Romain Bardet finally won a stage for France, soloing away on the final climb of Stage 19 to salvage his country's pride and put himself on the virtual podium in Paris. Stage 19 was arguably the most difficult of the Tour, made all the more harder when rain began to fall on the descent from Montee de Bisanne.
Chris Froome survived a wet, nervous day intact and still in the yellow jersey. The descent from the summit of Montee de Bisanne was harrowing. Rain began to fall and took out several riders, including No. 2 on the general classification, Bauke Mollema, who slipped off the back of the yellow jersey group and lost his podium place.
Froome also fell on a slippery bend, suffering scrapes and tearing his yellow jersey. Fortunately for him, his Sky teammates were nearby. Froome took Geraint Thomas' bike to start the final climb up to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. He was quick to get himself back up to speed, but it was a scary moment for the race leader.
Bardet took advantage of the confusion, taking off on his own and bridging to the last rider from the day's breakaway, Rui Costa, on the final climb. The duo gained as much as a minute-and-a-half on the yellow jersey group. When the gap fell to around 30 seconds, Bardet left Costa behind, pushing his lead back to about 40 seconds with one kilometer to go and surviving the onslaught behind him.
Team Astana drove a fast, withering pace at the front of the peloton all day, shedding riders until it formed an elite yellow jersey before Montee de Bisanne. The slopes took a heavy toll: Adam Yates, in third place on the general classification entering the day, fell off the back. Tejay Van Garderen continued to drop. Tom Dumoulin became the first crash casualty, nicking a wheel and injuring his wrist. He had to abandon the Tour after winning two stages.
Astana remained at the front as the group went over Bisanne's summit. Rain began to fall, and that's when several riders started hitting the road. Pierre Rolland was near the front of the breakaway group when his bike kicked out from under him and he skidded into mud.
Soon after, Richie Porte fell along with a couple FDJ riders. Porte, showing the best form of his career, has had a snakebitten Tour. A puncture on Stage 2 cost him two minutes on the general classification. Then on Friday, he had to expend energy in dangerous conditions to try to make it back to the pack. He did, but potentially at the cost of a better finish. He lost precious seconds from the podium.
The peloton absorbed the day's breakaway with 22 kilometers remaining, leaving one straggler, Costa, with a minute lead at the front. The break began with 20 riders soon after the stage began, and included 2016 break regulars like Rafal Majka, Thomas de Gendt, Jarlinson Pantano and Daniel Navarro. Majka won the the summit at Montee de Bisanne, giving him 25 points and an insurmountable lead as the King of the Mountains.
Stage 19 featured everything one could hope for from a Tour queen stage -- drama around the yellow jersey, a shakeup of the general classification and, perhaps most importantly, a French stage winner. Bardet will be the toast of France.
Froome, meanwhile, will be happy just to start Stage 20, bloody but still in yellow. Stage 20 is the last true stage of the Tour de France, and it's a doozy. Saturday's racing should be just as frantic, with just 1 minute, 6 seconds separating fifth place from second on the general classification.
Tour de France Stage 18 top 10
1. Romain Bardet - 4h 14'08"
2. Joaquim Rodriguez + 23"
3. Alejandro Valverde + 23"
4. Louis Meintjes + 23"
5. Nairo Quintana + 26"
6. Fabio Aru + 28"
7. Daniel Martin + 28"
8. Wout Poels + 36"
9. Chris Froome + 36"
10. Richie Porte + 53"
Tour de France general classification top 10 after Stage 19
1. Chris Froome
2. Romain Bardet + 4'11"
3. Nairo Quintana + 4'27"
4. Adam Yates + 4'46"
5. Richie Porte + 5'17"
6. Fabio Aru + 6'00"
7. Alejandro Valverde + 6'20"
8. Louis Meintjes + 7'02"
9. Daniel Martin + 7'10"
10. Bauke Mollema + 7'42"