Quick-Step Floors live-wire Alaphilippe trailed Britain’s Yates of Mitchelton-Scott by 20 seconds going over the Col du Portillon – the fifth and final climb of the 218km stage into the Pyrenees, the second longest leg of the race.
But while a gutsy Alaphilippe showcased his daredevil descending skills, an under-pressure Yates lost his front wheel on a tight bend 7km from the finish to open the door to Alaphilippe, who rode past to win the first of three stages in the Pyrenees – just as he had done in the Alps.
Tour de France
Thibaut Pinot: Only winning the Tour will heal wounds
A bittersweet day for Quick-Step Floors also saw Philippe Gilbert – who was part of the day’s large 47-man break alongside team-mate Alaphilippe – crash over a parapet while soloing clear on the descent of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet.
Despite falling head-first into a ravine – on the same treacherous downhill that took the life of the Italian Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli in 1995 – the Belgian veteran was able to climb to safety and continue on his bike.
After benefiting from Yates’s misfortune, 26-year-old Alaphilippe could milk the applause from the crowd as he entered the finish town of Bagneres-de-Luchon guaranteed of a memorable victory in polka dots following his flawless descent.
On a day that the race dropped into Spain for a brief 15km foray, the Spanish national champion Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain Merida) took second place 15 seconds down on Alaphilippe. Izagirre pipped a bloodied Yates – his jersey torn at the shoulder – to the line as Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain Merida) completed the top five.
The remnants of the breakaway arrived in dribs and drabs until yellow jersey Thomas crossed the line almost nine minutes in arrears alongside his Sky team-mate Chris Froome, the four-time Tour champion, at the head of a group of GC favourites.
After a stalemate in the battle for yellow, Welshman Thomas retained his 1’39” lead over Froome, with Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) also emerging unscathed to retain his third place, a further 11 seconds back.
But it was far from a day without incident for Sky duo Thomas and Froome, who were among the victims of an unsavoury tear gas incident which saw a large swathe of the peloton caught up after police struggled to contain a farmer’s protest shortly after the start.
'What an almighty mess' - Strike disrupts Tour
As protesting farmers attempted to block the road with straw bales, over-zealous gendarmes resorted to some heavy-handed methods – to the detriment of both the perpetrators and the peloton. Thomas, Froome and the green jersey Peter Sagan were among the many riders who needed medical attention – including eye-drops – while the race was neutralised for 20 minutes shortly after the 30km mark.
Once the race got back under way, it was a fierce battle for the day’s break to form. It wasn’t for another 70-odd kilometres – and the first heavy rain shower of this year's Tour – before the large break finally managed to extricate itself from the peloton.
Alaphilippe and his polka-dot rival Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) had shared the spoils over two early fourth-category climbs as the race passes through Cathar castle territory. And both Frenchmen were part of the large move which went clear before the feed zone and ahead of the Portet-d’Aspet and Col de Menté double header.
White jersey rivals Pierre Latour (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) managed to bridge over to the group, which also included BMC trio Greg van Avermaet, Damiano Caruso and Tejay Van Garderen, as well as Astana's Stage 15 winner Magnus Cort.
In a likely bid to protect his team-mate’s polka dot jersey, Gilbert rode clear on the Portet d’Aspet to take maximum points over the summit of the Cat.2 climb as Alaphilippe outkicked Barguil – winner himself of the polka dot jersey, and two stages, last year – to the line.
Gilbert then had his heart-in-mouth moment before Barguil – despite crashing himself on the descent – recovered to ride clear with Caruso and Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the next climb. But Barguil faded fast as Alaphilippe danced clear to pocket another 10 points on the first-category climb ahead of Mollema and Caruso.
A group of 17 riders came together on the flat plain as the race entered Spain shortly before the foot of the final climb, the Col du Portillon, with the Sky-controlled peloton now 10 minutes in arrears.
After early accelerations from the Dane Michael Valgren (Astana) and the Dutch veteran Gesink, it was Mitchelton-Scott’s Yates – one day after signing a contract extension along with his brother, Simon – who serenely rode clear.
Yates established a tidy lead over the chasers as Alaphilippe surged clear in pursuit before cresting the summit and re-entering France. With confidence in his downhill ability, the Frenchman piled on the pressure – perhaps causing the lone leader to take one risk too many on roads still slightly damp from the earlier rainfall.
After his fall, Yates was just remounting his bike as Alaphilippe zipped past – but with his confidence shot, and his opponent in the ascendancy, a maiden Grand Tour stage win was not to be.
"It's one of them things,” said Yates after his disappointing third place. “I've taken more risks on more technical descents before and never had any problems. We recon all the stages but you never know what's coming up. It was a bit damp or something and I just came down. That's all there is to it.
"My morale is pretty damaged right now. When you come so close to winning a stage of the Tour de France it's pretty devastating, not just for me but for my team."
For his part, Alaphilippe has now emulated his polka-dot jersey rival Barguil by taking a second win in the Tour – taking Quick-Step’s tally to four wins following the opening week brace for sprinter Fernando Gaviria.
"Today it was a very crazy day,” said Alaphilippe, who moves 49 points clear of Barguil in the KOM classification. “A lot of pain in my legs, and I think for everybody. I cannot believe I win for the second time today. I knew the finale, especially the last climb and the downhill. I'm so happy."
Alaphilippe: ‘I knew it would be a dangerous descent’
Save for half-hearted attacks from Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) – and a more flourishing effort from Spaniard Mikel Landa (Movistar) near the summit – there was little movement in the group of main favourites on the Portillon. The top 10 remains unchanged ahead of Wednesday’s short-but-sharp day in the Pyrenees with Latour leapfrogging Zakarin into 13th place the only notable GC movement.
"We were expecting fireworks and a lot of attacks but luckily they didn't materialise,” race leader Thomas said. “On the last climb there were a few but obviously my team-mates were strong and managed to control it. It was a pretty uneventful day, which is always nice."
Uneventful would not be how Frenchman Arnaud Demare would describe the day after the Groupama-FDJ sprinter finished the stage more than 40 minutes down after riding over 100 kilometres alone – but within 30 seconds of the time limit.
Uneventful would also not be the word of choice for Messrs Gilbert and Yates, not to mention anyone caught up as collateral from the bizarre farmer’s dispute which held up the race and caused widespread outrage and concern.
"There is really nothing we can do, but we are just really disappointed,” race director Christian Prudhomme said. “Maybe we should've sensed there was going to be danger and maybe we should have acted quicker. People should respect the riders and respect the race.”
And uneventful it was neither for Peter Sagan who, despite having a quiet 100th day in the green jersey, still managed to steal some limelight after finishing the stage assured of winning a record-equalling points classification crown – provided he reaches Paris.
Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Col du Portet (65km)
The shortest road stage in 30 years has been described as "dynamite" by Prudhomme, and will kick-off with a MotoGP-style staggered start for the first time in the race’s history.
The first ever summit finish on the monstrous Col du Portet – at 2,215m, the highest point of the race and Souvenir Henri Desgrange – is preceded by the Cat.1 slogs up the Peyresourde and the Col de Val Lourdon-Azet, in the opposite direction from the stage in the 2016 Tour when Chris Froome showed of his daredevil descending skills en route to a win in Bagneres-de-Luchon.
With 3,200m of vertical gain in just 65km, the race could explode from the outset. If Thomas can survive this rib-tickler with the yellow jersey still firmly on the back, then he may well become the favourite to take it all the way to Paris.
Share this article