Nairo Quintana (Movistar) produced the performance of his young career to win brilliantly at the end of a brutal haute categorie climb into Annency-Semnoz and claim the twentieth stage of the hundredth Tour de France.
And Britain’s Chris Froome is now certain to make it two consecutive overall victories for Team Sky in cycling’s greatest race after finishing third today and cementing a lead of more than five minutes at the top of the general classification.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) split the pair by finishing second, and by doing so displaced Alberto Contador (Saxo Tinkoff) from tommorrow’s final podium in Paris. The multiple Grand Tour champion had no answer today for the acceleration of the men who finished ahead of him when the crunch moment came with 8km to go.
Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard), had delivered another trademark, stage-long attack, gradually shedding his rivals, and holding a lead of 1.21 as he approached the final 10.7km climb.
His former confederates, riders recast as pursuers by the German’s indomitable will, were swept up at 9km to go as the stage caught fire.
Rui Costa (Movistar) and Froome tore past Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) as if they were standing still.
Seconds later and Voigt succumbed, passed by the elite group, now led by Richie Porte (Team Sky) and containing Froome, Quintana, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Rodriguez, Contador, and the Spaniard’s Saxo-Tinkoff lieutenant, Roman Kreuziger.
Team Sky’s electric injection of pace left observers in little doubt that Froome would not be content to the complete the last competitive stage for GC contenders in tame fashion.
Rodriquez was the first to blink, but as he accelerated away he was comfortably tracked by Quintana, and Froome rode confidently across the gap to join them.
With Quintana and Rodriguez seemingly content to build a gap steadily, Froome gave a massive injection of pace, superior perhaps even to that delivered on the Mont Ventoux.
This time, however, Quintana had an answer, somehow fighting his way back onto Froome’s wheel. The pace dropped and Rodriquez regained contact.
The Spaniard took up the pace making, and the the trio held station, with Quintana second wheel and Froome third almost until the finish.
Further back, however, Contador was fading fast and relying with increasing desperation on the efforts of team-mate, Kreuziger.
Richie Porte stayed with the Saxo-Tinkoff duo, but as the climb unfolded it became increasingly apparent that Contador’s greatest concern would be holding onto a podium place.
Froome made a second attack just before the flamme rouge, but on this occasion it was easily covered by Quintana, and after another 200 metres, the Columbian launched his own, decisive assault.
Rodriguez was the next to unleash and an exhausted Froome, sensing that the stage victory had gone, turned his attention to the greater victory.
As he crossed the line, a smile crossed his face and he punched the air, seemingly more as a gesture to himself than to the crowds.
Quintana is certain to finish second overall, and will do so in the most emphatic manner in which a rider be runner up at the Tour: by claiming victory in the white and polka dot jersey competitions for the best young rider and King of the Mountains respectively. Quintana’s King of the Mountains title is Columbia’s fourth, after Mauricio Soler (2007), Santiago Botero (2000), and Luis Herrera (1985).
Tomorrow’s 135km stage from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées should be little more than ceremonial.
Should Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) end the hundredth Tour with a fifth consecutive win in Paris, fans across the Channel will have an extra reason to celebrate, but, as had been the case 12 months previously, the greatest prize is already in British hands.
Tour de France 2013: stage 20 – result
1) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar – 3.39.04
2) Joaquim Rodriquez (ESP) – Katusha +18″
3) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +29″
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.42
5) Riche Porte (AUS) – Team Sky +2.17
6) Andrew Talanksy (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +2.27
7) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Saxo-Tinkoff +2.28
8) John Gadret (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +2.48
9) Jesus Hernandez (ESP) – Saxo-Tinkoff +2.55
10) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Saxo-Tinkoff – ST
1) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky 80.49.33
2) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +5.03
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +5.47
4) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Saxo-Tinkoff +7.10
5) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Saxo-Tinkoff +8.10
6) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +12.25
7) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +13.00
8) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +16.09
9) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis +16.35
10) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +18.22