The Sunday results sheet will show another Tour de France bunch sprint win for Alexander Kristoff in Nimes, the lipstick of the podium girls imprinted in smudged crimson on his cheeks like stamps in hot sealing wax.
It’s the Norwegian who will toast his second stage win, while his agent adds another zero to the asking rate for the post-Tour criteriums. And as the Tour packs up and leaves Provence for its second rest day, the hows and whys will be forgotten, as stage 15 becomes a footnote in the greater narrative of the Tour and life moves on.
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But a results sheet doesn’t tell the story of how Garmin’s Jack Bauer and Martin Elmiger of IAM performed heroics in holding off the chasing bunch until less than 100 metres to go. A results sheet doesn’t explain how the elements toyed with the riders of the Tour, how their backs were warmed by the Provencal sun, how they were drenched first by the torrential rain then by the spray kicking up from the road, how a fickle wind came at them from the side, from the front, then finally, in a tantalising helping hand for Bauer and Elmiger, from behind. A results sheet doesn’t record that we didn’t want Kristoff to win.
The breaks still can’t get a break in this Tour de France. Only three riders have won stages from a long break so far – Blel Kadri at Gerardmer, Tony Martin in Mulhouse and Rafal Majka yesterday. A few, like Vincenzo Nibali in Sheffield, Lars Boom in Arenberg and Tony Gallopin in Oyonnax have slipped away towards the end of the stages, but in general, the peloton have been in ungenerous spirits. Flat stage? Bunch sprint. Hilly stage? Smaller bunch sprint. Mountain stage? GC riders. The baroudeurs’ contract contains some unfavourable small print in the terms and conditions: they may advertise their sponsors’ wares on the road only, not on the winner’s podium.
Kristoff, for his part, suddenly looks the best sprinter in the race. Or, more accurately, he looks the best stayer among the sprinters. When Marcel Kittel was fresh, at the start of the Tour, the German was the fastest rider up the finishing straights. But as early as stage four, when Kristoff ran him close in Reims, Kittel was starting to look less sharp.
Kristoff looks to be losing speed at a slower rate than his rivals – as the days pass and their speed dips, he’s maintaining his. Kristoff dominated the sprint in Nimes – while Greipel faded and Kittel was absent, he took his stage tally to two. There might have been a lot of sympathy for Bauer and Elmiger, but Kristoff was only doing what sprinters do – you might as well criticise a boa constrictor for suffocating its prey.
Elmiger and Bauer went away early on, building a small lead, but when crosswinds started making the bunch nervous mid-stage, they were brought back to within two minutes. The crosswinds failed to permanently damage the peloton, which allowed Bauer and Elmiger to take just over a minute’s lead into the final 20 kilometres.
Early in a Grand Tour, a lead that small would be a straightforward defeat for the break, but the riders now have two weeks of racing in their legs. The sprinters teams are as tired as everybody else, and it showed. Giant, Lotto and Katusha chased, but the gap stubbornly held. 1-05 at 17 kilometres, 1-00 at 13 kilometres, 42 seconds at eight kilometres: Elmiger and Bauer were co-operating with each other, and giving their escape everything.
23 seconds at two kilometres to go…
13 seconds under the red kite at one kilometre to go…
Elmiger attacked, with 400 to go. Bauer responded. Passed him. Between him and the finish line, only clear air.
A quirk of logistical planning meant that I watched the stage finish in a bar in Toulouse. The only person watching was the patron, a middle-aged man who hadn’t yet got around to fully implementing the health and safety laws, and wafted Marlboro smoke in the general direction of the windows. As Kristoff caught and passed Bauer, he swore and turned away from the television in disgust. He didn’t even watch the winner cross the line.