Ag2R’s Romain Bardet became the first Frenchman to win a stage in the 2016 Tour de France as he attacked from a breakaway and rode solo across the finish line of Stage 19. Bardet not only won the stage he advanced in the General Classification from fifth to second place.
Stage 19, 146km from Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, offered four categorized climbs and a mountaintop finish. because the stage was so hard it presented the last, best chance for General Classification contenders to advance, which led to non-stop attacks in the final kilometers.
The stage was also filled with chaos and carnage. A short sudden rainstorm on the descent of the Hors Categorie Montée de Bisanne caused half-a-dozen crashes, which claimed three GC contenders: Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte, and Chris Froome all got caught up in crashes which cost them late in the race.
Bauke Mollema’s two crashes effectively ended his Tour de France. The Trek rider will continue through the final two stages, but he has dropped from second to tenth in the General Classification.
Richie Porte was delayed by a crash in front of him, but didn’t go down himself,. however, he had to spend a lot of precious energy catching back up the the lead group on the steepest part of the final climb. Porte had planned all along to attack repeatedly on the final ascent, and he did, but his legs gave out in the final kilometer. The BMC team leader had hoped to make up some of the time he had lost to a flat tire in Stage Two. Instead, he ended up losing even more time.
Race leader Chris Froome was that last of the casualties claimed by the wet roads, and the most significant. Froome skidded on a white line on the road a kilometer from the start of the final climb and crashed hard, ruining his bike. he quickly swapped bikes with team mate Geraint Thomas, and proceeded up the final climb, but he struggled to keep up with the other leaders.
At the end of the day, Froome maintained a safe four-minute lead over the rest of the field, but he cannot afford another day like this one.
The Tour’s final Alpine stage will be equally difficult, and Froome will have to defend his lead no matter how sore and bruised. he will start the stage knowing that every rider in the top ten will be looking for every opportunity to attack. The 2016 Tour is winding down, but the excitement just keeps ramping up.
Aggression at All Points
Stage 19, because of its mountaintop finish, offered the best possible chance for riders to make up time on their rivals. Stage 20 will be equally difficult, but it ends with a 12-kilometer descent, when riders could see their efforts on the final climb erased by good descending from their rivals. This brought the focus onto Stage 19, and particularly its final Cat 1 climb up to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, as a site for unbridled aggression.
The day started with aggression from mile zero. Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt attacked right off the line, and within a minute a group of almost two dozen riders had joined him.
Often late in the race it takes an hour of flat-out racing for the right break to form: one which contains no threats to either a General Classification or a special jersey contender, one with enuogh teams represent4ed but not oo many of any one team, one which contains the riders each team wants in a breaklk but none that another tram doesn’t.
Having an acceptable break form at the very start was the best possible outcome for every rider. For the sprinters it meant they didn’t have to race hard up the opening hills; for the GC General Classification contenders it meant that the real battles wouldn’t start until the later climbs. For the breakaway riders it meant that they didn’t have to waste their legs just getting into a break.
The respite was not to last. Astana announced its intentions to toughen up the race eight km into the stage, when three riders: Vincenzo Nibali, Diego Rosa, and Paolo Tiralongo attacked the peloton, joined Katusha’s Joachim Rodriguez. Movistar’s Winner Anacona immediately jumped on the attack, unwilling to let Astana get away.
The rest of the peloton caught up to the attackers within a few minutes, but the pace didn’t decrease: Movistar, Astana, and BMC were all interested in making the race hard from the start, to favor their GC contenders late in the stage. The peloton started to fragment after 25 km, halfway to the start of the day’s first categorized climb.
Three riders: Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka, Lotto’s Thomas De Gendt, and Ag2R’s Alexis Vuillermoz—attacked the break over the crest of the first climb, possibly hoping to stay away until the next climb. These three are all accomplished climbers—in fact, they attacked to fight for King of the Mountain points. Probably they realized that a 20-rider break would contain too many hangers-on, some of whom would take a free ride to the final climb and then attack with fresh legs.
