Méribel (France), September 17: An emotional finish to Stage 18 in the Alps saw Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz finish arm-in-arm to lead home an Ineos Grenadiers one-two with the Ecuadorian also securing the polka dot jersey on a day to remember for the British-based team.
After days of trying to bounce back from the shock withdrawal of defending champion Egan Bernal, Ineos finally got their win as Kwiatkowski was gifted a maiden Grand Tour scalp by teammate Carapaz in front of a mesmerised crowd in La Roche-sur-Foron after the pair had put on a masterclass during a gruelling third and final day in the Alps.
Kwiatkowski and Carapaz were the last riders standing from a large breakaway which formed early on in the 175km stage from Meribel, with Tour debutant Carapaz on the front of the race for the third day running.
Two days after missing out at Villard-de-Lans, the selfless Carapaz gave up his opportunity of a stage win and instead settled for the polka dot jersey, which he snatched from Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar after a thrilling tussle with Switzerland's Marc Hirschi (Team Sunweb) over the day's five categorised climbs.
When Hirschi crashed on the descent of the Col des Saisies with 80km remaining, the pendulum swung in the favour of Carapaz, who led the race over the Col des Aravis and the Plateau des Glières with trusty teammate Kwiatkowski by his side.
The pair dropped Spain's Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-McLaren) on the decisive climb with 35km remaining before making light work of a testing two-kilometre gravel section while holding off the chase from a group of race favourites behind.
After cresting a final uncategorised climb with three minutes in the bank, the Ineos duo were able to soak up the atmosphere as they entered La Roche-sur-Falcon and wowing the crowds with a finish reminiscent of the great LeMond and Hinault finale on Alpe d'Huez in 1986.
Belgium's Wout van Aert won the sprint for third place and neutralised the battle for bonus seconds for his Jumbo-Visma teammate Primoz Roglic, who retained his 57-second lead over fellow Slovenian Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) in the general classification with two days left till Paris.
"That was some day," said 30-year-old Kwiatkowski, the 2014 world champion and a vital cog in Team Sky and Ineos' Tour-winning machine for the past five years. His win was Ineos' first in Grand Tours since the second of Geraint Thomas' back-to-back wins in the 2018 Tour, the year the Welshman won the yellow jersey.
While missing out on the chance of becoming the first Ecuadorian to win a stage on the Tour, 27-year-old Carapaz now holds a two-point lead over Pogacar in the king of the mountains classification to put a gloss on the day Ineos bounced back after the disappointment of seeing their leader withdraw.
"Hopefully he will be alright," Kwiatkowski said of the absent 23-year-old Bernal. "He was really sad when he left the race and hopefully he enjoyed it watching on television. Collectively we tried everything we could these past three days and finally we did it today. We had the best legs today and the way me and Richard rode today was incredible."
BENNETT THE FAVOURITE FOR GREEN
An intermediate sprint just 15km into the otherwise highly mountainous stage coaxed the sprinters out of the pack early on. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Matteo Trentin (CCC Team) were all involved in a 32-man move which went clear early on following pressure from Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal).
Bennett beat Trentin and Sagan in the intermediate sprint to extend his lead over the Slovakian to 52 points to make the prospect of an eighth green jersey in nine years all the more unlikely for Sagan.
Focus then shifted to the first of five categorised climbs on a day boasting more than 5,000 metres of vertical gain for the remaining 150 riders in the race. The Cat.1 Cormet de Roselend saw the sprinters dropped from the break and a few others manage to bridge over to the leaders.
The most notable rider to go clear of the peloton was the Italian Damiano Caruso, who skipped clear to join his Bahrain-McLaren teammate Bilbao in the 20-man break two minutes up the road.
Also joining De Gendt in the break on a day with 47 king of the mountains points up for grabs were polka dot jersey hopefuls Carapaz, Hirschi and Nans Peters (Ag2R-La Mondiale). With Stage 8 winner Peters tailed off near the summit, Stage 12 winner Hirschi zipped clear of Carapaz - in the break for the third day running - to take 10pts over the summit and move into fourth place in the virtual standings.
