For a second time in this Tour de France Chris Froome crashed in the yellow jersey but still saw his overall lead increase as he closes in on a third title.
Team Sky’s Froome hit the deck inside the last 15 kilometres of the 146km stage 19 from Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc and was forced to finish on team-mate Geraint Thomas’s bike, with his rivals looking to put him under pressure on the final climb on Mont Blanc as the rips in his yellow jersey revealed his scars.
But while AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet claimed the first French stage win of this Tour to move up to second overall, several others crashed in a chaotic finish that shook up the general classification standings.
Adam Yates slipped from third to fourth having been dropped on the final climb, although the 23-year-old Briton retains the white jersey as the best young rider with one mountain stage left before the traditional parade into Paris.
Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema dropped from second to 10th overall after a crash cost him more than four minutes. Richie Porte launched a late attack hoping to boost his podium hopes, but blew up as he felt the affects of an earlier crash and rolled home after Froome, leaving him fifth overall.
After all that Froome, who saw his lead increased after crashing and running up Mont Ventoux on foot in the farcical finish to stage 12, now leads by four minutes and 11 seconds from Bardet.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who pulled clear of the ailing Froome in the last part of the climb, is third, a further 16 seconds back. Bardet’s second career Tour stage win came by 23 seconds from Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez and his fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, with Quintana a further three seconds back.
Froome crossed the line ninth, 36 seconds behind Bardet, and the 2013 and 2015 winner was soon sporting heavy bandaging on his right knee.
“It is ironic really as I was just trying to stay up front,” Froome said of the crash. “I was just trying to stay safe and out of trouble but I think I just hit a white line on the road and lost my front wheel.
“I am okay – I’m lucky nothing is seriously injured. Just lost a bit of skin and I banged my knee a bit.
“Today is the kind of day when you feel grateful you’ve got about four minutes advantage so I could fall back on that a little bit.
“Today shows the Tour is never won until you get to Paris.”
This short, sharp stage with four categorised climbs was designed for drama but it was when the weather closed in inside the final 50km that the race changed shape.
Mollema crashed on a roundabout and then out-braked himself trying to catch up, narrowly avoiding going off the road completely.
When Froome went down, he took Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali with him, but both riders were able to continue as Froome grabbed a working bike from the nearby Thomas.
“I could see Froome on the front and he was saying chill on the radio but he doesn’t do chill, does he?” said Thomas. “All of a sudden he’s on the floor and going ‘I need a bike, I need a bike’, so I gave him mine. Then I waited for the team car although they did drive past me.
“I wasn’t going to run to the finish but luckily they stopped a few hundred metres later and I got on this (bike), and that was that.”
Wout Poels, Mikel Landa and Sergio Henao were able to pace Froome back to the main pack but, riding an unfamiliar bike and with the road rash showing through his torn jersey, he looked far from comfortable as others began to make their move.
Yates avoided the crashes but, hanging on the back of the peloton, had looked ready to crack throughout the stage. He was distanced by the leaders on the Col de la Forclaz midway through the stage before being helped back by two Orica-BikeExchange team-mates and a push from Team Sky’s Luke Rowe, although he was penalised 10 seconds by the race jury for getting unfair assistance.
When he was left behind again on the final climb he was out of helpers and came in 30 seconds behind Quintana to surrender his podium place.
Before the rain began, two-stage winner Tom Dumoulin of Giant-Alpecin hit the deck in a nasty crash. The Dutchman was in tears when he was forced to abandon the race, and his team’s confirmation of a fracture in his left wrist leaves his Olympic time trial hopes hanging in doubt.
Such has been Froome’s dominance that this Tour appeared over as a contest until the rain came as a reminder that everything can change in a flash.
The forecast for today’s mountain finale from Megeve to Morzine is for more rain, which will make the technical descent to the finish line a potential game-changer.