Tour de France Stage 13: A Chance for a Comeback on Bastille Day

Yesterday ended in humiliation for half the contenders; can any of them counter-attack and reverse their losses on France’s National Day?

The stage winning move was made on the first of three 1st category climbs, a mere 30 kilometers into today’s race. Alessandro de Marchi’s early breakaway was falling apart, and Warren Barguil, wearing the King of the Mountain’s polka-dot jersey, attacked to solidify his lead. A recovered Alberto Contador followed, with Team Sky’s Mikel Landa leaving Chris Froome.

De Marchi held his lead to the start of the second climb, before Contador and Landa continued their attack. They seemed to have reached an agreement: Contador was racing for the stage, Landa for a yellow jersey, and Barguil for the next two summits. Contador and Landa made a strong duo on the descents, joined by Barguil when the grades crept up.

Today was a short day, but it was among the toughest of this year

Is Mikel Landa really racing for the yellow jersey?

It looks like it. He was sat in seventh, with a 2 minute fifty-five second deficit to race leader Fabio Aru. As the stage unfolded, he kept gaining time, hovering around 2'40". With a stage win, Landa would be five seconds away from being the next yellow jersey.

What does Froome think?

Who knows? The Team Sky captain has been quiet since cracking near the controversial finish yesterday, where Landa rode on his own to cross well-ahead of Froome. Landa was hired to help Froome win yellow, but his loyalty has been in doubt since stage 5, when he seemed capable but unwilling to help chase down Aru. Landa has denied rumors that he’s disloyal, or that he’s stronger than Froome, and said he just wants to win a stage for his team.

Is Contador the only rider who redeems himself?

Not at all. The next would be Nairo Quintana, counter-attacking and catching Barguil. Like Contador, he couldn’t keep up with Sky’s domestiques on the penultimate climb yesterday. This attack was a show of strength and spirit for a rider who looked finished.

The same elite riders from yesterday seemed content to let Quintana go. In order of ranking, the group was: Aru, Froome, Romain Bardet, Rigoberto Uran, Daniel Martin, Simon Yates, and Louis Meintjes. The men settled in and watched each other for an opportunity to attack.

They all had something to prove. Martin, Uran, and Bardet have to make up for their failure to attack Froome yesterday; Aru had to show he could defend his jersey with a weakened team; and Yates and Meintjes were looking to lead in the white jersey competition for best rider under 26. Most of all, defending champion Froome must have wanted to show his form and try to take back the yellow jersey he lost to Aru.

He was the first to attack, quickly marked by Bardet. Neither man could open a gap on the downhill, but Aru seemed to struggle to keep up. It was only a feint, as he’d show minutes later, on the final climb up Mur de Péguère. The contenders played a cat and mouse game; Martin would go and they’d reel him in. Bardet would break and find Aru on his wheel. Froome made the best move, catching his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, and his position looked good for the first time today.

The Yo-Yo Effect

Quintana and Barguil finally formed a stable group with Contador and Landa, just before the summit on Mur de Péguère. Although the break was stable, the time gap wasn’t, and it would grow and shrink over the next 20 kilometers. An attack by one of the chasers would narrow the lead thirty, forty seconds, only for it to fail and see the gap re-open to two minutes.

At the front, Landa and Quintana pushed the other two to speed up, looking for minutes in the yellow jersey competition. They refused. Barguil lost his sprint in the photo finish on stage nine and wanted a second chance; Contador has abandoned hopes of the yellow jersey and needs to win a stage.

Even as the gap crept down from it’s height of 2'40", it became clear that the break was going to succeed, but Landa would not win the yellow jersey. Barguil was the man to watch. The best sprinter of the bunch, he had already widened his lead as King of the Mountain by 61 points, and the Frenchman wanted a stage win on Bastille Day.

Oh that’s right!

Every year, the French put extra effort into winning on their national day. The break came right at the start, when countrymen Thomas Voeckler and Warren Barguil escaped the peloton. Voeckler would eventually end up at the back of the pack, but Barguil went with every attack, keeping in mind his two goals, and repeating the feat of Lilian Calmejane.

An unlikely four fought for the finish. © ASO/Bruno BADE

No photo finish today for Barguil. He swept out of his group of four and finished first, followed by Quintana, Contador, and last, Landa. It’s the first French win on Bastille Day in 12 years, in a year full of French victories. The symbolism of Voeckler starting two attacks on days won by France’s new champions can not be missed. It’s a fitting goodbye to a veteran Frenchman riding his last Tour de France.

A little more symbolism?