There was too much flat road between climbs, 15 km worth, for this trio to stay way. The break caught them after 15 minutes. Behind the break the peloton had narrowed the gap to three minutes, and the pace was shelling out riders en masse. Only a few dozen could stay with the GC group; a few other groups formed behind.
Interestingly, the GC group wouldn’t let the break have much of a lead, bespeaking plans on Astana’s part at least, to try for a stage win for its leader, Fabio Aru.
The next climb was only listed as Cat 2, with an average grade of seven percent, but it had some pitches approaching 18 percent. At the foot of the climb, Astana’s Diego Rosa asked his team mate Andriy Grivko to ease the pace long enough to let Rosa eat a snack. Grivko demurred—his job, he felt, was to push hard; everyone else could take care of their own needs as they could.
Eventually, Grivko relented, and the peloton’s pace slackened somewhat, still keeping the gap small enough that the break could be caught later.
Rain and Wreckage on Montée de Bisanne
The peloton kept the gap under four minutes onto the HC Montée de Bisanne. The bottom three kilometers of the climb averaged 13.5 percent, with pitches of 15. The start of this climb wreaked havoc on the break and the peloton.
Shortly after the breakaway hit the lower slopes, Tom Dumoulin crashed, fracturing his left radius. The Giant-Alpecin rider had to withdraw. Hopefully his injury heals sufficiently so as to not affect his performance at the Rio Olympics.
While Tom Dumoulin was waiting for the doctor’s car, BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen was watching his already bad Tour get worse. Van Garderen cracked at the very bottom of the Montee de Bisanne.
Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka sealed the King of the Mountains classification by attacking near the summit of the Bisanne. Meanwhile both the breakaway and the peloton were shrinking fast, with 50 left around the yellow jersey and 15 in the break.
Lampre’s Rui Costa and Cannondale’s Pierre Roland attacked the break on the descent—while rain attacked the entire field. With most of the day’s descents being on narrow, twisting roads, water was the one ingredient to turn the whole stage poisonous.
Pierre Roland was the first to go down, slipping down sliding across the wet pavement. Twenty minutes later a pair of FDJ riders crashed, taking BMC’s Richie Poerte with them. Porte didn’t hit the pavement, but he did lose time fixing his bike. he then had to burn a bunch of energy to catch back up to the yellow jersey group.
Rui Costa stayed upright, and kept pressing on. Daniel Navarro tried to bridge across to him as the peloton caught the rest of the break, but after five minutes of unsuccessful effort, the Cofidis rider gave up and dropped back into the peloton.
Meanwhile, the crashes continued. Trek’s Bauke Mollema, hoping for a podium finish in Paris, saw his hopes destroyed when he hit the pavement on the wet descent. Another group collisio0n took out George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo,) Eduardo Sepulveda (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and one other. Trek’s Franck Schleck ran off the road, but didn’t fall. Daniel Navarro crashed and had to abandon.
Froome Goes Down
The rain passed as swiftly as it had arrived, but it claimed one more pair of victims before it left: Sky’s Chris Froome, who was almost assured of winning his third tour unless some natural disaster struck, was so stricken.
With only a kilometer of the descent left, Froome hit a line painted on the road slammed to the ground hard, taking Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali with him. Froome’s bike was destroyed; he grabbed the bike of team mate Geraint Thomas and took off down the road, determined not to let the fall ruin his race.
Froome pressed on, though bruised and bloody, but he was obviously laboring. Luckily he had enough of a gap on his General Classification rivals that he didn’t need to finish first on the stage to save his race.
While Chris Froome could afford to have a slow day, for his rivals Stage 19 presented the last and best chance to attack each other. The Yellow Jersey might have been all but decided, but the rest of the podium was and still is very much up for grabs.
This led to constant attacking at the front of the peloton all the way to the finish line.
Bardet Scores for France
Ag2R’s Mikaël Chérel attacked what was left of the breakaway near the bottom of the descent off Montée de Bisanne. His team mate Romain Bardet bridged across at the bottom of the final climb and insisted after Chérel dropped back.
