There hasn’t been much to celebrate during this Tour de France for the Ineos Grenadiers team. Flying high in the past few editions with wins for the likes of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, this year’s race has proved a sobering affair with the dominant Jumbo Visma team taking centre stage. It seemed that yet another blow had been struck to their aspirations as Bernal, last years winner, was forced to retire from the race before the start of stage 17, citing back issues that rendered him unable to compete at the level required. All was not well, with morale low and disappointment looming.
Stage 18 is widely regarded as one of the most gruelling in the race. Well into the Alpine stages, the route takes the riders on five individual climbs up the Col de Méraillet, Col de Sasies and Col des Aravis, before six kilometres of torture as they ascend the Montée du plateau des Gliéres. The final climb takes them up the Col des Fleuries and ends in a ten-kilometre descent into La Roche-sur-Foron to finish the stage. What a stage it was for Ineos Grenadiers, scoring a one-two finish, after defending well, dropping their attackers on multiple occasions and finishing a whopping two minutes ahead of the next group of riders. What brings a smile to my face as I write this, however, isn’t just their impressive statistical performance, but more the manner in which they finished. It sounds twee, but it was a moment of true teamwork, rightly rewarded after a hard day’s ride.
The stage win went, officially, to Michal Kwiatkowski, who formed a breakaway duo with his Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Richard Carapaz on Thursday. Doing so well on this mountainous stage, Carapaz took the lead in the mountains classification and will be adorned in that coveted red and white polka-dot jersey for the foreseeable future. As the two approached the finish line, arm in arm, Carapaz gave Kwiatkowski a little shove in the back to send him ahead of himself, into first place for the stage. In post-race interviews, Kwiatkowski told of how Carapaz knew he was taking first place in the mountains classification so, instead of fighting it out with a team-mate, they would finish together and share the victory, as good team-mates do.
Heart-warming stuff, for sure, but this has a deeper meaning to the Polish Kwiatkowski who, in past races, has participated as a “domestique” – that is, a support rider, never expected to actually win anything. He played his part well in the victories of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal alike, happy (or not so happy, as the case may well have been) to watch on as his team-mates sped on to glory and their place in the annals of history. Tour de France Stage 18 2020 was different – this was his moment, rightly deserved and well-earned over a lifetime of commitment to the sport. “I’m going to celebrate big-time tonight” said Kwiatkowski. He’s earned it.