Ridiculously hard stages are a rarity in the first week of the Tour de France, a race that tends to schedule its most painful episodes – the Alps, the Pyrenees – toward the end of the race. But the route for Stage 6 provided plenty of pain, as riders took on a whopping seven categorized climbs, a kilometer of hard-packed gravel, and a punishing summit finish that ended in a gravity-defying 24-percent slope.
This early in the race, though, only the riders in the breakaway seemed ready to take their lumps. The day’s break featured 14 riders, including familiar faces Tim Wellens and Thomas de Gendt. Among their ranks, the top-placed overall was Giulio Ciccone, the winner of the King of the Mountains classification in the recent Giro d’Italia, but he started the day in a mere 42nd place, over a minute and a half behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe.
As the day wore on, teammates Wellens and de Gendt did their best to hoover up the points available at the top of each mountain summit, secreting them from any would-be contenders (though Ciccone and Natnael Berhane managed to snatch a few), while the group of 14 slowly melted to just a handful. With 20 kilometers to go, it looked like either their efforts were paying off, or the favorites for overall victory were reluctant to put too much energy into the day, because the gap between the two groups remained at almost five minutes. At the base of the final climb, to La Planche des Belle Filles, the gap had only shrunk a further 40 seconds, and it was looking increasingly like the breakaway riders would fighting among themselves for the stage victory.
Four kilometers later, it was just Ciccone and Dylan Teuns, both riding in their first Tour de France, while the group of overall favorites began to up their speed in this, their first real chance to discern the condition of their rivals. And on the last, punishing slope it became clear that Teuns would have one over on Ciccone, who stared past his handlebars to the ground as he rode in pained zigzags. Teuns crossed the line with arms raised but had to be pushed in order to maintain any forward momentum, while Ciccone, 11 seconds later, crossed with his head hung low.
All was not lost for Ciccone, though. The Italian started the day one minute and 43 seconds behind race leader Alaphilippe, but because of the relatively peaceful pace maintained by the group of favorites (which included Alaphilippe), what had initially seemed a gap of little significance began to take on more and more. Halfway up the final climb, Alaphilippe was clearly concerned that he would lose the race lead if he didn’t try to reduce the gap between himself and Ciccone, and he lit out from the pack on the gravel section toward the top. That finally lit the fire among the group of favorites, who had stayed mostly in a bunch, other than a couple of ultimately fruitless attacks by Warren Barguil and Mikel Landa.
Alaphilippe ran out of the gas in the final 100 meters and was overtaken by defending champion Geraint Thomas. Like Ciccone, Alapahilippe had been reduced to pedaling in herringbone, and when he crossed the line with a gap just three seconds larger than he could have safely allowed, he slumped over on the nearest barrier in exhaustion.
That means Ciccone, who came into the race to support team leader Richie Porte now takes on the yellow jersey as overall leader of the race – a prospect that he told reporters afterward he hadn’t even considered while chasing the stage win! He should be able to hang on to it tomorrow, when the riders will take on mostly flat roads, and possibly on Saturday’s lumpy eighth stage.
Of course, that’s not the end of the Tour de France for those hoping to win in Paris. While none of the overall contenders exactly stamped their authority on the race today, some did show signs of weakness. Thomas’s co-leader, Egan Bernal, was unable to follow him today and lost a handful of seconds, finishing with Nairo Quintana, Jakob Fuglsang, Porte, and Landa, with Adam Yates a few seconds behind. It was considerably worse for Steven Kruijswijk (26 seconds back), Vincenzo Nibali (42 seconds back), and French hope Romain Bardet, who finished a full minute behind.
|7||Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas||+00:01:51|
|10||Mikel Landa Meana||+00:01:53|
|6||Egan Arley Bernal Gomez||+00:00:53|
|10||Rigoberto Uran Uran||+00:01:15|