Friday’s stage promised to be a big stage for a number of strategic reasons:
- Leaving aside everything else, it was the kind of road profile – a short stage (less than half the length of the usual stage) with an early intermediate sprint, followed by three Category 1 mountains and a downhill finish through the clouds – that profile encourages teams to select it for a breakaway when planning ahead of time. Additional encouragement: two breakaways last week almost made it to the finish.
- The polka-dot jersey, Barguil, would be trying to get out in front to protect the mountain points from the rider in second place in the mountain competition. At the same time, the sprinters may have made a quick early break since the intermediate sprint point occurred before the first mountain.
- It was the last stage in the Pyrenees and the last chance for Spanish riders to take a stage in an area where they are typically dominant.
- It was Bastille Day and the French riders and French teams always ride aggressively on Bastille Day for national pride. Roman Bardet – a Frenchman on a French team – was in third place and would ride aggressively to try to take yellow on Bastille Day especially since Aru, in first, is highly vulnerable (for reasons explained below). Unlike Aru’s team, Bardet’s team AG2R is looking very strong this year.
- Chris Froome and Team Sky showed weakness on Thursday, which gave the other GC contenders the sense that they could take more time from him on Friday. They need to take as much time as possible before they get to the Time Trial because Froome is the best Time Trialer of the GC contenders and could take a lot of time back there.
- Team Astana – who would be defending the yellow jersey on the road – is traditionally not as intimidating a team as Sky and is not healthy. One of their two mountain domestiques left the tour in an ambulance, and the other finished Thursday’s stage with an arm broken in two places, preventing him from climbing or descending easily. This vulnerability means that they won’t be able to keep the pace high enough to discourage attacks, as Sky has been. It also means that the team would be unable to support Aru during the big mountains – the rest of his team finished 20 minutes behind Aru yesterday.
- Froome/Sky would be desperate to regain yellow and re-establish their dominance.
There was an attack right from the start flag, two Frenchman out in front: Thomas Voeckler, who made his name as a breakaway artist and retires this year, and Barguil, the polka-dot jersey holder. They could work together because Barguil is focused on the mountain points, and Voeckler just wants the stage win. The sprint teams put riders on the front of the peloton to try to reel them back in and contest the intermediate sprint points. The peloton called them back again.
Another break went just before the sprint point, including Chavenal. You have to watch out for Chavenal because he’s done breaks in the past – and he’s French.
The sprinters raced for fourth place in the intermediate sprint, Michael Matthews took fourth, and Kittel took fifth, again cutting into the points Matthews took. Kittel has more than 100 points on Matthews now; so Matthews only hope is for Kittel to have a really bad day in the mountains and get eliminated on time; or get injured and have to drop out.
At 47.9 miles, the three leaders were 50 seconds in front of a group of 9 pursuers, with the peloton just 10 seconds behind. These aren’t very big gaps and the whole thing was expected to come back together – or maybe fall apart altogether – on the first climb. Barguil lead the chase in the peloton. The second group on the road got swallowed up and the peloton was breathing down the neck of the breakaway.
Poor Fuglsang was off the back – he was in terrible pain and the rules probably don’t allow him to take much in the way of painkillers. The commentators all said that he just needed to hold a couple more days until the race was back on the flats, in hopes he can help Aru in the Alps. I thought he should abandon – he was just torturing himself and would be a distraction to the team. On the first hill, he was already almost 2 minutes behind everyone else.
At 44.6 miles, the peloton split into groups. A Sky rider was leading the “peloton” which had diminished to about 20 people, the field was shattered. At 43.8 miles, Fuglsang had dropped to 2:23 off the back.
1K from the top, Barguil broke away in an attempt to bridge to the rider in front. Contador pursues?!? He’s 7:14 back in the yellow and Contador has stated he’s out of that race, and focused on stage wins. The breakaway crested first and took 10 points; Barguil took second. Sky rider, Landa, joined Barguil and Contador in pursuit of the rider in front.
39.7 miles, and the pursuers caught the breakaway just as the second climb started, and then Barguil fell off the back of the breakaway group. The sprinters fell back out of the main group, forming the “autobus” which allows them all to finish together and avoid elimination. Quintana and one of this domestiques jumped off the front of the peloton and aimed for the break, which was about 28 seconds in front; but Quintana brought a Sky rider and an AG2R with him – not smart. Sky was playing chess, with two men up the road – not working, just hanging onto the riders they were riding with – perfect support position for Froome, since it gave Froome people he could bridge up to later.
Cannondale and AG2R were leading the peloton at this point– aside from the yellow jersey, no Astana riders were visible. That wasn’t surprising since the remaining mountain domestique, Fuglsang, was barely hanging on at the back, and the other Astana riders are riders for the flat stages. Froome still had two riders in the main group with him (plus the two up the road) and I saw a bunch of AG2R riders (plus one up the road) with Bardet.
The Sky rider, Landa, started to work with Contador. Landa is Spanish and held 7th place in the GC; also, an improvement in his standings would put even more pressure on the other teams. They were 2:04 in front of the yellow jersey group, with the closest pursuers at 35 seconds, at 1K to the top of the climb.
Contador went over the top first, followed by Landa, and Barguil, about 30 seconds later. They descended quickly. Landa and Contador had 2:37 on the yellow jersey group which, if Landa could hold onto this lead, would put him in 3rd in the GC at the end of the day. Bardet, Uran, and Aru were in a bad spot tactically – if they attacked to try to catch Landa, Froome would counterattack and they’d end up helping Froome improve his time.
Froome was not leading on the downhill and Jens was speculating that he may not be feeling well and that’s why Sky was giving Landa his head. But while Jens was saying that, Froome and Bardet jumped out of the yellow-jersey group, pursued by Uran and, distantly, by Aru. Froome descended quickly, cutting the lead to 2:17. Then Froome sat up and some of the secondary GC contenders accelerated the pace again – possibly trying to conserve their places over Landa.
The first and second groups came together, which put two Sky riders in that break, then Quintana, Contador, and the polka-dot jersey.
At 21.8 miles, the breakaway started the final climb but they’ve extended their lead over the pursuers. The yellow jersey bunch regrouped on the downhill and was back up to 23 riders.
Fuglsang finally abandoned at the back of the race.
So the positions on the road: Contador and Landa; then the polka dot jersey group with Quintana and the second Sky rider at 29 seconds back; a group of three riders who had fallen back from the breaks at 2:10; then the yellow jersey group at 2:23 back.
UAE went to the front of the yellow jersey group, in an effort to keep their rider in 10th. Why didn’t AG2R attack?
After they passed through the crowded part of the road — fans popping out to take photos, urge the riders on, and offer water — they emerged on a road the width of a bike path. Beautiful countryside!
At 18.8 miles, Contador and Landa had 54 seconds on Quintana and the polka-dots (the other Sky rider dropped back, although he descends well and may make it up on the downhill), then another 2:35 to the trailers, and 2:45 to the yellow jersey group. They hit 18% gradient and riders began dribbling off the back of the peloton, including one of the Sky domestiques… and then Froome!
Dan Martin started leading the yellow group and lifting the pace but they stayed with him.
The polka-dot jersey dragged Quintana to Contador and Landa.
Chris Froome attacked, Aru followed, and they dropped Dan Martin. Froome bridged to his domestique, who lifted the pace. It was Froome, Aru, Uran, and Bardet and the man in second place in the white jersey competition – and they dropped the white jersey.
The polka-dot jersey took the mountain points and, on the descent, the yellow jersey was at 1:50 back. Sky lead as they approached the summit and, on the descent, they were only 1:39 back.
Bardet jumped off the front of the yellow jersey group with Aru in pursuit. Then Froome went in front. Yates joined the back of the group with Martin. And then Martin was back on the front and Froome chased him down and passed him, pursued by the yellow jersey then, following a gap, the rest.
Aru was in front and accelerating but Bardet drags the others up to the front and the group was 1:51 from the front.
The other Sky rider moved to the front, Aru staying with him. Uran went out front and lifted the speed. Uran and Aru are talking to each other. Martin had gone out front with the UAE rider but then they were back together again.
The front group raced downhill, Contador dangling off the back, a little tentative after all his crashes and injuries. The yellow group was two minutes back and it began to look like they probably wouldn’t catch them.
At 6.1 miles from the finish, Uran went off the front of the yellow-jersey group. Bardet pursued but he couldn’t get free from the group. Then Froome was off the front of the peloton, then Bardet, and they caught up with Uran.
Martin dashed off the front – he’s far enough back that Froome wouldn’t chase him, which means that the other riders would need to do the work to catch him. Uran and Martin wouldn’t catch the front group, but they could make up some of their time and increase their position for the final week.
Yates jumps off the front, hoping to take time on the other young rider in the group who was dangling off the back. The GC contenders let him go – he’s no threat to them yet. Martin was still out in front but he wouldn’t catch the breakaway which had 1:50 on him at 3 miles out.
Yates caught Martin. The yellow jersey group stopped attacking each other and started to work together, with everyone taking a short turn at the front.
When the front four entered the city streets, Sky had been on the front for a while and Barguil had been sitting on the back, not working, just watching. In the finish, you want to be toward the back so you can watch what’s happening in front of you. Contador jumped in front with Barguil on his tail. Barguil drove for the line – and a Frenchman wins on Bastille day in polka dots!
Then Martin and Yates are raced for the line – racing for time, not racing each other. And the rest of the yellow jersey group finished together, seconds later. The grupetto – i.e. everyone else in the race – was minutes behind, conserving energy, staying safe to fight another day.
Aru keeps the yellow jersey, and the rest of the standings stay pretty much the same, with Landa moving up a place, followed by Martin and Yates.
Barguil keeps the polka dots, Yates the white, and Kittel the green.
So let’s look at the factors I cited earlier:
- Breakaway stage – absolutely.
- Barguil going for mountain points, yes.
- Spanish riders going in the Pyrenees: Contador and Landa in the lead group, yep.
- French rider going for the win on Bastille Day – yes, although it was Barguil not Bardet.
- Froome and Sky showing their strength – yes, with two men in the breaks, three in the yellow jersey group, Froome initiating attacks and covering every attack from the other contenders, and Landa moving into the top 5 in the yellow jersey standings.
- Aru isolated and Astana looking vulnerable. Check.
- Froome/Sky desperate for yellow – at one point, it looked like Landa might even take yellow.
They traveled Friday night to the next start point and the weekend’s stages were labeled “hilly” with a few classified climbs but nothing like today. After Monday’s rest day, they have a flat day, then they’re in the Alps.