Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) became the first Frenchman to claim a stage victory at the hundredth Tour de France, as he conquered the double ascent of Alpe d’Huez to claim victory.
Riblon joined an escape early in the stage, and after sticking with a number of attacks at the front, and bouncing back from crashing into a ditch, he burst through the packed crowd to catch American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and storm to victory on the famous mountain.
Chris Froome (Sky) meanwhile strengthened his grip on the yellow jersey despite a 20-second penalty for an illegal feed after a superb ride by team-mate Richie Porte helped the Kenyan-born Brit drop Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the final climb.
Contador and team mate Roman Kreuziger launched an attack on the descent of Col de Sarenne but a bike change – after the UCI announced bike weight would be checked at the finish – saw both dropped.
Earlier, while most riders were focused on what lay ahead with the double ascent of the iconic mountain, the first climb – the category two Col de Manse – almost did just as much damage.
Straight from the flag a series of riders attacked and counter-attacked up the first climb, with Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) leading an early, unsuccessful break while Jesus Hernandez (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) fired an early warning to Team Sky before Peter Kennaugh neutralised his attack.
However, just moments later Froome was left isolated as a number of leading riders, including white jersey Nairo Quintana (Movistar), broke clear.
Riders including 2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans (BMC), were dropped on the first climb, despite the Australian being part of an initial attack, as the peloton became strung out.
With breaks forming all over the climb, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) crested first to collect five climbing points, while Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale) followed.
Hesjedal was forced to drop back as team-mate, Dan Martin, starting tenth in the GC, slipped to the back of the bunch, and Lars Boom (Belkin) and Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS) launched a new attack.
This time the break stuck, with Riblon, van Garderen, Boom, Chavanel, Voigt and Jeannesson joined by Andrey Amador (Movistar), Thomas Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) and Mareno Moser (Cannondale).
With no GC contenders among them, the Sky-led peloton – with all of the British team’s riders alongside Froome – was happy to let them go as the bunch regrouped.
Saxo-Tinkoff and Movistar also kept riders near the front of the bunch, the Saxo pairing of Nicolas Roche and Sergio Paulinho launched a counter-attack.
With little chance of bridging the gap of six minutes, it seemed the two were preparing an early attack from Contador but El Pistolero remained patient over the summit of Col d’Ornon.
Jeannesson led the break over the top of the category two climb, with Chavanel, Voigt and Danielson following him over.
Their nine-man break was split on the hairpins of the descent, with Boom leading five riders through the intermediate sprint and onto the first climb of l’Alpe d’Huez.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) contested the intermediate sprint from the peloton, with the German beating the Slovakian to take one extra point.
The break regrouped on the climb but van Garderen accelerated off the front, while Roche sent Paulinho on ahead before rejoining the peloton, still led by Sky.
With the break completely split, van Garderen built a small advantage over Riblon, with Danielson and Jeannesson further back.
Sky, led firstly by Ian Stannard and then by Kanstantsin Siutsou, set a strong pace up the first climb and soon caught Paulinho, reducing Saxo-Tinkoff’s counter-attack to nought.
With an estimated 500,000 fans lining the route, Riblon lost ground on van Garderen as the crowd got too close – forcing him to duck under one flag before he swung for another spectator.
The American, riding out of the saddle, was eventually caught by Riblon and Moser within 400m of the summit, which the latter crossed first for 25 climbing points.
Meanwhile, at the back, Evans, stage 16 winner Rui Costa, and sprinters including Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Greipel and Sagan were all dropped, as was Dan Martin.
Van Garderen attacked again to lead over Col de Sarenne but suffered a broken chain on the descent, which allowed Moser and Riblon to move into the lead with a fearsome pace.
It proved too much for the Riblon, who promptly fell into a ditch, but there was no lasting damage and he soon caught the Cannondale rider again.
Van Garderen lost almost a minute at one point, but rallied to catch them just before the final ascent and attacked, firstly with Riblon and then alone.
With Sky riders gradually dropping back after some mammoth shifts at the front of the peloton, Contador and Kreuziger attacked on the descent.
They moved more than 20 seconds ahead of Froome, but the Sky leader did not respond and reaped the benefits as Movistar upped the pace in the bunch and soon hauled them back.
Contador then required a bike change, which put him at the back of the bunch as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Quintana and Froome all attacked at the front, dropping both Saxo-Tinkoff riders.
Froome attacked off the front again, with Quintana going with him, and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) bridging to increase their lead over Contador before the tireless Porte rejoined his leader again.
With Froome needing food after feeding had been declared finished for the stage, Porte was forced to drop back to the team car for gel bars, leading to the former’s time penalty.
After the race Froome admitted he had needed sugars, claiming the team car had suffered mechanical problems just before they reached the cut-off point for feeding.
Quintana seized the advantage with Froome eating, attacking with Rodriguez as both gained time in the general classification and Quintana reduced Froome’s mountain classification lead to seven points.
Back at the front Riblon, having initially looked like he was dropped, sped back up again to catch the struggling van Garderen inside the final two kilometres.
And the Frenchman raced through the flamme rouge and away to victory to the delight of the passionate home crowd to write his name into Tour history.
Tour de France 2013 – stage 18 – result
1) Christophe Riblon (FRA)- Ag2r-La Mondiale – 4:51:32hrs
2) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing Team +59″
3) Moreno Moser (ITA) – Cannondale Pro Cycling +1’27”
4) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +2’12”
5) Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) – Katusha +2’15”
6) Richie Porte (AUS) – Sky Procycling +3’18”
7) Chris Froome (GBR) – Sky Procycling same time
8) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +3’22”
9) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +4’15”
10) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) Astana same time
1) Chris Froome (GBR) – Sky Procycling 71:02:19hrs
2) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Team Saxo-Tinkoff +5’11”
3) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +5’32”
4) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Team Saxo-Tinkoff 5’44”
5) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha 5’58”
6) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling Team +8’58”
7) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +9’33”
8) Michael Rogers (AUS) – Team Saxo-Tinkoff +14’26”
9) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +14’38”
10) Laurens ten Dam (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +14’39”
King of the Mountains classification
1) Chris Froome (GBR) – Sky Procycling – 104pts
2) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar – 97pts
3) Christophe Riblon (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – 77pts
4) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Euskaltel-Euskadi – 63pts
5) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing – 62pts