the remnants of the day-long breakaway on the mighty Col du Galibier to claim a morale-boosting victory.
Quintana finished 1min35sec in front of runner-up Romain Bardet and 2min28sec before Alexey Lutsenko in third.
But it was behind that trio that the real drama unfolded. Alaphilippe was dropped by the yellow jersey group 1km from the top of the Galibier, but after cresting the summit he hauled in a 20-second deficit with a high-speed descending masterclass to the finish.
Team Ineos' Egan Bernal had already slipped away from that group, however, and gained 32 seconds on Alaphilippe to move to second overall.
In a nailbiting scenario, Alaphilippe is now hanging onto a 90-second lead over Bernal on general classification with two huge summit finish days in the Alps to come before Paris.
The peloton was put through the wringer on Stage 18, with the 208km trip from Embrun featuring a whopping 5212m of climbing.
"It was a hard day. It was 'on' there on the Col d'Izoard and the Galibier - it was probably the queen stage so it's nice to have that one finished," Porte said after finishing 5min18sec back with the group of contenders.
"I felt pretty good until Bernal attacked. I was dagging off the back a little bit there over the top, but I was lucky to come back on the downhill and it got a bit dicey there with the rain, but it was all good.
"Tomorrow is another really hard day, high altitude and I think this race is far from done."
Asked if there was any thought to trying to get in the breakaway, Porte said he wouldn't have got the same luxury as Quintana, who leapt from 12th to 7th after joining the early move.
With Quintana 9min30sec behind on general classification before the stage and not an immediate threat, the breakaway was given plenty of rope.
"The thing is, they're never gonna let me (do that)," Porte said.
"Everyone writes me off and doesn't rate me, but the bunch don't let me go anywhere."
Quintana was elated by the win, which goes some way to salvaging what has been a disappointing Tour for a man who has twice been Tour runner-up.
"This stage was one for the pure climbers, for the real climbers in the bunch, and I was present," Quintana said.
"I was ready for it. It's a beautiful win, and on a stage like this, with this type of profile, it makes me emotional."
Defending champion Geraint Thomas launched his own attack near the top of the Galibier after teammate Bernal had gone, but he was reeled in.
"We wanted it to be hard, but the pace wasn't there. The call was made for Egan to go and hopefully that would kick if off a bit, but it didn't really," Thomas said.
"That's when I went as well, just to test. But at least Egan gained some time on everyone else.
"I was feeling pretty good today. Two big days to come now. We kind of knew that today wouldn't be a huge difference, but it's certainly going to put some fatigue in everyone for the next two days."
It was a rough afternoon for George Bennett. The New Zealander crashed twice, the latter while tearing down the Galibier.
He looked sore and sorry at the finish, but later tweeted that he was OK.
"Thanks for the messages. Absolute arsehole of a day, but nothing that will stop me getting amongst it tomorrow," Bennett wrote.
OVERALL LEADERS AFTER STAGE 18
1. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA/DEC) 75hrs 18mins 49 sec
2. Egan Bernal (COL/INE) at 1:30
3. Geraint Thomas (GBR/INE) 1:35
4. Steven Kruijswijk (NED/JUM) 1:47
5. Thibaut Pinot (FRA/FDJ) 1:50
6. Emanuel Buchmann (GER/BOR) 2:14
7. Nairo Quintana (COL/MOV) 3:54
8. Mikel Landa (ESP/MOV) 4:54
9. Rigoberto Uran (COL/EF1) 5:33
10. Alejandro Valverde (ESP/MOV) 5:58
11. Richie Porte (AUS/TRE) 6:30
12. Warren Barguil (FRA/ARK) 7:47
13. Guillaume Martin (FRA/WGG) 15:11
14. Fabio Aru (ITA/UAE) 16:21
15. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/DDT)
1. Peter Sagan (SVK/BOR) 309 pts
2. Elia Viviani (ITA/DEC) 224
3. Sonny Colbrelli (ITA/BAH) 203
4. Michael Matthews (AUS/SUN) 201
5. Caleb Ewan (AUS/LOT) 198
POLKA DOT JERSEY
1. Romain Bardet (FRA/ALM) 86pts
2. Tim Wellens (BEL/LOT) 74
3. Damiano Caruso (ITA/BAH) 60
4. Nairo Quintana (COL/MOV) 58
5. Thibaut Pinot (FRA/FDJ) 50