TDF Stage 12: Pau to Peyragudes

133 miles, 15,000 feet of climbing starting with a category 4 climb, the intermediate sprint, then a category 2 mountain, a cat 1, HC, cat 1, and finishing on a cat 2 that includes a 20% gradient in the last 400 meters. Clouds and mist on the way up, wet roads on the way down, a little rain in the valleys.

With 77 miles left, a break of 12 has just over 5 minutes on the peloton. The sprinters, Kittel and Matthews are in the break, racing for the 20 intermediate sprint points. Matthews joined the break first, followed by Kittel. As coverage begins this morning, Matthews took the intermediate sprint points with Kittel quickly following. Matthews gets 20 points but Kittel gets 17 – not much advantage for Matthews there.

Team Sky is driving the peloton, followed by a line of blue Astana’s, the blue and brown diamonds of AG2R, then the dark blue Movistar jerseys and the rest of the peloton. The GC contenders have been looking forward to today’s stage as a respite from all those boring sprint stages. Despite that, Contador is at the back of the peloton and missed an early split in the peloton – his tweets say that he faces an uphill battle psychologically during this tour. He just hasn’t been the same over the last few years.

Fuglsang’s wrist and elbow are in a cast from his fall yesterday, which bodes ill for his Astana teammate and GC contender, Aru. Astana is already short-handed and Fuglsang is his most experienced domestique; he can barely put weight on his handlebars and they’ll be ascending and descending all day, which will put extra pressure on that arm.

Froome said his biggest rival today would be Bardet from AG2R. Gautier from AG2R is in the breakaway, as is a Movistar rider. These placements help their teams because their leaders can ride up to them and draft behind them or – more likely – they can drop back to help their leaders later. Most of the rest of the break are riders who are just trying to get camera time for their sponsors.

The peloton just passed through the feed zone and the gap is up to 6:39. That time won’t hold when the riders hit the first category 2 mountain. Gautier may be able to stay out front with some of the other break riders, but Matthews and Kittel will probably drop back.

Matthews just took the mountain points at the top of the cat 2 – that’s on behalf of his teammate who is leading the polka-dot jersey race. By taking the points, Matthews prevents De Gendt, who is also hunting for the mountain jersey, from getting the points.

The commentators are discussing why it benefits Kittel to stay in the break and not drop back to the peloton yet. Jens Voigt says that this tactic helps Kittel by giving him a 5-minute head-start up the big mountains to come so he can take his time going up and, although the peloton will eventually catch him, this head-start will help him stay within the time limit at the end of the race. (If he drops back to the peloton now, he’ll fall out the back on the first climb and need to expend extra energy to stay within the time limit.) Voigt also pointed out that there’s less jockeying for position in the break; so less of a chance of a crash. Kittel’s far enough in front in the green jersey race that it’s unlikely that anything other than a crash will displace him, as long as he keeps his strength up for the next flat stage.

…And Kittel just dropped off the back of the breakaway. If he can stay somewhat close, his weight – such a hindrance on the uphill – could help him on the downhill.

Matthews, however, stuck with the breakaway and took the mountain points at the top, again protecting his teammate, Barguil’s, polka-dots from De Gendt.

Steve Cummings is in the break and Bob Roll was just talking about his strategy. Cummings chooses the stages to go out on breakaways strategically, then uses tactics throughout the stage to conserve energy so he can finish strong.

Michael Matthews is leading the break downhill and he’s gapped them at about 33 MPH. He’s not riding aggressively but being in front gives him the chance to choose his own line down the hill, rather than following another rider and, if they pick a bad line, following them off the road. (You sometimes see one rider run off the road, followed by another; or see the second rider in line scramble to adjust his line at the last minute and bang into a third rider; or overcorrect and go off the other side.) This is why Team Sky often attacks on the way downhill. Now Matthews is at about 51 MPH.

