Master cyclists Peter Sagan and Chris Froome used tactics and experience to turn a mundane sprint stage into a thrilling breakaway win for the World Champion and an twelve-second time gain for the race leader.
Sagan, in the Sprinters’ green jersey, and Tinkoff team mate Maciej Bodnar attacked an already shaken peloton with twelve km left in the 162.5 km stage, using stiff winds and turns in the road to gain a slight edge. Sky’s Chris Froome, in the race leader’s yellow jersey, saw what was happening and immediately latched onto the charging Tinkoff pair, followed in a few seconds by team mate Geraint Thomas.
This quartet opened a gap of 20 seconds which shrank to six seconds by the finish line. No one could match Sagan’s speed or power in a sprint, but Froome made the effort and earned second place and a six-second time bonus.
The win was Sagan’s second of the 2016 Tour, and gave him a huge lead in the green jersey points. Froome’s time gain was tiny in terms of seconds but huge in psychological impact: this marks the second stage where the 2013 and 2105 Tour winner has attacked in unorthodox fashion and gained time on his rivals.
The other General Classification contenders now know that they must be vigilant at every turn. Sprint stages, downhills, any time on any terrain, the race is on.
Stage 11 should have been a relaxing stage for the GC rivals as the sprinters’ teams contested the finish. Instead Froome proved that the old norms have no meaning—the race is on and never off. Riders beware!
Crosswinds Cause Chaos
Stage 11, 162.5 km from Carcassonne to Montpellier with only a couple of minor climbs near the beginning, should have been a day for the sprinters. Most teams were looking for an easy day ahead of Stage 12, the brutal climb up the Hors Categorie Mont Ventoux.
Instead, riders awoke to see 40-kph winds whipping across the countryside, and knew that the race was going to be nervous and dangerous. Hard winds can tear a peloton to pieces; riders can turn a corner and go from a headwind to a crosswind, and if those riders are ready, they can form an echelon, and angled line across the road, which shields the riders from the wind. While most of the peloton is battling the wind, the echelon can ride almost undisturbed and with a strong acceleration, can open a gap.
When the wind is strong, riders cannot relax for a moment; they must be ready to follow an acceleration at any time, at any turn in the road.
The stage started as a normal stage, with a pair of riders, Arthur Vichot (FDJ) and Leigh Howard (IAM) attacking from the start.
The winds hit hard after 65 km of racing, and immediately the peloton fragmented. Small groups, caught out by changed s in direction and sudden accelerations, were scattered across the road, chasing, catching, and again being dropped. Riders who missed a move had to work madly to catch up, only to be dropped again at the next change of direction, to repeat the process all over again.
This exhausted the riders, particularly the sprinters who are not designed to make repeated long bursts of speed.
High winds also cause a lot of crashes, unfortunately, as sudden changes of pace and wind direction create uncertainty, and when 192 riders are packed together shoulder-to-hip pedaling at 30 mph, the slightest waverings can cause catastrophe. Tinkoff’s Rafa Majkaand Oscar Gatto, Movistar’s Winner Anacona, FDJ’s Thibault Pinot, Cannondale’s Lawson Craddock and Alex Howse, Lotto-Jumbo’s George Bennett Katusha’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck, and Astana’s Luis Leon Sanchez, all took falls during the course of the stage.
Late Break Upsets All Predictions
Despite all the chaos, the peloton managed to consolidate 32 km from the finish. All the small groups got back to the main peloton and for the next several kilometers, the pace eased a bit as teams tried to take stock. The sprinters’ teams needed to figure out where their sprinters and leadout trains were, and the GC teams needed to mass around their leaders to protect them while the sprinters’ teams to set up to contest the final five km.
Instead, Sagan and Froome upended everything. Sagan was thinking only of the stage win and green-jersey points; Froome was looking for any chance to gain any advantage. Sagan’s explosive power and Froome’s astuteness created the unusual breakaway, which never wiould have happened on a windless stage.
Froome’s chief GC rival, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, in particular does not like windy stages. A native of Colombia and a natural climber, he doesn’t have much experience on the windswept plains of northern France and the Low Countries. His Movistar team was equally unready, scattered through the peloton, each struggling to make his own way. Quintana was many wheels behind the race leader and had no team mates around him when Froome followed Sagan’s move. Likely his only chance to follow was gone before he realized it was happening.
The peloton turned on the afterburners in the final 12 km, as the GC teams realized how dangerous Froome’s attack could be. The beak’s 20-second lead was cut to five seconds by the line, but it was enough.
Cycling is a highly psychological sport. Morale and motivation play a huge role in allowing or preventing a rider from digging deeper and pushing harder. Repeated blows, even minor blows such as Chris Froome has been landing on his opponents, add up over the course of a three-week race and can sap the essential bit of energy which determines who win and who can only follow.
Up Next: The Monster, Mont Ventoux
Stage Twelve is a short stage with a tall finish. Stretching 184 km from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux, the stage finishes atop one of the hardest climbs in cycling.
Mont Ventoux is so tall, the top is a barren, windswept moonscape—the name translates loosely to “windy mountain.” This Hors Categorie climb is 15.7 km long and averages 8.8 percent. The grade is fairly steady, never easing up past 7.5 percent or rising above ten percent, but its length, altitude (1,912 m or 6,273 ft) and the high winds make the ride harder as it winds upwards to the summit.
“Windy Mountain” is not hyperbole—gusts of 320 km/h (200 mph) have been recorded. The stage might have to be shortened due to winds of 90 kph whipping across the summit—winds which could knock a cyclist off his bike.
Race organizers are considering shortening the stage by several kilometers, to avoid the worst of the wind. if the stage is shortened, this would play into the hand of Chris Froome, for two reasons.
First, the Sky leader might have burned a little extra energy in the final 12-km surge in Stage 11. a shorter stage would be less likely to reveal any weakness.
No matter what shape his legs are in, if the stage is shortened, Froome will have less reason to hold back. Froome will likely want to attack if he has the legs, and the shorter the stage, the less he has to worry about attacking too soon or burning out and being unable to follow his rivals if they attack later.
Of course, if the stage runs all the way to the summit, Froome will still be in good shape. He has a 35-second lead over Nairo Quintana; he doesn’t have to attack. Quintana, who was unwilling or unable to attack on Arcalis, will be under more pressure with every passing climb—he must make a move or he hands Froome the win.
Mont Ventouz might be Nairo Quintana’s best chance to gain back the time he has lost. If Chris Froome is indeed a bit tired from his efforts in Stage 11, Quintana could spend his team mates attacking early and then try to crack Froome himself in the final kilometers.
Stage 13 is a time trial, a specialty of Chris Froomes, but one where Nairo Quintana has shown some ability in the past two seasons. The 37.5-km route starts with a gentle seven-kilometer climb and finishes with another gentle five-kilometer ascent—just the sort of terrain which could make a rider miscalculate his pace.
No matter how hard the GC leaders ride on Mont Ventoux, they will need to do equally well in the time trial. Possibly all the GC leaders will merely mark one another on Mont Ventoux, to save their legs for the next stage. possibly a few will go big on Ventoux, figuring to gain more time if as rival cracks, than they could gain in a time trial.