TDF Stage 17: La Mure to Serre-Chevalier

113.7 miles: we reach the Alps! Category 2 mountain, then downhill to the intermediate sprint, then an HC climb, a descent to the feed zone, then a Cat 1, another HC with a final summit of 8500 feet, then right downhill to the finish. Oh, and everyone is exhausted from yesterday! 20 green jersey points in the intermediate sprint and another 20 at the finish line.

On this stage, the yellow jersey contenders will be (hopefully) going all out for time. Even Froome wants to have more time as a cushion against his rivals. Sky will ride at the front of the peloton and keep the pace high to tire the other teams and discourage breaks and attacks. The other competitors will be looking at the breaks, trying to place domestiques tactically into them where they can, so they can bridge up to them on the higher climbs. Dan Martin, in particular, will take risks to try to regain the top 10 after yesterday’s stage, although he did say yesterday that he wasn’t feeling well, as an illness goes through the Quick Step camp. For the last few years, the contenders have held back on these big stages afraid to attack, and Froome has plowed through them for the stage win. That makes for a pretty boring tour – except when Froome’s bike blew up on him on the final ascent a few years ago – so I hope they have the courage today.

In the green jersey race, Michael Matthews will look to take points at the intermediate sprint. He doesn’t have the problems with the mountains that Kittel does – although Matthews and his team did expend more energy yesterday and may not have the legs to get over the first climb in advance of the other sprinters. Matthews has one advantage: one of his domestiques wears the polka-dot jersey; so even if his train suffers on the ascent, Barguil can get him over the top. Again, Matthews will look to get people in the breaks. Kittel’s Quick Step team hasn’t nursed him over the mountains yet – they’ll want to keep Matthews under control today but, with the illness Martin mentioned, I’m not sure they’ll have the strength. The other sprinters have been shut out but they may be happy to just survive today’s stage.

While the focus after the intermediate sprint point will be on the GC race, we can expect some of the teams that have been quieter this tour to attempt a breakaway. In the past when they’ve tried to mix it up on an important yellow jersey stage, they’ve all gotten caught on the last climb and the yellow jersey leader usually takes the stage win – but with the downhill after that last climb, there’s a chance that some breakaway artist – Chavanel, Cummings – hangs just off the yellow jersey group to the top then descends like a demon to try to take the win… If Froome lets him: he’s been racing aggressively on the downhills this tour; so all bets are off.

Right off the bat, a break went off the front but they’ve chased them down. Matthews stays on the front, determined to stay with the climbers over the first climb so he can take the points. The pace is high but not stretched out in the long thin line and Kittel and the sprinters still ride at the front, with Katusha leading. It starts to drizzle.

Hm, a large group of riders is off the front. Don’t think they’re thinking break – they were just leading the peloton and the peloton didn’t keep up. Now Sky moves to the front of the peloton. Matthews hung on to that front group and the other guys glared at him because Kittel’s team will hunt down any break containing Matthews. On a slight downhill, the guys race down and the peloton stretches out. BMC keeps attacking, joined by other teams who don’t have anything to lose, watched carefully by AG2R who want to make sure they have someone in the break. Chavanel again! And the peloton pulls them back. Starting a break is a little like fishing – you cast a few men in front of the peloton, then reel them back, cast them again, reel them back, cast again, and eventually let it run.

Crash at the back of the field, a bunch of riders went off into a soft-looking field to the left – although perhaps it didn’t feel so soft – and a bunch went off to the right, which looked harder. Barguil and Kittel got caught up in the crash; Barguil has a domestique to pace him back but Kittel can’t get going again. His shirt and knees are torn to shreds and he wants a new bike [Later: and new shoes] but his team car got trapped behind the accident; he’s riding on alone – this is where you need to have a domestique or two with you, to give you their bike, to pace you back. A bunch of Cannondale domestiques went down, too. Kittel hangs onto the side of the team car, changing his shoes while riding, but he’s got a long way to go to rejoin the group. Cummings tried to offroad into the meadow but his wheel caught in the mud? grass? and he ended up summersaulting over the handlebars – always rough when you can’t get your shoes clipped out of the pedals and go with it – and literally tore the uniform off his back. [Later: they say he must have stopped after he caught up with the peloton, and changed into extra clothes from his team car]

Matthews missed the crash and regains the lead break with some teammates. Apparently two groups of riders surged off the front of the yellow jersey group: 30 riders, then three chasers, then the yellow jersey group at 1:20 back, the pace controlled by Sky and Trek, who deliberately slow it. The green jersey has dropped off the back. There are no GC contenders in the front group, but a lot of climbers and breakaway artists, which explains why Sky doesn’t trying to reel them back. De Gendt is in the break but he’d have to take all the polka-dot points today to catch Barguil. I’m seeing a lot of GC contender domestiques in this break – Trek, Quick-Step, Movistar, Cannondale, AG2R has several people in. It looks like Lotto has men in the break, too. If the break stays away, they’ll challenge Matthews at the sprint to keep him from getting maximum points.

