Tour de France Stage 16: Team Sunweb On The Attack!

Marcel Kittel suffers in his chase for the sprinting jersey: Could rival Andre Greipel be his best hope of keeping it?

Even the flat stages are hilly as we leave the Haute-Loire and approach the first Alpine mountains of the Tour. This is the classic domain of a classics rider; the puncheurs who excel at the one-day races over short, steep hills and rises. The goal is a sprint win on the flat finish, but riders have to contend with cross-winds and more than 3,000 feet of climbing first.

If you find the green jersey points system confusing, you’re not alone. This is a “flat” stage worth 30 points…. unlike the other flat stages worth 50 points.

Skirmish after skirmish marked the first 20 kilometers. Attacks went, failed, and went again. The salvos marked the strategy of Team Sunweb and Michael Matthews, hoping to chip away at green jersey leader Marcel Kittel’s advantage. It was a war of attrition in the hills. Although they never shook the peloton, they dropped Kittel, putting Matthews into a position to win the stage.

The gentle Gorilla in a happier past Tour victory. Can he win a stage this year, or is it all Matthews and Kittel?

Can anyone left beat Matthews?

With 100km to go, Kittel’s only hope was Andre Greipel. The two Germans wouldn’t work together for Kittel’s sake, though, but Greipel desperately wants a stage win. He hasn’t won a sprint in this Tour, a first for him since 2010. He has 204 points to Kittel’s 373; he can’t possibly win the green jersey, but he can redeem his Tour with a stage win.

He looked comfortable in the slipstream of Sunweb until the last 35 kilometers. As the terrain flattened out, the wind and the pace picked up. Alberto Contador, with a 5'37" deficit to the yellow jersey, was the first to go, but his timing couldn’t have been worse. As his team went around the curve they found themselves in a headwind and immediately shunted back to the rear of the peloton.

Race leader Chris Froome and Team Sky picked up the lead and put pressure on the rest of the field. His rivals in the top five, Daniel Martin, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru, and Romain Bardet, would all find themselves in danger over the next 25 kilometers as echelons formed around the cross-wind.

And then the split…

Just after the 10 kilometer mark came the split. Greipel and Martin were both cut out, finding themselves well outside of the attacking group. Not so for Matthews. The canny Australian didn’t miss a beat. and continued with the race leaders and stage rivals John Degenkolb, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Greg van Avermaet. Aru and Bardet were both caught off-foot, but bridged back and would stay with the Froome to the finale.

At 2 kilometers to go, Daniele Bennati took the tailwind and attacked. Never looking back, he opened and increased a lead, as Sunweb sacrificed man after man in the chase. With 500 meters to go the catch was on, and Bennati sat up and rolled away as an elite final field lined up for the sprint.

Van Avermaet launched into a sprint he could never win, and Matthews, Degenkolb, and Boasson-Hagen lined up behind him. He would crack just before the 200 meter line, pulling to his left and leaving an open field for the three challengers.

And then the sprint!

The three men launched just after the 150 meter mark. Degenkolb, Matthews, and finally Boasson-Hagen. The last man was the fastest by far, but it didn’t matter; his timing couldn’t have been worse. Just a second sooner might have seen him victorious. Instead, it would be Matthews, the canny Australian having managed a tactically perfect day in the saddle and emerging victorious for his second stage win this Tour.

Right down to the line. © ASO/Alex BROADWAY

It’s an amazing reward for Sunweb. The team’s work made up 61.5% of the effort on today’s stage, and they’ve racked up their third win in this Tour de France. They hold the polka-dot jersey for King of the Mountain on their climber, Warren Barguil, and their sprinter ends the day only 29 points behind in the green jersey competition.

What about Daniel Martin?

The unlucky Irishman has always struggled in the cross-wind. Today, that cost him 51" in the overall rankings and his 5th position. He finishes at 7th overall with a new deficit of 2' 03". He’s now lost a minute to a crash and nearly a minute to the wind, but he’s vowed to keep fighting for the yellow jersey.

Anything else happen today?

Sylvain Chavanel won the most aggressive rider award, although it didn’t seem particularly competitive. Kiwi George Bennett abandoned mid-way due to illness, a disappointing finish for a man who sat in the top ten until last Friday.

More on La Course

I mentioned the women’s race, La Course by Le Tour, in a rest day post yesterday. La Course has a new two-event format. On Thursday, the event starts with a 67-km climb up the Izoard. The twenty top finishers will compete in a time trial on Saturday, in Marseille. It’s an innovative format, but it’s still not received fair billing or attention.

This women’s cycling club is advocating for a full event for women racers

I asked NBCSports to confirm that they’ll broadcast the race, and they have, but when and how? The official TV schedule lists the 23rd, but the race occurs on the 20th and the 22nd. Will it be a recap broadcast on the last day of the Tour?

One hopeful update (in Italian) on Claudia Cretti, the Italian cyclist who suffered a horrific crash in the Giro Rosa two weeks ago. Doctors are preparing to remove her from the medically-induced coma she’s been in and say her head trauma is no longer life-threatening.

A little more Taylor Phinney

“I‘m just here to keep the vibe up ya know?’”

Taylor Phinney and other debutantes were interviewed before the start of the Tour; his segment starts around minute 29 and he’s every bit as laid-back and relaxed as he still is. They interviewed four other debuts, and it’s interesting to hear what they expect and how they got to the Tour.

What happens tomorrow?

It’ll be a general classification showdown in the high alps, as the riders head from La Mure to Serre-Chevalier. The race for yellow is wide-open, and I expect to see either Bardet or Froome make a move on the last hors categorie climb up the Col du Galibier. Both men are confident descenders, and the sheer difficulty of the climbs mixed with their descent skills could see a several minute gain.

It makes me want to barf just looking at it

With no team support to speak of, Aru is going to be hoping to mark his rivals. I don’t think we’ll see anything from stealthy Uran, but you really never know. I think both men have a chance at gaining time the day after, in stage 18 on the Izoard, but not tomorrow.

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

Visit my personal website at davidstreever.com.

I ended up sneaking in a second rest day blog after all! Find out about La Course and the lack of broadcast information below: