On a Tour de France stage that finished with a thrilling GC showdown on the Alpe d’Huez, early escapee Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) gave the day’s most stirring performance.
The Dutchman soloed out of the breakaway 72 kilometers from the line on Thursday’s stage 12. For a while, it seemed like he might take the stage and perhaps even the yellow jersey. Unfortunately for Kruijswijk, the final climb saw Egan Bernal (Sky) set a vicious tempo in the chase, and then a knockout battle among the GC riders.
Kruijswijk’s advantage evaporated and he was left with nothing but the day’s combativity award.
“It’s painful. This was one of the stages that was high on my list,” Kruijswijk said after the finish. “It’s a big disappointment for me, but I’ll keep on fighting.”
Even if he came up short, Kruijswijk’s impressive ride will have his team optimistic that the next mountain raid might succeed.
“A lot of respect for my roomie and what he did. He is riding really strong, really relaxed this Tour,” LottoNL’s Robert Gesink said. “I think he’s going to do some more impressive stuff in the day’s ahead.”
Kruijswijk started the day 2:40 down on race leader Geraint Thomas (Sky). That made it all the more interesting when he and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde decided to have a go in the breakaway. The other escapees were none-too-pleased to have a pair of GC outsiders for company, but the peloton allowed the riders up the road to work up a decent advantage nonetheless.
Kruijswijk had Gesink in the break as it forged up the day’s first climb, the Col de la Madeleine.
“On the bottom of Madeleine, it was quite hectic. Everyone wanted to be in the break it seemed, and also some of GC riders went,” Gesink said. “Stevie [Kruijswijk] was there and we made the best of it together.”
After the hors categorie Col de la Madeleine and the category 2 Lacets de Montvernier, Kruijswijk, Valverde, and Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) found themselves in the lead on the lower slopes of the day’s penultimate climb, the Croix de Fer. That’s when Kruijswijk threw his Hail Mary, powering away solo on the 29-kilometer climb, with an ascent of the Alpe d’Huez still to climb.
Incredibly, he went up and over the Croix de Fer summit with a six-minute advantage, giving Dutch fans reason to believe in his chances of the stage win at the very least. A Sky-led pack of chasers, however, cut his gap significantly on the ensuing descent and the flat run-in to the Alpe d’Huez.
“Sky came together as a team and did a lot of pulling in the valley. It was quite quick towards Alpe d’Huez,” Gesink said. “Solo, it takes a lot of energy out of you.”
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He started the final climb with a gap of a little over four minutes. The tireless efforts of Egan Bernal ate into that advantage and soon the yellow jersey was out of reach. Then the stage win came into question. Kruijswijk’s advantage was down to one minute with five kilometers left to race — and finally, Bernal pulled off the front and left the GC favorites to battle it out.
The back-and-forth of attacks spelled the end for Kruijswijk. Chris Froome (Sky) surged past 3.5 kilometers from the summit, followed by a selection of other overall contenders. From that point on, it was a matter of limiting the time losses in the general classification for Kruijswijk.
On the bright side for LottoNL-Jumbo, Primoz Roglic managed to hang with the GC favorites most of the way up the final climb, finishing just 13 seconds down on stage winner Thomas. Kruijswijk came home inside of a minute on Thomas. Fellow early escapee Valverde, by comparison, ultimately gave up over four minutes on the day.
As the Tour leaves the Alps, Roglic sits fifth overall, with Kruijswijk eighth on GC. Considering the brutal Alpine terrain the Tour has now traversed and the immense strength Sky has shown so far in the race, LottoNL should be pleased to still have a pair of riders inside the top-10 overall.
Kruijswijk will have a chance to recover Friday as the Tour takes on a mostly flat stage 13. Before long, however, the race will reach the Pyrenees. Don’t be surprised to see the Dutchman giving it another go when the road tilts upward again.
Andrew Hood and Fred Dreier contributed to this report from L’Alpe d’Huez, France.