The 18th stage of the Tour de France was another stern test for the riders, a test that Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) would pass with flying colours, as he soloed to victory but once again MTN-Qhubeka were in the thick of the action.
Belgian Serge Pauwels was absolutely fantastic once again, finishing in sixth place for Team MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung, Africa’s first TDF outfit.
As has been the order of proceedings over the last few stages, a big breakaway went clear in the opening kilometres of the stage, an 186.5km ride from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. Pauwels made sure that he was part of the 29 riders that went clear. Team Giant-Alpecin and Trek Factory Racing made it tough for the break to get much of a lead as they hovered around three minutes for most of the day.
The parcours would provide for the toughest test though as no less than seven categorised climbs would be completed, including the massive out of category Col d’ Glandon as the penultimate climb of the day. Serge was consistently brilliant, riding within himself to always stay in touch with the front runners in the break.
Over the Glandon, Bardet attacked while Pauwels summited in fifth place.
It was a mad dash to the final climb of the day and Bardet’s superior descending skills saw him start the picturesque Lacets de Montvernier with a 40-second lead over the eight chasers that remained, including Pauwels. In an every-man-for himself effort for the final 13km of the stage, Bardet would not be caught. Pauwels used the last bit of the strength he had left to secure sixth place for the African team.
Pauwels moved up one spot on the general classification to 14th and Team MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung held on to their second place in the overall team competition, 36:23 behind Movistar and just over three minutes clear of Team Sky.
On the day they ended eighth, 19:26 behind Movistar.
Pauwels said afterwards: ‘It was the same story as the last few days with Sky setting a solid pace from the beginning but still a number of guys were getting into the break. I made sure I was up there again but today was a lot harder than any of the other days. I was really struggling in the beginning but I kept believing in myself.
‘On the Glandon I was feeling better and actually went over the climb in the top 10 still. I think this was the best result I could do today, maybe I could have done a better sprint at the end for third but I was the whole day fighting on my limit so I am happy.
Friday is make or break for this year’s tour. It’s ‘only’ a 138km 19th stage stretch between Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and La Toussuire but it’s undoubtedly the hardest stage of the tour with four major Alpine climbs included.
The Col du Chaussy, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard and La Toussuire all lie in wait. The second of those climbs is the longest single climb in the tour, topping out at 22.4km while the Croix de Fer has the biggest height gain of any single climb at 1.545m. In total there are 61.5km of classified climbs in Friday’s stage.
More fascinating stage statistics as supplied by Dimension Data
There were over 10 mountain passes within a 50 km radius of the stage finish in Saint-Jean De-Maurienne, many of the Tour’s great battles have been won and lost on these passes.
1008 km – the total elevation gained on the Col du Chaussy pass in just 16 km; the first time this 18-bend climb was conquered as part of the Tour de France route.
7 – the number of categorised climbs on the stage.
3002.3 km – with only three stages left, the riders have less than 360 km to travel to the finish line in Paris.
37 – the number of riders who retired from this year’s race. Only two complete teams remain: Team Lotto NL–Jumbo and Team Europcar.
12 – the number of consecutive stages Chris Froome has won the yellow jersey.
16.02 km/h – the average speed of Rodriguez (KAT) up Col de Malissol.
16.29 km/h – the average speed of Rodriguez (KAT) as he won the 5 KOM points on Col de la Morte.
84.56 km/h – the top speed recorded by Frank (IAM) on the descent to Séchilienne.
48.44 km/h – the speed of De Gendt (LTS) as he won the intermediate sprint at Rioupéroux.
19.97 km/h – the average speed of Bardet (ALM) as he won Col du Glandon, Gautier (EUC) however, had a higher average speed up the climb.
16.89 km/h – average speed up Col du Glandon.
16.11 km/h – the average speed of stage winner, Bardet (ALM), up Lacets de Montvernier.
34.13 km/h – average speed on the stage.
35:51 – time between first and last rider.