A couple of minutes later, Barguil and Kittel return to the peloton with the Cannondale domestiques. Sky has formed an organization at the front, keeping the pace consistent and Kittel and Barguil have been able to drop back to the doctor’s car for some mobile first aid. The peloton lags just over four minutes back and the pursuit group caught and joined the break, swelling it to 33 riders.

De Gendt jumps off the front of the break to race for the mountain points and Matthews chased him down and took the points. De Gendt rides for Lotto, the team of Greipel, who holds a distant third in the green jersey race, another reason that perhaps Matthews chased De Gendt – he didn’t want him to go out in front and take maximum sprint points. Within a couple of minutes, they had 30 seconds on the rest of the break.

The peloton begins descending, Sky on the front, followed by Astana, then AG2R.

At 85 miles, another sprinter just crashed in the peloton but he’s back up and in the group, looking the worse for wear. Sky lifts the pace again.

Matthews takes the intermediate sprint, De Gendt not even contesting (as if he could). The break lags fifty seconds behind them and sweeps up the rest of the points, leaving none for Kittel. Just nine points separate Kittel and Matthews.

At 80 miles, they start the first HC climb — 15 miles, ascending almost 4000 feet — Matthews and De Gendt have a 1:15 lead over the rest of the break, and the peloton lags 5:16 back. If it doesn’t come back together on this climb, Sky may let the break go and we’ll have two races, like we had yesterday: one for the stage win and one amongst the GC contenders to take time from each other.

Behind De Gendt, the break splits into climbers and hangers on. Behind them, Quintana jumps off the front of the peloton, accompanied by an AG2R and an Astana rider. Sky lifts the pace slightly but doesn’t counterattack. Quintana couldn’t stay away and the three of them go back into the peloton. Kittel limps off the back of the peloton from the start of the climb, unaccompanied by any domestiques but the other sprinters start to fall back and he may not remain alone for long.

Contador and Quintana just broke off the front, pursued by an AG2R rider, the Spanish-speaking riders working together. They achieved a good gap and the AG2R rider couldn’t stay with them. Looks like Quintana and Contador are starting to feel better. If they can bridge to the break, they may able to compete for the finish – and make up some time in the GC competition.

Sky, on the front, rides a steady pace, and the peloton stretches out and dribbles riders off the back. The green jersey and many of the sprinters have gone. Quintana drops back to the peloton but Contador gains 43 seconds on the peloton but lags a minute and a half behind the chase group.

At 72 miles, the leaders have 1:36 on the chase group, and 2:19 on Contador, and 4:08 to the yellow-jersey group which gets smaller by the minute – and Sky dwindles to four domestiques. Trek had two riders in the chase group and one just dropped back to help Contador.

At 71 miles, Contador’s domestique dropped off and Contador danced past the refuse of the chase group, only about 15 seconds behind that group. Less than half a mile later, he caught his other teammate from the break, who pulled him (and a handful of breakaway dropouts, including Voechler) back to the chase group. Half a mile later, they’re onto the chase group and flow right past them. The chase group is only 52 seconds behind the two leaders now, with the yellow jersey group at 3:28.

A Cofidis rider joins Matthews and DeGendt. Cofidis has been quiet this tour and needs to make an impression. The raindrops are coming more often now.

At 67 miles, Matthews dropped back to the Alberto Contador group and then right through them and out the back; so De Gendt will take the points at the crest. Contador has two domestiques left in the break who drive the pace.

De Gendt, third in the mountain jersey competition, got 20 points which puts him into second place on the road. The second placed rider was in the chase group and went over it in second place, and he gets a bunch of points, too. Will it be enough to keep his second place? The yellow-jersey group crosses 35 seconds behind the leaders.

There are a good number of Movistar riders in the breakaway group – they’ll be disappointed that they put that work in and Quintana didn’t have the legs to bridge to them.

At 55 miles, the two leaders sat up and the chase caught them; the yellow group at 3:17. Trek marched right past the two leaders, teeth gritted, growling mad.

