Michal Kwiatkowski won stage 18 of the Tour de France and Richard Carapaz moved into the polka dot jersey as the Ineos Grenadiers salvaged something from their race following the withdrawal of Egan Bernal.
Primoz Roglic retained the yellow jersey and his 57-second advantage over fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar in the general classification but the day belonged to Ineos, with Kwiatkowski and Carapaz the final two survivors of a 32-man breakaway on the 175km stage from Meribel to La Roche-sur-Foron.
They approached the finale deep in conversation, patting each on the back under the flamme rouge before crossing the line arm-in-arm, Kwiatkowski’s wheel just in front to give the former world champion an emotional first Grand Tour stage win which he dedicated to the late sports director Nico Portal.
Ineos needed something since Bernal’s title defence ended in his withdrawal on Wednesday morning with a back injury. That only added to the emotions for the popular Kwiatkowski, who has sacrificed his considerable talents in the service of others for several years but got his reward here.
“That was some day,” the 30-year-old Pole said. “I can’t describe how grateful I am to the whole team and to Richard. It was an incredible day for us and I will never forget that.
“I’ve had some nice moments in cycling but that was a new experience. I’ve got goosebumps for the last I don’t know how many kilometres because I knew the gap is so big that we’re going to make it and we both really enjoyed the last kilometres.
“I think we’re going to celebrate big time tonight.”
Carapaz will need to wait for another shot at his own first Tour stage win, but the reigning Giro d’Italia champion got the reward of polka dots instead.
The Ecuadorian had been battling Team Sunweb’s Marc Hirschi for mountain points as both riders looked to overhaul Pogacar in the category, but a crash for Hirschi on a descent midway through the stage put Carapaz in the driving seat.
However, his lead is just two points, with up to 10 available in Saturday’s time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles.
“(Richard) told me I can have the stage win with one condition – that he will have the jersey in Paris,” Kwiatkowski said.
“I was talking about celebrations but maybe I need to figure out how to recover and help him defend it.”
The main group of contenders crossed the line a little under two minutes later, with no change at the top of the general classification and all eyes now firmly on that time trial as the final opportunity for significant gaps.
“It’s been two hard days in a row,” Roglic said. “But again the team did a great job so it’s one day less.
“After the time trial there will be a decision known of the rankings but also tomorrow is another day to be really focused. It’s far from being really safe.”
Miguel Angel Lopez remains third and Richie Porte recovered from a puncture at the summit of the last hors categorie climb of the Tour – the Montee du Plateau des Glieres – to cling on to his fourth place, on course for a best career Tour finish in what stands to be his last entry as a team leader.
However, Adam Yates lost touch with the yellow jersey group on the final climb and lost two places, dropping back to seventh overall as Spanish duo Mikel Landa and Enric Mas moved up to fifth and sixth respectively.
“It’s stage 18 of the Tour, everybody’s tired and so am I,” said Yates. “We held on as long as we could, we lost some time but we’re still in the top 10 on GC.”
Earlier in the day, Irishman Sam Bennett used the intermediate sprint to stretch his advantage over Peter Sagan to 52 points in the battle for the green jersey.
After a series of tough days in the mountains Friday’s stage 19 promises more forgiving territory, but Bennett may regard it as even more dangerous given Sagan’s ability to get away on rolling terrain and the intermediate sprint coming late in the day.
“I was happy to get the points and it’s above 50 points now, so if something happens there’s a little bit of security but there’s a lot that can go on,” Bennett said.
“This is going to go to Paris, I think.”