Bardet was riding for three reasons: First, no French rider had yet won a stage in the 2016 Tour. Second, Bardet wanted a win for himself and his team. Finally, Bardet saw a chance to leap up the GC. With Mollema, Porte, and Froome going down, Adam Yates looking tired, and Nairo Quintana only marking Froome and Porte, Bardet had an opening, and he dashed through it.
It took the French rider about five minutes to cross the distance between himself and Rui Costa. The pair rode together for another five minutes. Then as the road tilted upward more sharply, Bardet attacked, and Costa had no response.
Bardet went from fifth in the General Classification to second with this attack, and gained 46 seconds. However he is only 16 seconds ahead of third-placed Nairo Quintana, and only 24 seconds ahead of Best Young Rider Adam Yates. Bardet will have to fight hard to stay on the podium in Stage 20.
Clash of the Titans
While Romain Bardet was wringing out every ounce of energy to win the stage, not far behind him a cycling battle of monumental proportion had been engaged.
Every one of the top ten GC contenders knew that the final climb of Stage 19 would be the best chance to advance—so every one of the top ten were looking ahead to what they could gain while also looking back over their shoulders to see who was about to attack them.
Astana had led the peloton through most of the race, but now only Fabio Aru and Diego Rosa were left of the Kazakh squad. BMC’s Richie Porte had Damiano Caruso for support, while Chris Froome had Sergio Henao, Mikel Landa, and as always Wouter Poels to shepherd him along.
Movistar had a quartet of riders in the group; team leader Nairo Quintana was supported by Alejandro Valverde Daniel Moreno, and Jon Izaguirre.
Also in the group were Roman Kreuziger of Tinkoff, Giant’s Warren Barguil, Katusha’s Joachim Rodriguez, the top two Best Young Rider contenders Adam Yates and Louis Meintjes, Etixx leader Dan Martin.
Damiano Caruso moved to the front with about six km left to go in the climb, bringing up Richie Porte top prepare to attack. However it was Dan Martin who made the first move, accelerating away from the bunch with 3.3 km to go. Nobody marked the Etixx rider as he was tenth in GC.
Richie Porte had spent a lot of energy catching the peloton after getting delayed by a crash on the Bisanne descent, but he knew he had to go all out anyway, and he did, launching his first attack at the three-km banner. The only rider to respond was Movistar leader Nairo Quintana, who immediately jumped on the BMC rider’s wheel.
Wouter Poels and Sergio Henao grinded their way across the gap, dragging the still shaky Chris Froome with them, but a length behind; the Sky leader didn’t seem to have the strength to stick with his team mates.
Meanwhile Dan Martin was slowing, and Orica-rider Adam Yates and also Sky’s Mikel Landa came unhitched from the lead group. Katusha’s Joachim Rodriguez decided to make a dig and crossed over to Dan Martin; Lampre rider Louis Meintjes went with him.
Seemingly unwilling to look weak, Chris Froome forced his way to the front, with Wout Poels by his side, but Froome was not able to respond when Richie Porte launched another attack, this time as he rode under the two-km banner. Again, it was Nairo Quintana who covered the move, with Fabio Aru struggling to follow.
Porte and Quintana opened about a ten-meter gap on the rest of the leaders. Fabio Aru was next to attack, passing both Porte and Quintana, with Meintjes again following his wheel. Poels and Froome were still just grinding out a steady pace, not worried about the small gap between them and the group leaders.
Alejandro Valverde then accelerated, moving to the front with Quintana on his shoulder. Richie Porte could not follow this acceleration and dropped to the back of the leader’s group, where Adam Yates, who had struggled hard to rejoin, was once again losing contact.
Aru and Meintjes pushed across the small gap to the two Movistar riders. Wouter Poels led Froome back up towards the leaders, with Sergio Henao a bit further back, and Joachim Rodriguez behind him.
With 75 meters left in the stage, Rodriguez made his bid for the podium, passing the Movistar riders and leading them across the finish line. Louis Meintjes managed to surge past Quintana in the closing meters, but Aru couldn’t follow and finished sixth.
Dan Martin put in a late dig and passed Poels and Froome, who came limping home with an exhausted Richie Porte in tow.