TDF Stage 16: Le Puy-en-Valey to Romans-sur-Isere

This stage of 102 miles started with a 12-mile uphill climb cat 3 then a cat 4, then crossed the Rhone Valley through the intermediate sprint point. This was a sprinter’s stage with a downhill finish with a bunch of turns and roundabouts that will cause the wind to change direction again and again, great for Kittel, although Matthews hoped to get out in front and take another 50 points and maybe the finish.

However there were going to be cross-winds that the GC contenders could use to put some time into their rivals. The two top sprinter teams – Quickstep and Sunweb – are both from the Netherlands and ride flats in the wind a lot. Heavier riders do better in the winds because they can avoid getting blown around. It was not a great day for a lone or small break, but a big one could survive. It was on a flat stage in the tour a few years ago that Contador missed a peloton-split in the winds and lost enough time that he was out of the running for yellow that year.

Right at the start, a large group of riders jumped off the front but when they hit the headwinds, they sat up and went back into the group. Dimension Data, a South African team, was driving the pace on the front of the peloton, looking for TV time and a little glory on Nelson Mandela day. Their sprinter, Boassen Hagen, had been shut out thus far this tour, and they wanted a win; but unless they could drive the pace uphill and get a huge lead on Kittel, it would be a tough finish.

At 98 miles, two more riders broke off the front and a third jumped across, but the peloton rode them down. No one in the break threatened the yellow jersey standings or the other jersey competitions; but the sprint teams would ride down the breaks because there are only two flat stages left before Paris. The next two stages are in the Alps, Friday’s a flat stage, and Saturday is a Time Trial.

94 miles and the previous break got caught back and another took off, this one including De Gendt, who has been looking for mountain points, and Steve Cummings who was in the break the other day and got caught before the finish – he was hungry for a stage win. Cummings is on Dimension Data and has won on Nelson Mandela day in the past. Sunweb went to the front of the peloton, riding the breakaway back.

At 92 miles, the start of the first climb, there were 10 riders in front, then a second group coming across, and the peloton 20 seconds back… And by 91 miles, they were all back together again – Sky rode them down because Dan Martin had snuck into the break.

Sky went to the front of the peloton, lifting the pace to discourage breaks, but almost immediately De Gendt and Chavanel took off again and were joined by a number of people. Matthews decided to join the break with a couple of his teammates but Quick Step had a man on the front to nail him back.

Quick Step could only one man because the peloton was already split and the green jersey missed the split; so several Quick Step domestiques were in back trying to help him regain the main group. They expended a lot of energy early in the race and I wondered how much they’d have left at the finish.

At 85 miles, the five-man break was out in front by 52 seconds, then the yellow jersey group, trailed by the green jersey group at 1:20. Matthews was back in the peloton and everyone on his team went to the front, driving the pace high – not to catch the break but to drop Kittel, who was pedaling like mad to catch back up.

At 78 miles, the peloton was only 21 seconds behind the break; so Chavanel has broken off the front of the break and is going on his own. He’d done this in the past, but it’s trouble in a crosswind. The Kittel group was at 1:08 and Sunweb continued to drive the pace, catching the break with Chavanel is still out front.

The gap between the two parts of the peloton grew but still too small to allow the team cars between the groups (it could interfere with the pursuer’s ability to catch the front group), which meant that the riders were unable to replenish their water supply. This is where Sky’s practice of stationing helpers along the road with musette bags of water bottles for their riders to grab, is a good idea, but I hadn’t seen any to this point on this stage. [Later: they showed the musette bag handoff at the top of the next climb and said that the other teams have started using the same tactic.]

In the pictures of Kittel, he looks miserable. Even if he made it back, he might not have the energy or the legs to win a sprint in the finish. Meanwhile, Matthews was burning out his team at the front, trying to put it to Kittel. If Kittel’s GC teammate, Dan Martin, were in that front group and the split continued, you could expect Martin to try to break away for a win – which would also help him move up the standings.

74 miles and Chavanel has sat up to wait for the main field – he could see that, with Sunweb putting time into Kittel, he wouldn’t be able to sneak away, and he went back into the main field. Behind Kittel, three riders were 3 minute off the lead, including poor George Bennet, who lost his standing in the yellow jersey race on Sunday and was looking like he’d lose even more on this stage.

70 miles and the second piece of the peloton seemed to have given up; Quick Step moved off the front. The first part of the peloton zipped down the descent, Sunweb on the front, assisted by Greipel’s Lotto team.

At 62 miles, the lead group of 119 riders had started the second climb at 1:52 over the Kittel group of 44 and 5:51 to George Bennet at the end of the race (with individual riders smeared all of the road along the way). Bennet needs to continue riding all out to prevent finishing outside the 30-minute elimination time.

Katusha was riding near the front of both the front group and the pursuers; their sprinter was in the front group but a commentator said that the riders in the back group were worried that crosswinds might split the group further, and wanted to be in the front group of the back group if that happened.

The crosswinds hit! The pace was high in the main group, the peloton stretched out to a long straight line with Sunweb on the front.

52 miles out and Contador changed bikes on the way downhill. They were “only going 35-40 MPHs and I wouldn’t like to be descending at these speeds around blind turns amongst the team cars – if a car stopped suddenly, Contador would go straight into the back of one to end his tour. 2:25 back to Kittel. There were two riders at 1:50, trying to bridge from the Kittel group to the main group, eventually joined by one more rider. The clips of the Kittel group descending showed him leading the group, his domestiques right on his tail; Kittel’s line was good but the next guy took a slightly different line and went straight off the road, followed by the next three or four riders who were just following his wheel instead of paying attention to where they were on the road. [Later: doesn’t seem like anyone was hurt.]

At 46 miles, the yellow group was trailing riders struggling to get back on; then there three riders at 1:30 trying to bridge from Kittel’s group, who was 3:00 back. The stopped listing George Bennet’s group when he was 5:00 back and soon after this announced that he had abandoned.

Holy cow! By 34 miles, the three guys in between the two parts of the peloton had raced down the hill and joined the main group! They made up almost two minutes to get there – the three consisted of the Katusha rider from the back group, a Cofidis sprinter and one of his domestiques. The sprinter would be exhausted before arriving at the finish but at least he would have his self-respect to keep him warm that night. The Kittel group was over 4 minutes back at this point.

At the intermediate sprint, Matthews won 20 points. If he were to place during the final sprint, his points would be nipping at Kittel’s heels in the green jersey competition. The next stage is full of mountains and it’s unlikely that Matthews will finish at the front – and there may not even be sprint points available in that stage – but that intermediate sprint is just over the first Category 2, which means that Kittel won’t contest it but Matthews – if he has any energy left after today – could take it.

Some of the other teams are moved to the front of the peloton. Christian Vande Velde says it’s because they’re about to take a right turn that will bring the crosswinds back into contention and, with Sunweb having expended so much energy earlier in today’s stage, Matthews may find it difficult to make the front end of a split. And, in the time it took me to type that, they made that turn and, indeed, the peloton split. I love crosswinds battles because they’re beautiful to watch but this wasn’t one of the really classic battles which you often see in the flat stages along the Normandy coast. This time they dropped a few riders but no one in contention for anything and then they made another turn and the wind switched from crosswind to headwind, and they managed to rejoin… but they would turn again in a few minutes. Kittel’s group 7:45 back at this point.

The teams lined up in columns at the front of the main peloton, some sprint teams, some GC teams. With Sunweb doing all the work, it’s starting to show: two of the domestiques had already shelled off the back more than 10 miles out. When they turned the corner and entered the crosswinds, Sky moved to lead the peloton and lifted the pace but then other teams moved forward.

10 miles out and Kittel is nine minutes back. More Sunweb riders fell off the back of the group, exhausted. Sky was on the front, keeping the pace high to keep order and to make sure Froome was positioned at the front

When the next batch of crosswinds hit, Sky lifted the pace again. The field broke up and there was crash at the back between AG2R and Trek. The peloton split with all of Sky are in the first group, Aru, the white jersey, the polka-dot, Matthews, and most of the sprinters.

Greipel, Kristoff, and Dan Martin fell into a group further back. Martin and Kittel are teammates, and the domestiques were back in Kittel’s group because they had been trying to bring him back when the field originally split at the beginning of the stage; Martin only had one rider to help him. Greipel worked to bring the group back, too. Sky and the sprinters’ teams raised the pace at the front, trying to secure the sprint.

The announcers said that the finish is so windy that the barriers blew down. At this point, the first group was stretched out into a long thin line, speeding across the last 4 miles, with the yellow jersey almost in the very back – a dangerous place to ride. If there had been a crash or the wind shifted across the race again, he could have gotten dropped. In comparison, Aru and Matthews rode much closer to the front of the line. Not long after this, Froome moved up towards the front again.

With 2.7 miles to go, Kittel’s group was almost 12 minutes back.

The Finish

Bennati from Movistar broken free of the lead group. Movistar could use a win as their race has been quiet, aside from Quintana falling out of the top 10. Barguil from Sunweb moved to the front to try to chase down Bennati. Dimension Data joined Barguil to bring Bennati back and force a sprinters’ finish. As they entered the twists and turns of the town, Mattthews was right on the front but as they went around the last turn, the sprinters all came forward… It was close right on the line… photo finish…

Dan Martin arrived 50 seconds later and dropped several places in the standings. [Later: he said that he and several of the domestiques have picked up an illness of some kind, which explains why Kittel and most of Quick Step ended up in the very slow group. Also, Philip Gilbert, one of their strongest and most experienced domestiques left before today’s stage due to this illness.]

The rest of the first group limped across the line…

…And they announce that Matthews won! If he has any energy left to break away before the next day’s cat 2 climb and take the intermediate sprint points, Kittel had better watch out, because Matthews will just be 29 points down! But Matthews will be exhausted after this stage, as will his team.

And, once again, the riders who have finished can warm down, get a shower, eat a nine-course meal, and read War and Peace while waiting for Kittel to come home and the award presentations can start.

In other news, Giant – co-sponsor of Sunweb – tucked in a commercial featuring their team in the first commercial after the announcement of Matthew’s win. Perfect timing for the commercial – wonder if they had a clause in their advertising contract.

Chavanel received most aggressive rider for this stage but I disagree: I like Chavanel but I think Bouhani deserves this one, and I wonder if he had won the stage if he would have received it.

Aside from Martin losing places, the other big loser today was Contador who got burned by the crosswinds again and drops to 11th with Quintana rejoining in the 10th place. Simon Yates increased his white jersey lead to almost four minutes (the second placed rider in the white jersey competition got caught on the wrong side of that last crosswinds break). Polka dot jersey stays where it is.

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