50 miles and Kittel just abandoned due to the injuries in that crash earlier today [Later: his race director told a reporter that it wasn’t his injuries but something that “happened on the rest day” and they “should ask Kittel if they want more information.”] If Matthews finishes, he’ll be in green tonight. Greipel, in third, needs more than 130 points to catch Matthews; so that seems unlikely.

As the peloton went through the feed zone, the riders rifled through their musette bags, casting aside the things they didn’t want and squirrelling the rest away for later. I almost expected to see one offer to trade an apple for another’s Cheetos.

39 miles as they move onto the Cat 1, Trek on the front and the yellow-jersey group at 3:37. Oof – less than half a mile later and the Trek domestique who had been doing all the work just popped off and into snail mode. The peloton will catch and pass him. …And there goes De Gendt.

38 miles and Contador jumped off and changed bikes. [Later; he was having a chain issue.] Now behind the leaders, with his domestique still up ahead, he’s prancing forward through the team cars, trying to hook back on again, just 15 seconds back. And Sky drops another domestique. Froome dwindles to three at 3:44 back, and Aru only has one domestique. Contador gets back to the front group; when he had his problem, his teammate dropped back into the pack and everyone else welcomed a breather and the pace slowed. Now that Contador has regained the pack, his teammate will probably go forward and lift the pace again.

At 36 miles, the lead group drops to 13 people, including two AG2Rs and a Cannondale – good for their GC guys – and, I think, two? BMC boys. BMC has been shut out of any glamour; so they’ve got to go in any break and hope they can make it to the win.

In the main group, it looks like Bardet has three domestiques in the yellow jersey group, Uran has two, one for Aru, and Dan Martin looks alone. [Later: they asked the Quick Step director whether the domestiques would ride for Martin tomorrow since Kittel dropped out. “Yes,” he laughed, “but they won’t do much good – they can’t climb.”]

33 miles and the yellow group remains almost five minutes back. If Contador can stay away, he’ll move up in standings today. But by 32.6 miles, it’s back down to 4:18; at 32.5, they’re at 3:45; and at 31.5, an AG2R rider falls out of the main pack, and the time hovers at 3:50. Movistar moves to the front of the pack.

The third-placed mountain points rider, Roglic, just took the prize at the top of the Cat 1, which keeps him in third by one point.

At 30 miles, a domestique for the white jersey-holder, Yates, moves to the front of the main group. Yates is placed in the top 10 overall and was very aggressive yesterday; he’d like to move up a couple of places and it’s possible he moved his man to the front to toughen up the race.

At 27 miles, the front group has started the last climb – 10 miles and 4,000 feet to the top with greatest gradient at 12.4 miles right at the top. Eek. The peloton lags 3:41 back and Roglic, third in the mountain points, just jumped out of the break and races for the points at the top of the climb with Contador on his tail. Sky still rides pace and domestiques start falling off the back of the group – Uran may be alone now, Bardet just lost another guy, someone from the white jersey group goes, and an Astana, too.

At 24 miles, the front group now has five men including Contador and an AG2R rider. The yellow group waits 3:13 back. Roglic just jumped off the front of the break but Contador caught him. In the main field, Sky drives and Bardet is the only other contender with a domestique with him (who, I think, dropped back from the front group).

The commentators reflect on the influence of altitude on mountain tactics; Christian Vande Velda says that the thinner air prevents you from attacking repeatedly and you have to choose your one opportunity carefully.

At 22 miles, the peloton is 3 minutes back and Serge Powells just went off the front of the break, Roglic tries to grab onto his tail, but then falls back. Contador jumps up on his pedals, testing his legs, and they’re inching their way back… inching their way… dropping the dead weight off the back… inching… Roglic and Contador pushing… and they’re back, shelling an AG2R rider. The peloton is 2:50 back.

21.4 miles and Dan Martin takes off from the yellow jersey group. Sky doesn’t respond. Roglic takes off from the front of the break, the others snailing behind him. Roglic wants the points to get second in the mountain jersey but if they don’t make up some time, it will be hard for them to catch him on the descent.

Back in the peloton, Sky dropped another domestique, leaving Froome with two. The other contenders are by themselves, although an AG2R waits up the road. Now Froome’s last domestique, Landa, lifts the pace.

At 20 miles, Roglic leads the Contador group by 34 seconds, Dan Martin by 2:29, and the yellow group by 2:36. The polka-dot jersey just got shelled. The only ones left with Froome are the top ten contenders in the yellow jersey race. With Landa’s pace, Martin looks like he’s moving in slow motion.

Another man just jumped off the front of the Contador group: a Columbian, used to the thin air up on the peak. He’ll never catch Roglic.