Kittel has fallen back to 4:35 with the peloton at 4:57; so he’ll probably get caught in the valley before the next hill, which will be better for him to be in the group. One rider is 9:15 off the leaders and he may still be going uphill while the others are coming down – apparently, that rider is sick, which is unfortunate for the sprinter, Greipel, because this rider is Greipel’s final lead-out man in the sprint. If the rider falls too far back, that could impair Greipel’s ability to win sprint finishes when they return to the flats.

The peloton is in the valley now and has slacked off a little, eating snacks, removing jackets, taking what the commentators euphemistically called a “nature break” – the camera-men need to be nimble to avoid some embarrassing shots. The riders had a breather and are now starting to pick up the pace a little more. Kittel is back in the bunch where his domestiques can look after him and he can draft off the other riders.

They are just approaching the HC climb, which has a terrible descent afterwards. If a GC contender can break away from the others on this climb and stick the landing, they’ve got a good chance of staying away and gaining time on the others, if not taking the stage. What a beautiful countryside! Sky is on the front and is working like a well-oiled machine.

28.4 miles and two riders from Fortuneo have jumped clear of the peloton. They’ve got about 30 seconds on the field but the peloton isn’t chasing yet. Interesting, Cannondale has moved up the front – I wonder if they’re thinking about a stage win; Roland, their declared GC contender, is waaaaaay down the standings and is unlikely to make up the time needed to take the lead but Rigoberto Uran has somehow found himself at the top of the standings – could Uran be thinking of taking on Sky?

7.5 miles from the top and Matthews just dropped off the breakaway. He could try to take the mountain points again but it’s up to an 11% gradient and he needs to conserve enough strength to finish the day.

Quick Step has just moved up next to Team Sky at the front, apparently hoping that Dan Martin is feeling better. Team Sky has just lifted the pace and riders are falling off the back of the peloton. The breakaway has split into two groups of six and four, and the gap is down to 3:17. Thibault Pinot dropped off the back of the peloton and I’m not seeing FDJ in the peloton, which makes me wonder if his domestiques have dropped back to help him.

Matthews just got caught by the peloton. The 4-man break at the front is still 2:00 ahead of the peloton but the rest of the breakaway is spread across the road and will gradually be nibbled up by the peloton. Now the front group has split into two with De Gendt and Cummings on the front. De Gendt wants the mountain points and Cummings wants the stage win; so maybe they’ll work together.

Fuglsang, injured but still in fifth place, is trying to hold onto the back of the peloton. His race may be over.

Steve Cummings just pulled away from De Gendt; he’s going for the win. Warren Barguil has just jumped out of the peloton and is racing for the top to replenish his polka dots. And Contador zipper after Barguil. Contador is more than 5 minutes back overall but, if he can stay away, he may be able to make a little of that up. That said, Sky has just lifted the pace again and is clawing their way back to him. Every time there’s a move, Sky replaces the man on the front and lifts the pace again. They’re riding into the clouds now and we’ve lost helicopter coverage and are relying on motorcycle cameras; it’s hard to see what’s going on. 1K to the top, 1 minute to the two pursuers, and 2 minutes to the peloton.

Barguil just jumped out of the peloton again, going for more mountain points.  Cummings took 20 points for going over first – nice but of no importance to him – but De Gendt is coming up to get second place and 15 points.  Barguil is looking for fourth place and 10 points, which offsets some of De Gendt’s work, and then Barguil caught Gautier and they are riding together.

Cummings is racing downhill on narrow, wet switchbacks lined with campers and cliffs. Gautier just crashed into the side of the mountain – luckily the uphill side since the other side is straight down; he’s already back up and riding again. Sky is leading the peloton down the mountain. Cummings is going 47.4 MPH and Sky 37 – oh, now they’ve lifted the pace to 41. De Gendt and Barguil are together at about 1:27 back and the peloton is at 1:38. Cummings is over 50 MPH and the peloton is around 40. De Gendt just surrendered to the peloton but Barguil is out in front by 10 seconds… and now he’s back in the peloton.

17 riders are still with the yellow jersey group, including anyone who is still a contender: Quintana, Bardet, Martin, Aru, Uran, Contador, and the white jersey, Yates. Poor Fuglsang is more than 8 minutes back.

