Hors catégorie: (French) A climb that is “beyond categorization”.
Quite possibly the hardest stage of the Tour as stated by Froome, Mollema and the majority of the peloton before the stage had begun, stage 15 saw an explosive start matched with an explosive finish that saw Pantano take on Majka to win a cat and mouse sprint finish.
From the end of the neutralised start a large group of riders finally settled amidst all the attacks in the break with De Gendt leading the way. The pace almost immediately distanced the sprinters, with Greipel and Cavendish seen off the back while Stannard and Rowe were momentarily distanced before the latter two worked their way back up to reconnect with their Sky teammates in the peloton. Stannard then continued to lead them in climbing the Col du Berthiand before Team Sky later made sure to eat earlier than anyone else in the group. This raised a few eyebrows as attacking during a feed zone is rarely seen, yet Sky were making sure they were not exposed to any later attacks that they couldn’t follow from BMC, Movistar or Trek.
A few kilometres later saw Gallopin rejoin the peloton while Majka upped the pace and distanced further on the first climb. Zakarin then joined him ahead of the 15 chasers including Dumoulin and Nibali. Majka then scaled the top of the Berthiand, giving him 10 King of the Mountains points that placed him within 3 points of taking the polka dot jersey from De Gendt. They were soon reeled in to form a front group of 30 riders including Bennett (Lotto), Pantano (IAM), Rolland (Cannondale), Dumoulin (Giant), Voeckler (Direct Energie), Alaphilippe (Etixx) and Plaza (Orica). The one rider most threatening to Froome was Sébastien Reichenbach (FDJ), just over 11 minutes behind him in GC. The breakaway stood at over 4 minutes ahead at this point, yet they could slowly see that increasing if they worked together and the peloton were slow to react.
Voeckler attacked just before the summit of the category two climb Col du Sappel, taking the maximum 5 KoM points available from Majka who was then tied for the polka dot jersey with 90 points. Four breakaway riders formed from this group, with Alaphilippe leading ahead of Pantano, Zakarin and Majka. However when Alaphilippe looked strong enough to distance them, he crashed due to a mechanical. Leaving him and Zakarin behind, Majka and Pantano broke ahead onto the final climb of Lacets du Colombier. Meanwhile at the front of the peloton, Astana were trying hard to tire Froome and his teammates who were quick to shut down any moves. Aru and Valverde then attacked only to be brought back a few minutes later.
Back towards those challenging the stage win. Majka distanced Pantano while Vuillermoz (AG2R) and Reichenbach (FDJ) closed in behind. However they couldn’t stop Majka claiming the King of the Mountains points, giving him to polka dot jersey to wear for tomorrow, his lead now 127 points over De Gendt’s 90. Yet he almost crashed on the decent, (the same place Mikel Nieve then crashed a few minutes later) meaning Pantano was then on his wheel for the final few kilometres. With the flame rouge suddenly passed under, Majka and Pantano then proceeded to play a lengthy game of cat and mouse, almost unaware of the gaining Vuillermoz and Reichenbach. Majka attacked first, yet Pantano latched onto his wheel before powering himself forward to take the stage win.
“It’s an incredible day for me, a dream come true. I didn’t think about a stage victory at all really, I just kept on going. Luckily I had the opportunity to be up at the front today. I’d like to thank my team-mates for all the great work they’ve done this week.”
Today’s relatively quiet stage as far as the GC was concerned showed no changes for the yellow jersey race. The main contenders of Froome, Quintana, Mollema and white jersey wearer Yates came in together, the only change to the top 10 being Van Garderen (BMC) losing a minute and a half, pushing him down to 8th.
Today’s biggest disappointment was probably felt by Alaphilippe, who could have challenged for the stage win if he had not crashed. Majka lost the stage win after attacking so well by himself, yet claimed the King of the Mountains jersey for tomorrow’s sprint stage. So, not all bad.