Not the Finish – but Finish-ish

19ish miles: Barguil and Bardet strike off the head of the main group and catch Dan Martin. Barguil wants to sweep up any remaining mountain points at the top to limit the damage by Roglic. Froome pulls Bardet back but Barguil takes off again on his own.

Bardet takes off, Froome chasing, and Uran right on his tail. Martin lifts his pace and pulls the rest of the group forward, but they don’t quite have them. Aru and Yates fall back. Landa goes back on the front, then Uran, Martin, Bardet, and Froome. Bardet goes again. Froome, Uran, Martin go after him. Landa easily catches them up and they’ve almost caught Barguil. Martin takes off, Froome chasing with the others. Aru is gapped but he drags himself, with the white jersey, back. Martin lifts the pace and catches Barguil. Aru pulls his way back but drops Yates and the other white jersey contender follows Aru’s wheel. Just as they made it, Martin took off again and Froome, Bardet, Uran, and Landa took off again. Aru struggles to get back on.

At 18.6 miles, Roglic has 1:03 on the Columbian, Atapuma, then 1:21 to Contador and 2:14 to the yellow jersey group. Martin gasps for air. Aru drags himself back to the yellow jersey group. Up ahead, Contador rides a steady pace and looks comfortable. In the peloton, Barguil takes off again, no response from the group. Now Yates comes back to the yellow jersey group.

At 17.7 miles, the Contador group dwindles to him and the AG2R. Landa lifted the pace in the yellow group and dropped Yates again. Atapuma enters the crowds, hoards of drunk Columbian cycling fans on a narrow road, jumping out, waving flags, mooning the bikers, racing alongside the riders. Contador leads the yellow jersey group by about 30 seconds.

In the peloton, Bardet goes for it but the TV motorbike slows him down and Uran and Froome nip at his heels, followed by Martin.

Roglic takes the points at the crest. In the peloton, Bardet goes again, with Froome and Uran but Aru and Landa hang just off the back with Martin. The other AG2R rider has dropped back to the yellow jersey group but he doesn’t have much gas left. Contador gets caught by Barguil and then by the yellow jersey group. Barguil goes over the top in third place.

Now they’re descending – it’s wild! Crazy hairpin turns with no barriers, and they ride right up to the edge, everyone desperate to reach the bottom first. They’ve caught Atapuma. Barguil tries to catch Roglic and take the stage win, Bardet, Froome, and Uran on his line. Aru falls off the back and will lose time tonight if he doesn’t catch up. They descend at about 60 MPH.

Phil and Paul say that Roglic used to be a ski-jumper until he had to retire due to a injury – if he misses one of these turns he’ll be a jumper again because the mountain goes straight down from the road.

At 12.3 miles, the yellow group lags 1:32 behind Roglic; and Aru and Menjes are at 1:47. Landa has caught the yellow jersey group again. Aru and Meintjes have caught Contador, Martin, and a handful of riders including an AG2R rider, about 15 seconds back from the yellow jersey group. The white jersey trails 2:35 back from the leader. Landa hovers just off the back of Chris Froome’s group, just watching, waiting to nail back any attacks.

At 4 miles, Roglic has 1:25 on the yellow-jersey group, followed by the Aru-Contador-Martin group at 2:04 and Yates at 2:43. The peloton races forward just to put time into Aru – catching Roglic would be coincidental.

The Finish

At about half mile, Roglic leads by 1:18, with Aru’s group at 1:57 and Yates at almost 3 minutes.

Roglic got the win!

The yellow jersey group races for a six-second time bonus and the third-place four-second bonus. Landa leads it out with Bardet and Uran then Froome. Bardet goes for it pursued by Uran and Froome. Uran in first, Froome in second, then Bardet. The third group races in, too. Martin fights off the front, with Contador behind him then Aru. Poor Yates arrives about 2 minutes later; he’ll keep his white jersey.

Tomorrow’s going to be brutal – unless they’re all so exhausted they can’t do anything.

The Results

Yellow: After Froome, Bardet and Uran are tied at 27 seconds and Aru at 53 seconds, Landa in fifth, then Martin, Yates, Meintjes, Contador and Barguil – Quintana is down to 12th.

Green: Matthews wears green and will probably keep that jersey (unless he abandons, like Kittel).

Polka-Dot: Barguil remains in first but Roglic is knocking at the door just 49 points down, which he could make up tomorrow. De Gendt has 61 – unlikely to win but maybe…

White: Yates still has 2:28 on Meintjes. The next guy lags by more than 22 minutes and isn’t a consideration unless the other two abandon.

Contador received the most aggressive rider prize – deserved, but a poor consolation prize.

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