I’m still predicting a Bardet win in Paris, although a friend pointed out Uran’s strength in the time trial, which moves him up in contention. More than ever it’s looking bad for Aru, who seems to be a man riding alone; Jakob Fuglsang, his Danish co-leader, has abandoned today. The official video feed jumped from helicopter footage of a buzzard circling overhead to the motorbike view of Fuglsang. The Dane, whose last name means “bird song”, is suffering from hairline fractures and was unable to support his weight on the bike.

The sight of Fuglsang was somehow even grimmer than those of the carrion vulture. Whoever was running the official feed certainly had a taste for heavy-handed symbolism with the jump cuts from buzzard to Fuglsang.

What’s our official time at now?

Although Aru, Bardet, and Froome finished together, the next seven positions have shifted. In part, it’s to do with a slightly controversial incident yesterday.

Uran was docked 20 seconds after accepting a bottle in the final 20 km yesterday, as was Kiwi George Bennett and a few non-GC contenders. Those penalties have now been erased. Although Bardet also accepted a bottle from a fan, he was not docked; the jury claims he escaped a penalty because he was not seen drinking from the bottle in the feed.

UCI Regulation 2.3.027:

Feeding is prohibited on climbs, descents and during the first 50 and last 20 km. The commissaires panel may reduce the distance of 50 kilometres mentioned above, depending on atmospheric conditions and the category, type and length of the race. Such a decision must be communicated to interested parties before the start of the race.

The same fans who are still gutted over Peter Sagan’s disqualification have made their own attack over this latest UCI decision, alleging conspiracies to support the French by the British-helmed international body, based in Switzerland. One fellow, seemingly unaware of the group’s 117-year history, demanded on Twitter that it disband, accusing it of not understanding the history and culture of bike racing.

It sounds like it’s almost a populist revolt!

And how appropriate on Bastille Day! Perhaps fearing a revolution, UCI reversed the penalties, restoring the lost 20 seconds to the riders. It’s a rare move by the contrarian organization, and I can only guess at the motives.

I suspect it’s a combination of the following:

  1. The rules on feeding are somewhat confusing and contradictory, coming in a long section that uses weasel words like “recommended”.
  2. The rules use the word “feeding”, which at times refers to the act of eating, or the distribution of food and water by a team. It never exclusively refers to water bottles or drinking, although a lawyer would argue that’s implied.
  3. Be real: No one wants to see the yellow jersey lost or gained over a water bottle.

UCI’s official statement notes that Froome’s off-road incident made feeding before the last 20 kilometers difficult, leaving the leaders in an unfair situation, but I’d bet money it’s a mix of Clinton-esque word parsing and reluctance to penalize a likely winner spots over a bottle. I say kudos to UCI for bending the rules in this instance and not hurting the momentum of an increasingly exciting bike race.

Thanks for all that, but…

Oh right, I’m sorry; the rankings! We’re looking at Aru in 1st with a total time of 55 hours, 30 minutes, and 6 seconds. Froome is second by 6", then Bardet by 25", with the reversal bringing Uran back to 4th and a 35" deficit. Landa jumps up the rankings to 5th, 1 minute 9 seconds from Aru, then Martin by 1'32", Yates increases his lead in the white jersey over Meintjes at 2'04", and Quintana finds himself back up at 8th with 2'07". Ninth-position Meintjes remains 2nd in the white jersey competition at 4'51" behind Aru, followed last by Contador, back in the top ten with 5'22".

Marcel Kittel coasted to second behind his green jersey rival, Michael Matthews, in the intermediate sprint near the start; the German leads Matthews 363 to 235.

One more thing about Landa…

Strong rumors place him on Movistar for next season with the ink already dry. On top of that, he was filmed arguing with his sport director, and as noted, he didn’t do any work in stage five — even when Aru attacked.

This is not a good look for a man who just had an amazing stage. When Kwiatkowski took the call today on radio, it was a clear “Go back to Chris” — and he did. I’d bet the computer I’m typing on that Landa got the same call and “had a bad connection”.

Let’s downgrade Landa from “Questionably loyal Landa” to “Disloyal Landa”; the writing is on the wall. And on the contract, which he signed presumably in blood.

What happens tomorrow?

Who knows anymore? I suspect Matthews will go on the attack and try to net 50 points from the intermediate line (20) and the hill finish (30). Kittel still has three flat stages ahead, with 50 per stage win, and seems capable of winning them all. Regardless, it looks like a great day for attackers, and another day for controversy: Sagan would have been the likely victor, and his fans will probably not enjoy being reminded about it if Matthews wins.

The next day ends in the Haute-Loire, and the racers get to rest in the wine region on Monday. After that, we enter the Alps for the last week of racing before Paris. before heading into the Alps for the last climbs before the time trial in Marseille and the finale in Paris.

Thanks for reading! I write about cycling and am currently blogging the 2017 Tour de France here on Medium.

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Yesterday saw Froome defeated and Aru ascendant; read my stage 12 recap to catch up!