The duo rode clear on the descent before being joined by Kwiatkowski, Bilbao and Frenchman Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) on the next climb, the Cat.3 Cote de Route des Villes. The same scenario played out over the top with Swiss tyro Hirschi getting the better of Carapaz as both riders continued chipping away at Pogacar's polka-dot lead.
This leading quintet held a gap of one minute over a chase group of 14 riders going onto the Cat.2 Col de Saisies, with the Jumbo-led pack now almost five minutes back. Julian Alaphilippe, in the red dossard as most combative rider from the previous day's stage, was distanced from the peloton on this climb, the Frenchman having earlier tried his luck at joining the break alongside compatriot Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept).
Hirschi's pursuit of polka dots and a second stage win took a blow on the descent of the Saisies when the Tour's fourth youngest rider crashed on a sweeping corner while taking unnecessary risks to keep the wheel of Carapaz. The 21-year-old was able to resume racing but never managed to rejoin the leaders despite an initial spirited fightback.
His main rival distanced, Carapaz took maximum points over the summit of the Col des Aravis as the leading trio stretched their lead to over a minute on Hirschi, with the peloton now eight minutes back ahead of the day's principal challenge, the Montée du Plateau des Glières.
Just six kilometres long but at average gradient of 11%, the narrow, twisting climb was being tackled from the harder eastern approach, culminating in a tricky 2km gravel section going in the opposite direction than when the Tour visited in 2018.
LANDA SHAKES THE PACK
One day after failing to pull the trigger on his Bahrain team's masterplan, Landa kicked clear with Dutch teammate Wout Poels as soon as the favourites hit the decisive climb. After Poels dropped back, Landa caught teammate Caruso in what looked like a promising move - with Bilbao further up the road after being distanced by the two Ineos riders on a mission to turn around their team's fortunes.
Landa's foray off the front did not last long, but when he was caught near the summit it was by a yellow jersey group that had shed the likes of Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
Pogacar zipped clear near the summit to take sixth place and close the gap to two points on Carapaz in the polka dot jersey standings before Australia's Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) was a victim of the gravel section with an untimely puncture as the big guns duked it out ahead.
Porte joined a chase group alongside Jumbo-Visma duo Tom Dumoulin and van Aert, and eventually managed to fight back to the select group containing Roglic, Pogacar, Landa, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Movistar's Enric Mas, keeping the white jersey warm for the man who would soon relinquish the polka dots.
Kwiatkowski and Caparaz made light work of the final uncategorised climb to give them enough time to discuss which one of them would take the spoils at the finish.
Carapaz may have lit up the past three days of his maiden Tour, but Kwiatkowski's five-year service for his team's Tour machine was enough to sway things in favour of the popular Pole as both riders lapped up the applause before coming home arm-in-arm, Kwiatkowski careful to edge it by a tyre-width.
Double stage winner van Aert underlined his versatility by zipping clear to take third place as the chasers came home almost two minutes down, with the Tour's two Slovenian leading lights settling for a ceasefire with just two competitive stages remaining.
Fifty-seven seconds separate Roglic and Pogacar, with Colombia's Lopez in third place at 1'27" and Porte in fourth at 3'06". In the battle to make the top five, Spanish duo Landa and Mas both rose two places to fifth and sixth, with Britain's Yates and the Colombian Uran moving in the opposite direction.
Friday's 166.5km rolling Stage 19 from Bourg-en-Bresse to Champagnole will give Sagan his final opportunity to slash Bennett's green jersey lead ahead of Paris, while the destiny of the yellow jersey will be played out on Saturday's penultimate stage, a 36.2km time trial that culminates in the 6km climb of La Planche des Belles Filles which will also prove key in the polka-dot jersey battle.
With the three main jerseys all left to play for, the 107th edition of the Tour de France is still far from over.
All the action from Stage 19 Bourg-en-Bresse - Champagnole EI of Tour de France will be LIVE on Eurosport and Eurosport HD from 5:15 PM IST onward on September 18, 2020.