Mark Cavendish won his record-setting 25th road stage win in Stage 13 of the 100th Tour de France but the real story was the total upending of the General Classification in what was supposed to be a bland, relaxing sprint stage.
Crosswinds raked the peloton, and first Omega Pharma-Quickstep, the Saxo-Tinkoff split the race into groups, cutting deeply into the lead of Sky’s Chris Froome, while Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde got caught out by the splits and an untimely puncture and lost eight minutes and any chance of winning the Tour this year.
The final sprint wasn’t particularly close. Mark Cavendish had his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team mate Sylvain Chavanel to lead the way; Cannondale’s Peter Sagan clung to Chavanel’s wheel, while Cav followed Sagan.
Sagan pulled out and tried to get a jump on Cavendish, but the Manx missile was too strong; he blasted past Sagan easily and was never threatened on his way to winning his 25th road stage—more than any other rider in Tour history. Two other riders have won more stages, but those wins included time trials.
Strategy and Aggression Inject Excitement Into a Simple Flat Stage
Stage 13 should have been a stage for the sprinters and almost a rest day for the GC contenders. With only a single tiny Cat Four climb, everyone assumed the stage would end with a face-off between mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep,) Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano,) André Greipel (Lotto Belisol,) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale.)
Instead, the stage offered up some extremely exciting racing. Omega Pharma-Quickstep, a Belgian squad used to riding flat windy terrain, recognized when the wind shifted and made an all-out attack sixty km into the 173 stage. The team had been planning to attack; they waited for the best moment and exploded.
Within 500 meters the peloton had split in half; Cavendish and his Omega team were in the front half with André Greipel and Peter Sagan, but Marcel Kittle was left behind, as was much of Greipel’s leadout train.
Chris Froome and a handful of Sky riders made it into the front group; Ritchie Porte did not.
Omega pushed the pace, wanting to set up Cavendish every advantage for the finish. The second group, seeing its peril, rode tremendously but couldn’t bridge the gap. At one point they were within six seconds of the leaders, but there was too much firepower in the front group.
After the race mark Cavendish told Eurosport about how the first split formed:
“It was incredible. We talked about it a little bit—we knew the wind was strong. I just said to Gert [Steegmans] ‘It’s strong enough to break it now’—this was after 60 K—and Tony [Martin] said ‘Wait a bit longer;’ next thing, Gert goes, and it just kicked off.
“It wasn’t strong enough to break it but we just kept going and Saxo went later and then—It’s incredible. So happy, so proud of the guys—they just rode out of their skins today, like, every one of them and that’s incredible.”
Alejandro Valverde was stricken with a puncture 86.7 km from the finish. Because the gap between the two groups was just over a minute, the team cars weren’t right behind the leaders. By the time Valverde got a new wheel, he was40 seconds behind the front group. Despite having several team mates to help, the Movistar rider couldn’t match the power of the lead group.
Worse for Valverde, most of the GC contenders were in the lead group; they saw the opportunity and pushed even harder. Omega kept pushing, and Belkin, whose leader Bauke Mollema, third in GC, set his team into action. Fourth-placed Alberto Contador set his five Saxo-Tinkoff team mates to work as well. With three strong teams pulling, the chase groups had no chance.
Saxo Starts Second Split
The first attack succeed because too many riders became complacent, expecting an easy stage. Many of those riders were penalized. The survivors then made the same mistake again.
After fifty km of hard chasing, the Valverde group rejoined the Kittel group, apparently realizing that they were not going to catch the leaders. Just as everyone relaxed, Alberto Contador and Bauke Mollema launched a second attack.
This time it was Chris Froome who was caught out. The race leader missed the move and was soon slipping back. Despite having three team mates, Froome couldn’t match the pace of Saxo-Tinkoff, with five riders, plus the Belkin riders pulling for Mollema.
André Greipel was also caught napping; the Lotto sprinter got left behind, while Mark Cavendish just caught the leaders, which gave Omega Pharma-Quickstep added incentive to help the pace-making.
Catching the Saxo-Tinkoff attack with 30 K left was a near thing, the Cavendish explained:
“I nearly missed it. [Michal] Kwiatkowski had been riding so his legs were a bit gassed. I had been sitting on all day. Kwiatkovski got me halfway across; I shouted ‘Move left!’ He moved left I just sprinted and Boom! I came around someone and managed to just get in.
“When echelons start it’s like falling through ice: you have five seconds or it’s over. That’s exactly what it’s like in an echelon you’ve got five seconds to make it right otherwise that’s it, and I knew I had it. It split, Boom! Sprinted across and we were gone then But it wasn’t easy—I’m, incredibly lucky to have those guys.
“We’re a Belgian team, we’re used to riding in crosswinds the guys are experienced at it, they’re strong at it along with Belkin [also Belgian] it was a good combination together.
“At the finish I knew [Peter] Sagan was just one guy and I know if I stayed behind him I’d be able to get it, so I just stayed behind him and I was able to win. I’m so happy now.” It was incredible. We talked about it a little bit—we knew the wind was strong. I just said to Gert [Steegmans] “It’s strong enough to break it now”—this was after 60 K—and Tony [Martin] said “Wait a bit longer;” next thing, Gert goes, and it just kicked off.
“So happy, so proud of the guys—they just rode out of their skins today, like, every one of them and that’s incredible.”
After 20 km of riding the lead group had opened a gap of 30 seconds over the yellow jersey group, and five minutes over the Valverde/Kittel group. By the end of the stage, those gaps were over a minute to Froome, and eight minutes to Valverde, whose chance at a podium finish evaporated during this stage.
Chris Froome held onto the yellow jersey despite losing over a minute. Bauke Mollema moved up to second, gaining 1:11 on Froome. Contador ended up third, gaining 1:09. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) advanced from eleventh to tenth, and Garmin’s Daniel Martin from 13th to eleventh, with Rui Costa (Movistar) dropping out of the top ten.
Alejandro Valverde finally finished 9:54 behind the leaders, dropping to 16th.
Stage 14—Nothing but Hills
Stage 14, 191 km from Saint-Pourçain sur Sioule to Lyon, features seven categorized climbs, six Cat 4s and a Cat 3. The finish is flat in case any sprinters make it over the hills, but the stage seems more likely to be won by a breakaway rider
Thios sort of stage is perfect for a small group escape composed of riders safely down in GC looking for a little glory and TV time for their teams.
With Sunday’s brutal summit finish on Mont Ventoux looming, GC contender teams aren’t going to want to chase a breakaway or care about who might win a sprint, and with so many climbs, however small, most of the pure sprinters will probably not be able to keep the pace.
One sprinter who might make it over would be Peter Sagan, whose Cannondale team has no GC contender and might be willing to chase to win a stage. BMC’s Philippe Gilbert might also want a stage win here, and with team leader Cadel Evans almost seven minutes out of first, BMC might be willing to assist in a chase.
Unlikely, though. More likely a large break will escape early, and shrink with every successive climb, until a few riders contest the final sprint.