Tour de France Stage 15: The Unlucky Thirteen Seek a Breakaway

Thirteen teams haven’t had a stage winner this year. Maybe today’s stage on the eve of a rest could be their chance.

Tomorrow will offer a well-earned rest day, especially after the all-out battle on the Aubrac plateau. The first break came from Warren Barguil, looking to turn two consecutive Sunweb Team wins into a streak of three. He led a four-man group in a growing time gap. Behind him, a second break formed, led by Barguil’s teammate Michael Matthews, who won yesterday, with Bauke Mollema and sixteen others.

Barguil led his small group up the climbs for more points in the King of the Mountain competition, turning a strong lead into a dominant one. He seems a sure bet to wear the polka-dot jersey in Paris, but his overriding goal is a stage win. After securing the points, he slowed down to let Matthews catch up before the intermediate sprint, which he won with ease.

Michael Matthews wins another intermediate sprint © ASO/Pauline BALLET

After the sprint, the break continued together for nearly 30 kilometers, stretching the gap to nearly 10 minutes. It was a big gap made possible by Team Sky, which seemed content to set a moderate pace and let the break win.

Tony Martin would be the man to break from the break. The German time trial champion went free with 65 kilometers remaining, on the descent to the final 1st category climb of the Col de Peyra Taillade. Martin was looking for a big lead to compensate for his weaker climbing ability, but he never quite found it.

Locals call the Col de Peyra Taillade “Hell” for it’s pleasantly hot year-round temperature

Shortly after Martin passed a banner welcoming him to hell, Barguil would launch his counter-attack. The suffering German’s attack would be neutralized around the halfway point of the climb, and Barguil would ride on alone to take the points at the summit before sitting up and waiting.

But what’s happening in the peloton?

It’s a more sedate ride than expected. With the yellow jersey race so close, it seemed that someone would have to make a move. The attack would finally come from AG2R La Mondiale and Romain Bardet, near where Tony Martin had launched his.

The first big moves went down just after Saugues on the descent, and they both got caught by Prades

Chris Froome and Team Sky were caught flat-footed by the move. Froome would recover and bridge the gap, only to raise his hand and signal a tire-change for a rear puncture. He has either the worst mechanics or the best, because they managed to get him back on the road in seconds after yet another mechanical failure.

Bardet had no reason to wait. Aru’s attack on stage 9 came as Froome called for help and broke with a practice of not attacking on a mechanical, but the unwritten rules do not apply to attacks in progress. AG2R rode on, a five man squad looking for as little as 23 seconds today. Bardet sits in third overall, and a win today could have put him into yellow. Mikel Landa stayed with this group while Michal Kwiatkowski and Mikel Nieve supported the leader.

Froome chased Bardet in the latter man’s home country. Bardet hails from nearby Brioude, and the roads were packed with his fans, who seemed to know to be right here for his attack. Even the road was full of praise for Bardet, while Froome was jeered and heckled with every turn of the pedal.

Kwiatkowsk and Nieve would bring Froome just meters away and turn him over to Landa, who had ample strength to wait for him, pull him to Bardet, and then take a turn at the front. It seems that Landa is back on support and making up for earlier actions that raised doubts about his loyalty.

Back to Barguil!

Barguil completes the summits, sits up to wait for support, but finds himself outmatched in a cutthroat race to the finish line. The Dutch teammate of Alberto Contador, Bauke Mollema, would launch himself from the small group into the descent. On St-Vidal, the last categorized climb, Mollema is 20" ahead of the Barguil group. Mollema missed the first break of the day, but has patiently clawed his way up the chasing groups to find himself on the front of the race.

With Barguil are Primož Roglič, a distant second in the King of the Mountains race, Diego Ulissi an Italian riding for UAE Team Emirates, and “Galloping” Tony Gallopin. This nickname was bestowed on the Frenchman after he wore yellow for one day in the 2014 Tour de France.

