“It couldn’t have gone any better.” – Geraint Thomas, Team Sky
Today couldn’t have gone any better for Chris Froome, who eased up across the line in the pouring rain to all but seal his third Tour de France victory while his GC rivals failed to attack. The Maillot Jaune wearer hadn’t seen a repeat of stage 19, in which he crashed and had to take teammate Geraint’s bike, yet had seen a repeat in consolidating his Tour win and still wearing the yellow jersey. Izagirre (Movistar) took the stage after his descending skills propelled him away from Nibali, Pantano and Alaphilippe on a thunderstorm impacted day in France.
There were numerous attack attempts from the second Prudhomme signalled the official start, yet the 5 riders that succeeded were Kelderman (Lotto-Jumbo), Vakoc (Etixx), Chavanel (Direct Energie), Edet (Cofidis) and Benedetti (Bora-Argon).
Before the break reached the bottom of the climb for the Cat 2 Col des Aravis, they had been joined by the climbers of De Gendt (Lotto) and Zakarin (Katusa). Any points claimed by De Gendt were only to enforce his second place in the King of the Mountains competition, as Majka (Tinkoff) had officially won bar an abandonment. Those trying to make something of their Tour de France or salvage it also joined; Rolland (Cannondale), Barguil (Giant) and Van Garderen (BMC). Alaphilippe (Etixx) was trying yet again to find his stage win, while Nibali was hoping to be the first Italian winner at the 2016 Tour. They were later joined by Pantano (IAM), Henao (Sky) and Sagan (Tinkoff) to make a breakaway of 37 riders.
When they reached the sprint, Matthews took it ahead of De Gendt and then Sagan, who doesn’t need any more points after he had officially won the points classification provided he finishes tomorrow. At 45.5km in they had hit the start of the 12km Cat 1 Col de la Colombière and dropped Barguil and Teklehaimanot (DDD) who were 38 seconds back. Kreuziger was in virtual second place podium position, taking over from Bardet.
While the peloton approached the climb 5 minutes later they were busy putting on their rain jackets. Today’s stage featured torrential rain and thunderstorms, not ideal for a stage that featured plenty of technical descents at high speeds, just before the final stage. On the descent, Henao suffered a puncture. He waited for the Mavic service car and yet cycled away just when his Team Sky car pulled in behind. They tried to call him back via car horn, yet they couldn’t get his attention. He later rejoined Team Sky at the front of the peloton, while Bauke Mollema had dropped off the back.
The riders that had left Henao behind in the heavy rain were Gougeard, Kreuziger, Izaguirre, Rui Costa, Sagan, Pantano and Alaphilippe, the latter two managed to break away. With 6km to go and a stage win in sight (despite Pantano winning stage 15 he wasn’t going to just let Alaphilippe take today) both cyclists were counterattacking each other. Alaphilipe would distance Pantano, Pantano would catch up to him, then distance Alaphilippe, then Alaphilippe would bring him back. This lack of working together made it easy for Nibali to catch up with them and join the front, while his Astana teammate Aru cracked in the peloton, surrounded by teammates and needing gels. Definitely the biggest disappointment of the day, as he came in 17 minutes down. Barguil saw his suffering in the stage and offered a helpful pat (more of a ‘push’, as assistance would bring a fine…). At the front of the peloton, Mollema resurrected himself and broke away from the front, leaving Sky behind. He had dropped from 2nd and a podium place to 10th after just one bad day, yet still retained his fighting spirit, proving no position is safe in the Tour until they crossed the finish line for stage 21.
“Something is up – this level of performance is not normal for me. The body isn’t responding.” Quintana’s podium position was also under threat. If Bardet (2nd at the beginning of the stage) attacked alongside Yates (4th) or Porte (5th), they could easily move up to 3rd and knock him down. Yet time was not on their side, as no GC rival attacked. Luck for Quintana, who hadn’t had the greatest Tour.
Team Sky continued to surge up the climbs and caught Mollema, white Yates and Quintana were well positioned behind them. Fireworks were still occurring off the front, with Alaphilippe’s seemingly strong attack neutralised by Pantano once again while Nibali rejoined them. For a man who looked strong a few kilometres ago, Nibali was nervous on the descents and taking his time around corners in the rain. If he was trying to protect himself ahead of the Olympics, he had almost put himself up in the break for nothing except sponsor time. Yet he distanced ahead of Alaphilippe and Pantano. Could anyone break the front trio?
Jon Izaguirre. His quiet presence had suddenly attacked and he launched himself away from Nibali, taking Pantano with him. Alaphilippe was still hanging on out the back, not so much ‘stuck in the void’ yet, but finding it hard to hang on to the hopes of a stage win. He also lost out on the Prix Antargaz to Peter Sagan. Descent drama followed as Pantano almost fell off the side of the road while taking a corner followed by Nibali almost hitting a wall a few moments later. Alaphilippe was then passed by Kelderman for 4th place, as the peloton were closing in – Thomas was leading them up the final climb as they drew in Rodriguez.
Along the last few kilometres, the trio split and Pantano was in the middle of a distanced Nibali and stage winner Izaguirre. However the Columbian couldn’t match his speed and Izaguirre won by 20 seconds. Nibali finished 3rd, Alaphilippe was 4th with a grazed looking Kelderman in 5th. Just over 4 minutes behind the stage winner came Bardet, Quintana and Martin (Dan, not Tony) trying to break for just seconds over Froome, who crossed the line next to his teammates a few moments later. Shaking his head in almost disbelief, he smiled. When Chris Froome crosses the line tomorrow, he’ll have won his 3rd Tour de France. Knighthood, anyone?
Tomorrow’s stage is more ceremonial than competitive, with riders completing 8 laps of the Champs before the world’s greatest sprinters contest for the final sprint. Kittel has been unusually quiet this year alongside fellow German Greipel, so expect a fierce effort from their sprint trains to fight for position. However, don’t count anybody out. Remember the 2014 finish where Navardauskas (Garmin) beat Greipel to come 3rd, Renshaw (OPQS) came 5th and Bernie Eisel (Sky) came 6th? A surprise win could happen.