Giant-Alpecin rider Tom Dumoulin, having won a stage in last September’s Vuelta a España and May’s Giro d’Italia, completed his hat-trick by riding to victory in Stage Nine of the 2016 Tour de France, netting Dumoulin a win in each Grand Tour in a year’s span.
Dumoulin attacked a small breakaway group at the base of the day’s final climb, the Hors Categorie ascent to Andorra Arcalis, and kept pressing on even when the skies opened and dumped driving rain and even hail on the peloton. He finished 38 seconds ahead of his nearest pursuers.
Exhausted but exhilarated, Dumoulin struggled to answer questions for NBC Sports after his stage win. It’s a dream and it came true,” he said. “I cannot even speak right now, I am so tired—but it was an incredible day. The whole day, the Queen stage, really, really hard—and I did it.
“It’s very special. I am a time trial specialist but I showed today that I can do more. I am so, so happy.”
The stage started with a mass attack up the Cat 1 Port de la Bonaigua—a group of 45 riders broke away away ten minutes into the race. Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde bridged to the break, which forced Team Sky to pursue, as the Movistar rider was fifth in the General Classification, only 19 seconds behind race leader Chris Froome.
The high pace of the chase put Froome’s Team Sky in trouble immediately.if the next ascent had followed immediately upon the first, Valverde might have pressed on a really hurt Sky, which would have set up Movistar Team leader Nairo Quintana to attack Froome on the final two climbs. Instead, there was a flat section of 30 km before the start of the second climb, the Cat 1 Port del Cantò, so Skycould recover and still pursue.
Realizing this, Movistar called Valverde to fall back to the peloton only ten minutes after he reached the break, which had shrunk to 21 riders after an hour of racing, and had a shrinking gap of less than a minute ahead of the main peloton.
Movistar’s race director, realizing the catch was inevitable and that Valverde might need the energy to assist team leader Nairo Quintana later in the stage, called for a change of strategy after 80 minutes of racing, with 130 km and four hard climbs left in the stage.
Alberto Contador tried to follow Valverde across the gap, but had to surrender and fall back to the peloton. The Tinkoff team leader then dropped back to the team car at the back of the peloton, to speak with the Tinkoff race director. Contador rode forward and dropped back several times in the next two hours.
Not only was Alberto Contador nursing injuries sustained in crashes in the first two stages, he had also developed a fever after Stage Eight. The 33-year-old realized that he was not going to be able to recover from all this on the single rest day before the racing resumed, particularly if he insisted on finishing the brutal mountain stage.
After two and a half hours of suffering, Alberto Contador decided his Tour was over. The multiple Grand Tour winner realized that with his injuries, his fever, the heat of the day, and the amount of climbing left in the stage, riding on was too much to ask of himself.
A Race Divided
The breakaway opened a gap of six and a half minutes at the crest of the day’s second climb, the Cat 1 Port del Cantò, with just under 100 km left in the stage.
The peloton, including Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Tejay Van Garderen, and Nairo Quintana, basically ignored the breakaway for the rest of the stage. None of the breakaway riders were threats to the General Classification contenders; the big GC riders paid attention only to each other.
Up front Thomas De Gendt, Thibault Pinoit, and Rafal Majka kept the race entertaining as they contested King of the Mountains points at each summit.
The breakaway shrank with each surge, until, 23 km from the finish, half the original riders had dropped off, either rejoining the peloton or riding solo or in pairs between the lead group and the main bunch.
Dumoulin and Weather Attack Together
Not quite twenty minutes later, this group reached the start of the final climb, the Hors Categorie ascent up to Andorre Arcalis, and here, Giant Alpecin rider Tom Dumoulin attacked. The rest of the breakaway riders ignored him; whether because they were spent form their day’s effort or because they didn’t expect his attack and didn’t respond in time, no one followed, and Dumoulin opened a fifty-second gap like it was easy.
Ten minutes after Dumoul;in;’s attack, nature attacked, pelting the peloton with pounding rain and huge hailstones. The temperature, which had topped 100 degrees in the valleys, plummeted, light faded. Suddenly the entire field was struggling up a steep hill, shaking with fatigue and shivering with cold, battered by ice and hard rain, trying to finish the race in the worst possible riding conditions.
Dumoulin made his attack at the right time: trying to find the enrgy to attack in the frigid rain would have been much harder.
After five minutes, Rui Costa and Thibault Pinot tried to bridge, but were caught. Costa tried again, and this time Rafal Majka followed. This pair made it halfway across the gap, but couldn’t get any closer to the stage leader.
Winner Anacona and Thibault Pinot also tried to bridge across, but only made it halfway to Majka and Costa. Daniel Navarro made it halfway across the gap between the two pairs of chasers. No one could outpace Dumoulin, who reached the summit 38 seconds clear of his closest pursuers.
Quintana Never Attacks
Everyone had predicted that Stage Nine’s final climb would be the scene for the Tour’s first big GC battle. Particularly with Sky’s Chrios Froome holding a 23-second lead over Nairo Quintana, everyone expected the Movistar leader to attack Froome on the Arcalis.
Instead, everyone except Quintana attacked. Even Chris Froome, who only needed to mark Quintana, launched an acceleration with two-and-half kilometers left in the stage. Quintana seemed content to simply cover all the moves.
Each of the two GC favorites had a team mate on the final few kilometers of the final climb. Quintana had Jesus Herada; Froome had Sergio Henao. It was Henao who launched the first assault, three-and-a-half km from the summit. Etixx-Quickstep rider Dan Martin covered the attack, and the rest of the group caught up quickly.
Henao went again; this time BMC’s Richie Porte covered. Then Porte tried an acceleration of his own. Froome was next to try to break free—this time Nairo Quintana responded and the pair rode ahead together for several seconds before Porte, Martin, Romain Bardet, and best young rider Adam Yates caught up.
Several other GC contenders: Alejandro Valverde, Tejay Van Garderen, Joaquim Rodriguez, and Bauke Mollema, also caught up. Mollema attacked twice, and Porte twice; these accelerations started thinning out the group. Dan Martin tried again, followed immediately by Froome, Porte, and Quintana. Yates and Herada caught this group, but Martin, sapped from repeated accelerations dropped back a few lengths.
The pounding rain and the fading light rendered riders more than a dozen yards away invisible; Dan Martin was a vague form when the leaders passed the sing saying it was 500 meters to the finish. Here the incline eased from 7.5 to five percent.
300 meters out, Adam Yates attacked, hoping to replace his best young rider’s jersey with yellow, but Froome stayed right on his wheel. Quintana stuck to Froome; Dan Martin made a huge effort to catch Richie Porte, but he, Porte, and Herada couldn’t shut down Yates, Froome, and Quintana, losing two seconds to the trio. Tejay Van Garderen lost almost forty seconds to the leaders.
It is uncertain why Quintana chose not to attack. Was the cold hindering the Colombian? Was he simply too tired? Did he feel he would have a better chance in the Alps, perhaps in Stage 18’s uphill time trial?
Whatever the reason, Quintana chose to accept his 23-second deficit. if he cannot or will not engage Froome directly, he will finish second for the third time.
‘A Tough Day’ but a Good Day for Froome
Chris Froome was quite pleased with the way the stage, and the first week of racing, had worked out for him.
“What a tough day today, going from pretty extreme heat, 35 degrees, really hot stuffy weather, to hail a hail storm at the finish, ten degrees, completely from one extreme to the other, made it quite difficult,” he told NBC Sports.
“It would always be nice to take a bit more time to have more of a buffer in the yellow jersey, but all in all I am really happy going into the first rest day in yellow. I’ve got a fantastic team around me—the guys have just done everything. They have ridden from start to finish almost every day now couldn’t be in a better place right now.
Despite his lead, the Sky leader had no illusions that he had the race sewn up already.
“The race is still very open still; a lot of guys right up there in contention. This is going to be a tough race all the way to Paris.”
With Contador Gone, Four Still have Chance
The first week of racing finished with Froome in yellow, Adam Yates second at 16 seconds, Dan Martin at 129, and Nairo Quintana at 23.
With Van Garderen a minute down and Richie Porte two minutes down, BMC seemingly has no chance of a GC win this year, which is a shame because Porte is in fine form. if he had not lost a huge chunk of time to a flat tire, he would be up with Quintana and Froome.
Monday will be the 2016 Tour’s first rest day. racing resumes on Tuesday.