Froome and Aru just went off the road. Froome was following the wheel of one of his domestiques who missed a right curve and ended up in a turn-out in the midst of a bunch of campers, and Aru was following Froome’s line. Now they’re back on the road and they’ll need to work together to catch the group. It looks like the gentleman’s agreement holds and the group is waiting for him. But Cummings isn’t waiting out in front and has kept moving.

Some discussion amongst the commentators about whether the rest of the group should attacked instead of waiting. Sky has been driving the pace mercilessly to shred the field so, when a chance comes like this for everyone else to take some time out of Froome, they should have taken it. Paul says that Sky would have reeled them back anyway; Bob and Christian says that Quintana and Bardet didn’t have the legs to go. Cummings is down to 2 minutes, despite the delay behind him.

They’re just starting the last Cat 1 – just this mountain then a Cat 2 and they’re done. The domestiques are dropping off the back of the group and now Quintana joins them behind the rest. Barguil just dropped off the back of the group but De Gendt is also gone; so the polka-dot jersey is still safe for today.

With 6.5 miles to go – and 5 to the top of the climb – Sky has 3 domestiques plus Froome. The group also contains another 8 riders including Aru, Contador, Bardet, Uran, Martin and, dangling at the back, Yates.

The fans are closing in around Cummings, yelling, waving signs, taking selfies, offering water (which he’ll pour over his head but won’t drink), dancing in costumes, screaming.

Barguil has lost contact with the yellow jersey group.

Sky just changed domestiques at the front and lifted the pace again. Cummings is only a minute ahead and he looks like he’s out of gas. Now they’ve caught him and passed him flat. Quintana is up to a minute behind; it looks like he’s got a second wind but there isn’t much he can do with it now.

There’s a 10-second time bonus for finishing first today. If Aru can take that and Froome doesn’t finish in second or third, Aru may take yellow, which his team would have to defend tomorrow.

Yates is calling for water, rookie mistake to run out of water on a climb like this.

Contador just dropped off the back but they’re almost to the top and then they have a little descent where he can catch up.

Sky is keeping the pace high – 53 MPH – and taking risks on the turns. Now they’re on the last hill – and they’ve lifted the pace again!

The Finish

Martin moves up next to Aru on Froome’s wheel. George Bennet makes a move and no one follows him. Sky keeps riding on pace, lifting the speed a little, and Bennet gets caught.

Uran moves up behind Froome. Now the last Sky rider drops off, Aru makes his move, pursued by Martin, Bardet, Uran, and Froome. Froome drops back. Bardet pursues Aru.

Bardet jumps in front. Aru and Uran are battling for second, Bardet is out in front and he takes the win! Uran, Aru, and three other riders quickly follow before Froome, who finishes 22 seconds back.

With the time bonuses and that gap, Froome loses the lead in the GC to Aru by six seconds.

White, Green, and Polka-Dot stay on the same shoulders. Cummings gets Most Aggressive Rider – this is a prize I like because it often goes to someone who doesn’t win the stage but gave his all.

Contador and Quintana finish almost two minutes back. Uran moves into fourth place behind Froome in second and Bardet in third. Unless Team Sky has something deep planned, Froome’s loss today demonstrates team and GC vulnerability, which means there should be more competition on tomorrow’s stage. I was reading The Talent Code recently and the author posits that once people see a record fall, they conquer it time and again – Goliath has stumbled and there are a lot of little David’s ready to take him down.

The rest of Team Astana just crossed the line a long time after everyone else, nursing Fuglsang across the line. With Aru in yellow tomorrow, they’ll need to drive the tempo on the front of what is now promising to be a stage with a lot of attacks and Sky out for revenge. And, to top it off, tomorrow is Bastille Day which means the French will be out for the national pride of a stage win and – with Frenchman, Bardet, so close to the top, the French team AG2R will be particularly aggressive. The celebration will be muted at the Astana table tonight (from exhaustion if nothing else).

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