A couple of years ago, Philippe Gilbert might have been considered a reasonable bet for a stage finish atop the Côte de la Croix Neuve.
The Belgian’s a bit bulkier these days, and more of a diesel than back then, when -with Peter Sagan still emerging as a new young thing- he was default favourite for explosive uphill finishes.
Now, he has a team mate called Julian who does it better.
So when both of them were in the big break today, Gilbert showed no hesitation in committing himself to supporting the younger Frenchman who wins races à la Philippe circa 2011.
Fellow Quick Stepper Yves Lampaert had also been in the original 32 man break. But Gilbert’s role became increasingly critical towards the end of the day’s lumpy parcours as the group whittled down and his big compatriot Jasper Stuyven made a valiant attempt to solo to the bottom of the climb with enough of a lead to hold on over the top.
Every time the chase slackened, Gilbert would pull through either with a simple turn or soft attack that might just irritate the legs of Alaphilippe’s rivals. Through Mende he used up his last matches to power the group onto the foot of the climb, bringing Stuyven to a distance that would shortly prove bridgeable.
The twist was that it was Astana’s Omar Fraile who would best profit from his work, going sooner and allowing himself both enough time to blast past Stuyven before the climb flattened out onto the lofty airfield, and to steal a march on the lingering King of the Mountains who thought the stage was all his.
This climb -coming as it typically does at the end of heavy, hot, mid-race stages across the Massif Central- always is an interesting playoff between different calibre of riders: the explosive Ardennes guys at the extreme of their capabilities, the more thoroughbred climbers, the varieties of top GC contenders (albeit often 20 minutes back) and that robust breakaway specialist of the Steve Cummings and Fraile mould.
As it was, Alaphilippe either waited too long to make his move, underestimated Fraile or found the climb a little less to the suiting of a man who attacked at kilometre zero had imagined. That he wasn’t able to win, though, is absolutely no reflection on the efforts Gilbert made to put him in a position where he might have.
There were in fact numerous riders lining up outside Rouleur’s banana depot at the end of today’s stage. But Stuyven got the combative prize, Sagan’s got his green jersey and Tom Dumoulin is currently lined up for a podium finish.
All Gilbert’s got to go back to at the Quick Step hotel tonight is likely a chap in polka dots sulking across the dinner table.
The Rouleur Top Banana goes to an unsung hero of each stage of the Tour de France – not the winner, not the yellow jersey – but a rider whose efforts deserve recognition
Tour de France 2018, Rouleur Top Bananas: