TDF Stages 14 & 15

As I said in yesterday’s column – which I wrote on Friday – I didn’t expect much from the weekend’s stages and yesterday was another “rest day.”

Was I wrong! Both Saturday and Sunday had their exciting points, highlighting the importance of strategy and tactics. Although I hadn’t planned to post them, I was blogging the stages just for practice; so lucky you – here are highlights of the weekends’ stages!

TDF Stage 14: Blagnac to Rodez

This stage was 113 miles, rolling hills but after the intermediate sprint point there were two category 3s and a downhill leading down to the finish. Winds had the potential to become a factor towards the end, a couple of downhill hairpin turns cluttered with traffic furniture, and then an uphill finish that was expected to throw off the pure sprinters, like Kittel and Greipel, and open the door for racers like Matthews, who almost won a similar finish earlier in the tour. With the top GC contenders so closely placed, they were thought to be looking for opportunities to put time into the Sky boys, perhaps if crosswinds played a role. The hilly profile also promised breakaways: the riders who didn’t have the mountain legs would want to squeeze a breakaway in before they hit the mountains again.

At 104 MPH, a break of five was about 2:21 off the front and Voechler was in the break again, as was De Gendt, who was in second in the mountain race and might have been looking to collect some polka dot points toward the end of the race.

Sunweb, BMC, and Bahrain were leading on the front of the peloton, controlling the pace to keep the breakaway from escaping and preventing the sprinters on those teams from getting the win and the sprint points both at the end and at the intermediate sprint line. Poor BMC was down several riders, including their GC contender, and now they’ve shifted their strategy to getting a sprint stage win. Lotto, Kittel, and Katusha put riders in the break since the uphill finish won’t appeal to their sprinters; this gave their other domestiques a chance for a stage win, and the rest of the team could have a rest day back in the peloton, without having to drive the pace. Astana was also letting the sprint teams do the work today; they tucked in behind the sprint teams, with Sky on their tails, and Movistar just behind them.

There was also a rumor that one of the sprinters, John Degenkold, would abandon the race after this stage to hold his wife’s hand while she gives birth. Well, that timing wasn’t very strategic of him, was it? Usually riders look far in advance, planning their seasons to ensure that they peak at the right time – a problem for Quintana who raced the spring tour, the Giro D’Italia, and is wasted now – some riders even considering what they need to do to during the tour to showcase their abilities to pick up a new contract when the teams are organized for the following year. Perhaps Degenkold thought team management wouldn’t pick him for the tour team, and then someone else got injured? [Monday evening: he still hasn’t abandoned – perhaps she hasn’t gone into labor yet?]

The break took the sprint points, leaving only a few for Kittel and Matthews to fight over in the peloton, which Kittel took.

Just saw a shot of Aru in his yellow jersey and a yellow stripe on his shorts. He’s also the Italian champion; before he secured the yellow, he was wearing a jersey in the Italian colors. Once he didn’t have that option, he flew the colors on his cycling gloves.

The peloton came safely through the feed zone and then the riders on the front lifted the pace again as they entered an area that might have had crosswinds, and they were checking to see if they could split the peloton and drop any sleeping riders.

On the first climb, a viaduct, there was a 15,000 euro prize and two mountain points at the top of the climb. De Gendt is second in the mountain race and he wanted it. He lifted the pace and dropped most of the others, but Voechler jumped up behind him and rode across the line in his slipstream. Then Voechler lifted the pace in hopes of putting a little more time against the peloton. Commentator Jens Voight pointed out that the break came through the mountaintop line at the slowest predicted time, which he theorized – old breakaway expert as he is – that they were playing with the peloton, conserving energy to lift the pace at the last minute.

Crosswinds! The sprint teams at the front lifted the pace which split the field. The green jersey, Kittel, was sitting towards the back of the main field and got caught out. Kittel was off the back – where was his team?!? They should have been there pacing him back into the field. Apparently, when Sunweb lifted the pace, they were on an uphill slope, and he couldn’t get himself up the hill. Eventually he found a bunch of riders, including one of his teammates, and they took turns on the front to close the gap to the peloton.

The second climb went up to a 12.9% gradient. With 1:28 to the peloton, the green jersey was back with the group but started yo-yo’ing off the back again as they went uphill. The breakaway started shedding the riders who don’t like climbing and was down to four. Kittel had to think strategically – if he expended too much energy on Saturday, he’d have less for Sunday, which included several category 1’s, and if Kittel finished outside the elimination time on Sunday, then having the green jersey Saturday wouldn’t mean a thing because he’d be out.

Voechler and De Gendt have broke free from the rest of the breakaway. De Gendt wanted the points and Voechler wanted the stage win; they could work together against the peloton until the final end, and then race against each other. The two of them had 1:41 to the rest of the peloton, with the green jersey group a little over a minute further back. When the peloton crested, they were 1:51 back. The green jersey group crested at three minutes back.

At 19 miles, De Gendt dropped Voechler, who at that point was 30 seconds back, with the peloton at 1:30 and the green jersey group at 4:11. De Gendt was riding at 31 MPH vs. 29 MPH for the main field.

The crosswinds were back and the polka-dot jersey got caught out but he managed to regain the group. Voechler was back in the peloton. BMC raised the pace of the peloton in hopes of splitting the field in the cross-winds. Sky, Astana, and Movistar rode towards the front to avoid getting caught behind slower riders if the field split.

At 15 miles, the peloton was 1:07 back and the Kittel group was at 5:15. The polka dot jersey dropped back to gather a shirt-full of water bottles to replenish the rest of the team – what a guy! You’ll see the polka-dot jerseys doing this but not usually the other jerseys (except for the time that Lance sent one of his domestiques who had stumbled into the yellow jersey back for water).

10.3 miles and De Gendt had 50 seconds on the peloton, with Kittel’s group trailing at 5:45.

By 9 miles, De Gendt only had 22 seconds on the peloton and Kittel was down 6:10. BMC and Sunweb still controlled the front of the peloton. At 8 miles, they caught De Gendt, with Katusha at the front. And Katusha’s off! A BMC rider jumped on his tail with a Sunweb rider struggling to join them. The BMC and Sunweb rider wouldn’t help the Katusha rider because they wanted a sprint finish – the Sunweb rider who joined was also a sprinter and could have taken the victory if the break were able to stay away. A Fortuneo rider joined them and started doing some of the work. They had four seconds on the peloton.

Sky took the front of the peloton – if Froome could have taken the finish, he would earn a time bonus to put him back in yellow. Aru was pinned into the middle of the group without any teammates; if there was a crash, he’d lose a lot of time, and he’d never make it back to the front and would miss the time bonuses. AG2R and Cannondale were at the front of the bunch.

The breakaway started playing games, attacking each other, keeping the speed high, then sitting up, then riding again. Katusha, knowing these tactics were self-defeating, took off again.

Other sprint teams moved forward and so did the GC teams. The peloton caught the other three breakaway boys and Katusha pushed forward.

Quickstep, Sunweb, and Sky went to the front. Quickstep and Sky for their GC contenders, and Sunweb for their sprinter. Aru was all the way in the back and couldn’t move up. They were racing flat out as they came into the last mile.

The Finish

As they came up the final hill, the sprinters moved to the front, Michael Matthews got it!

Aru drifted over the line 26 seconds back and lost the yellow jersey! Froome was in yellow again by 18 seconds, followed by Bardet at 23 seconds, and Uran at 29 seconds. The next rider – Landa, also from Sky – was a little over a minute back.

The other jerseys stayed where they were. De Gendt earned most aggressive rider.

TDF Stage 15: Laissac-Severac l’eglise to Le-Puy-en-Valey

The stage started with a Category 1 climb, then a cat 3 followed by the feed zone and intermediate sprint, then a cat 1, another hill that isn’t categorized but looks like it should be, then another cat 1 and a downhill finish. Bardet, whose in third for the GC, lives near the finish line, had an added incentive to win.

There was a large break right off the start line: eight riders including the king of the mountains. Sky and Trek were on the front. AG2R sent a rider to try to bridge to the breakaway, but they already had a 23 second lead. The break included the riders in 14th and 15th places in the GC race, which means that the peloton would try to drag them back to protect all the riders who are above them. (Sometimes on stages like this, the break can finish 10 or 15 minutes before the field – if that were to happen, Sky would be in trouble.)

We had thought that this would be a boring stage, with Froome’s Sky team keeping the pace in the peloton so high that riders couldn’t break away; or that they would let some low-placed domestiques break away and stay away until the last mountain, then reel them back like they did yesterday. Either way, it wouldn’t have made for an exciting stage.

Four more riders joined the break and the gap was up to 30 seconds. Sky was on the front of the peloton but, by the width of the peloton across the road, it didn’t look like it was moving very fast. From above, the peloton looked like a block, with a line of Sky riders across the front holding them back, forbidding more riders from going across. The break was moving quickly, working together, taking turns on the front and transitioning smoothly and had achieved a 1:41 gap at this point. Another, smaller, break chased them, hoping to join up, which would give them a nicely sized break that could keep away until the end.

The break contained three or four Katusha riders who were driving hard on the head of the break. That team had been quiet this tour; so they might have been trying to get some camera time. They started the first mountain, but Trek missed the break and used the uphill to lift the pace on the front of the pack. The peloton was suffering and shredded down the hill. Sprinter Matthews hung onto the Trek rider. He’s done pretty well in the mountains for a sprinter and his competitor in the green jersey died on yesterday’s category 4. If Matthews could join the break and stay away, he might have been able to take the intermediate sprint points. They had some time to make up to join with the break, but it looked like Matthews had good legs for the day.

The break thinned as the road got steeper. Five riders were in the lead, followed by a 20 second gap, then the other half of the break, then the peloton at 1:31 back. The polka dot jersey drove the break uphill, desperate to take more mountain points; his competitor De Gendt would regret expending so much energy for the lower points on Saturday’s smaller climbs. On the front of the peloton, Sky rode tempo, picking up the remnants of the break as they went. Gallopin jumped off the front and dashed up the road, bridging from chase group to chase group. The lead break was about 2 minutes ahead; so Gallopin had  some work to do. Right behind Sky on the front of the peloton was Aru and the Astana boys – nice of them to take an interest Sunday since they were so far back Saturday.

AG2R, Cannondale, and Movistar were at the front for Bardet, Uran, and Quintana. Cannondale and Movistar missed the break, but AG2R had someone in a pursuit group. More and more riders were jumping out to join the chase group and it swelled to a pretty good size before Sky could get everything under control. Barguil, the King of the Mountains, took the points at the top of the hill.

Sky positioned helpers along the hill with musette bags containing waterbottles. Smart, because the roads are narrow and the team cars couldn’t get up to the riders; and because it was so steep that a rider who dropped back to the cars to get water for the team might not make it back up to them at the front. You often see teams handing individual water bottles to riders as they go over the top of a climb, but I haven’t seen any other team handing over musette bags throughout the ride.

It looks like winds might play a role again on this stage – headwinds, hindering the riders in the first break.

At 83.6 miles, they crossed the first mountain onto a plateau, the five riders at the front with 27 seconds on the chase group of 23 riders, followed by the peloton at 4:30. The polka-dot jersey was in the first group and De Gendt, second in mountain points, was in the chase group – but so was Matthews, Barguil’s sprinter who had been hoping for a stage win. A 28-rider break is next to impossible for the peloton to pull back. Katusha had at least two men, Lotto three, and BMC four in the break – these three teams have been shut out to this point in this tour, and needed to get some photo time. There were some big hitters in this group aside from Matthews and Barguil: Caruso, who was strong on Friday, Gallopin and Tony Martin who are great on breaks; Thibault Pinot.

Sky continued to drive on the front of the peloton, keeping the pace just high enough that no one else could jump forward. The top 10 riders in the yellow jersey competition were all in the peloton. Astana tucked in behind Sky – the Astana domestiques must have felt like participating on Sunday – then AG2R. There may have been some Cannondale up there but I spotted at least three hanging out in the back of the group. 5:10 behind the break. If the break stayed away, we’d see two races to the finish – one from the breakaway, going for the stage win; and one among the GC contenders in the peloton to try to steal time from each other (and, for Contador in 10th and Bennet in 11th place, to maintain their places in the top 10, since the top-placed riders in the break would move up if the gap grew longer). Sky had been on the front at high-tempo almost since the start, so his domestiques may not have as much energy as the other teams.

As they approached the intermediate sprint point, Matthews would be racing for those points – and I didn’t see anyone from QuickStep in the break to take the points away from Matthews on Kittel’s behalf.

Chris Froome and his team dropped back out of the peloton and they werepacing him back to the front again – at that point, there was no obvious reason why (nature break? mechanical?). You have to be strategic about when you stop, based on the race profile – you don’t want to have to chase back on an uphill or a downhill – and then on the state of the race.

At 48 miles, the peloton was 7:17 back, although the peloton seemed to be racing quickly. I was surprised that Quick Step and Trek weren’t chasing them down, but I guess that’s because Sky was keeping the pace so high.

At 40 miles, Tony Martin, a time trailer, launched himself off the front of the breakaway and already had a 10 second gap. At 34 miles, Tony had 1 minute on the break and 8:15 on the peloton. He was descending at over 40 MPH and the chase was not much slower – oh, and Tony was eating while he went. It was on a road like this several years ago that the road melted in the heat and pulled Joseba Beloki’s tire off his wheel on the descent, sending him sliding across the road with a broken femur and injured arm, effectively ending his career.

At 28 miles, Martin was 1:32 from the chase and 9:22 from the peloton. The chase group lifted their pace to try to catch him and, if they could keep that pace, there were some GC contenders in the peloton who would lose their top 10 places at the end of the day. This gave Katusha some TV time for their sponsors.

AG2R went to the front of the peloton with Astana, and split the peloton, with Uran and a couple of Cannondale riders, dropping Sky and Movistar. Movistar drove the pursuit with Froome just past them. They hovered just off the back of a chase group, hoping to rejoin.

23.5 miles out and Chris Froome was off the back of the peloton, with two riders pacing him back. Froome had a flat tire [later: he says it was a broken spoke] just as the climb started; his team car was too far back to help and he had to steal a wheel from his best domestique so he could continue. At this point, he needed to catch each of the groups that were getting dropped off the back of the peloton until he reached the front of the main field.

Froome’s teammate, Landa – who raced to the line to get sixth place for himself instead of helping Froome keep the yellow jersey on Saturday – was in the lead peloton group with AG2R! Quintana was also dropped.

At 22 miles, Tony Martin, at the front of the race, was 38 seconds in front of his chase group but then Tony’s legs went and he started crawling and they started catching him. Barguil chased Tony and one other rider.

Less than half a mile later, the break caught and passed Tony Martin on the final slopes of the climb.

The yellow group was just 15 seconds back from the AG2R group as they hit the steepest part of the climb. Less than a half a mile later, Froome cracked. The domestique who was towing him back didn’t notice he went and didn’t wait for him. Landa dropped off the lead group to tow him up. They were just behind the top group and, if they didn’t catch them on the ascent, they’d catch them on the descent instead.

At 20 miles, Froome and Landa rejoined the group. Barguil was at the front of the race with two pursuers, then 20 seconds to the rest of the break. The yellow-jersey group was 6:40 down.

Bardet jumped off the front of the yellow jersey group with Uran. Dan Martin pulled the rest of the group up to them. AG2R started driving the pace on the front – Bardet down to one domestique – then Froome, Uran, Aru, Contador, Dan Martin, Landa, a UAE rider, and the white jersey, Yates. AG2R kept the pace high. As they approached the top of the mountain, the group was clearly thinking of how best to descend to put time on each other.

On the way down, George Bennet, who was at a little over 6 minutes in the yellow jersey competition at the end of Saturday, raced to catch on because he needed to be much closer to the break to preserve his place. A Cannondale rider who was in the break dropped back to the group from in front; he stopped at the team car to pick up some food and water to share with Uran and the other Cannondale domestique in the group.

On the descent, Mollema from Trek put a gap to the rest of the break. Thibault Pinot and Gallopin were in that group with a handful of other riders – the rest of the break was smeared along the road up the hill. Mollema had about 12 seconds on the rest of the group and Trek needed something, since Contador hasn’t been riding well this year; and their sprinter is also dry.

At 14 miles, Mollema was in front, pursued by the polka-dot jersey group at 20 seconds, the 10-man yellow jersey group at 6:32, and finally a group with Quintana at 7:55. There was a sprinter autobus with Kittel at 16 minutes back – they just had to worry about finishing within the elimination time.

Other domestiques dropped back from the break to help their leaders in the yellow-jersey group. Sky didn’t have any riders in front; so Froome and Landa could only hope their riders would catch up on the downhill. Cannondale helped AG2R keep the pace high in the yellow group to prevent the Sky folks from rejoining and UAE helped. Aru, hanging on the back, put his hand up, calling for his team car to come forward.

At 10 miles, Mollema had 44 seconds on the 14 people in the chase group. The yellow group was at 6:36, Quintana was at 8:18, and Kittel’s group was at 17:47.

As Mollema approached the summit of the last climb, Barguil and Roglic moved off the front of the break to try to catch him and pulled the gap down to 34 seconds. The fans closed in around them as they approached the crest.

8 miles: Mollema crossed the mountain top 17 seconds ahead of Barguil and Roglic. The rest of the chase group was not far behind and one man immediately moved forward to join Barguil, followed by Gallopin.

The yellow jersey group is approaching the top of the climb now and AG2R is the on front, immediately followed by Sky, then Aru, Uran, and the rest.

Yates jumped out of the yellow jersey group. AG2R continued to pace the group. Landa moved to the front of the group and went clear of the Ag2R riders. Bardet tried to follow Landa, Froome was on Bardet’s wheel, and Uran was on Froome’s. All the acceleration caught Yates. Yates went again and Landa covered him again. Then they crested the top.

With 4 miles to go, at the front of the race, Mollema had 19 seconds on the polka-dot jersey group, followed by another group at 40 seconds. The yellow jersey group was at 6:26 and Quintana’s group was at 9:24.

The breakaway had settled down but in the yellow-jersey group, Meintjes had a try. He was second in the white jersey trial, and Yates had fallen to the back of the group at that point. As soon as the others catch him, Dan Martin took off. Bardet , Froome, Landa, and Contador all glanced around at each other, and no one took the lead to chase Dan Martin down.

At 3 miles, Mollema was just around a curve from the pursuers – if they had been on a straightaway, they would ride him down right away. The pursuers glanced around at each other, not taking command because going in front puts you in bad tactical position, giving the people behind you a chance to attack. They entered the town streets, the route twisting and turning, never giving the pursuers a good view of Mollema. Would he make it? They were all exhausted from the crazy ride they’d had so far that day.

The Finish, Part 1

In the last 1000K, Mollema was 19 seconds in front of the break. He was going to make it! He was going to make it! He made it! Stage win for Mollema of Trek! The break sprinted for second place – always important in cycling because if the winner loses time for holding onto the team car or fails his drug test, the second placed rider could move into first.

The Finish, Part 2

Dan Martin had 10-15 seconds on the yellow jersey group and caught some of the straggling riders from the original breakaway and they worked together. The yellow jersey group was hot in pursuit but couldn’t see them – Froome on the front, trying to protect Landa’s place. Now Landa’s in front.

Landa has fallen off the front.

Matthews raced for the finish, maybe not realizing that the green jersey points had already been awarded to the first 15 riders and there were none left for him.

Dan Martin had 14 seconds on the yellow-jersey group; he was sprinting for the finish, dragging a handful of breakaway riders with him. Martin moved into fifth place, displacing Landa.

A few seconds later, Froome lifted the pace and pulled the yellow jersey group across the line. All the contenders were there except Quintana, who lost his standing.

Everybody warmed down, caught a shower, called their wives or agents, got something to eat, did some interviews while we all waited for the green jersey to arrive so they could hand out the awards.

The Results

Martin moved into fifth, Quintana dropped out of the top 10 and Caruso joined in 10th place.

Matthews took the intermediate sprint points but still trails Kittel in the green jersey race by over 70 points.

Barguil is at 116 mountain points; the next placed rider is at 38 points. I’m not sure there are enough points left on the road to make up the gap; so, unless Barguil doesn’t finish, he may have the polka-dot jersey.

Yates has more than 3 minutes over Meintjes in the white jersey race.

Mollema earned the most aggressive rider award for the stage!

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