The four men seemed likely to catch Mollema, despite his four top ten finishes in the Tour de France. Instead of working together, though, each man seemed concerned for the final sprint, and they took lackluster turns at the front, never really coming together.

They’d bring the gap down to 11 seconds just after the jury named Mollema the most aggressive rider of the day; it seemed that they’d finally made up their minds to chase.

And Simon Yates breaks from the peloton!

Yates already wears the white jersey of the best rider under 26. He tried to put time on his rival Louis Meintjes, at second place, but was chased down by Landa. Sky wanted to establish a tight hold with less than 10 kilometers remaining.

After he’s reeled in, though, Dan Martin attacks. He’s had impeccable timing this Tour despite being caught in the Richie Porte crash, which cost him more than a minute. He started the stage today in sixth place with a 1'26" deficit to Froome, 9" behind fifth-place Landa.

The voice in his head said “dance like noone is watching”, but Mollema looks around first just to make sure they aren’t

As Martin makes it to the next group on the road, behind the Tony Martin group, Mollema extends his lead at the front. From 10" to 13", Mollema is racing for the finish, finally relaxing under the 1 kilometer remaining banner. The last 200 meters sees him look around repeatedly for chasers before sitting back, extending his arms, and rolling over the line. He’s just won his first stage of the Tour de France. It’s a significant victory for his Trek-Segafredo team, which leaves the “unlucky thirteen” and joins the nine other teams that have won a stage in this Tour.

Behind him Barguil sits up just before the line, finishing fourth. He’s racing for stage wins, not time bonuses or placement. It’s a grim group that finishes in the top five.

Maybe Landa really is on board!

Landa looks chastened as he lets Daniel Martin get away for a finish that will surely take away his fifth position. When the camera cuts back though from Martin’s finish, it’s Froome doing the chasing, in a full sprint with Landa on his wheel. Froome doesn’t want to lose time to Martin, and he also wants to keep Landa high in the rankings.

With Froome’s full effort, the Irishman finishes 6'11" behind Mollema, only 14" ahead of Froome and Landa. Landa loses his spot and moves to sixth, and Martin takes fifth. He is now 1'12" behind Froome, roughly the time he lost in the Porte crash on stage 9.

What about Astana?

Aru needs a better team. The Astana squad has sounded pleased with their leader losing the yellow jersey. Sure they’re banged up, but I’d rather have a squad made up of overly-ambitious guys like Landa then the lethargic Astana gang. When your leader wears yellow, you work; if you can’t, don’t expect to see him sign for another year with you. I suspect dinner for Team Astana right now feels like being at Thanksgiving with a polarized family after the 2016 Presidential election.

The Race for Green

It was a token effort for the intermediate sprint, with none of the breakaway group able or even willing to match Matthews. He sails across the intermediate sprint for another 20 points, bringing him within 79 points of Marcel Kittel. Matthews has steadily whittled away at a once dominant lead, and he has a shot at winning the green jersey.

This is what a “flat” stage looks like for the immortals that race the Tour de France

It all hinges on Tuesday’s stage 16. It’s ranked as a flat stage, but it’s anything but, with a starting climb up a 3rd category hill followed by rolling climbs to a 4th category. This is perfect territory for Matthews and a surprisingly strong Sunweb squad. If they can hold off Quickstep, Matthews is a solid bet for the intermediate and the finale, which would net him 70 points, just 9 shy. Stage 19, another hilly stage categorized as ‘flat’, favors his style too, and could bring him to a 61 point advantage before the final sprint in Paris.

I’ll be taking it easy for the rest day tomorrow. Tuesday we’ll all be back for the battle between Kittel and Matthews, followed by two days in the high mountains of Switzerland and the last chance for Aru, Bardet, Uran, and Martin before the time trial in Marseilles.

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

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Get caught up on the action with yesterday’s stage 12, below! Fabio Aru blundered and Froome regained yellow in a thrilling final sprint.