The longest stage of the 2014 Tour de France, a 237-kilometre schlepp from Carcassonne to Bagneres de Luchon, came down to a 300-metre stretch of road on the descent of the Port de Bales. This slaloming piece of smooth tarmac, just four and a half kilometres from the finish line, was about the same length as, maybe just a bit longer than, many sprint finishes.
The sprint for the stage win happened not at the finish, but right here, pitching Michael Rogers of Tinkoff against Europcar’s Cyril Gautier. These two riders had just drifted away from three others, Gautier leading, Rogers following at a very short distance, and Gautier’s team-mate Thomas Voeckler letting the gap go, trusting Gautier’s ability to outsprint the Australian if they stayed away. Anybody might have done the same: Rogers, a three-time world time trial champion, is a diesel, more at home with a drawn-out, steady effort than the awkward, irregular, elbows-and-bent-back spikiness of a sprint.
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Rogers went to the front. But this wasn’t the smooth rotation nor the shared enterprise of a two-up escape. The Australian was attacking, using the gradient to add the acceleration that his physiology couldn’t, and a 20-metre gap suddenly yawned between the two riders. Gautier sprinted – the finish line might have been over four kilometres away, but winning the stage would depend on his ability to reach Rogers’ back wheel in the next 300 metres or so.
The gap held. Rogers, a former national pursuit champion, now had 4,000 metres in which to extend his lead on an uncohesive and demoralised group. He was the second world time trial champion to win a mountain stage in this year’s Tour, after Tony Martin’s long escape to Mulhouse.
10 minutes behind Rogers, the bonds holding the riders between second and sixth place overall started to weaken. Thibaut Pinot was aggressive over the Port de Bales, and pulled Vincenzo Nibali, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Alejandro Valverde clear. The two main victims of Pinot’s attack were Romain Bardet and Tejay van Garderen, who lost two minutes and three and a half minutes respectively.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the maelstrom, Nibali calmly followed, waited and watched the others fighting over the scraps he was leaving. There are now three riders with a realistic chance of joining Nibali on the final podium: Valverde, Pinot and Peraud.
It was a day of shifting alliances and complex team tactics. For only the second time this Tour, the break was allowed a significant lead – Astana soft-pedalled on the front of the peloton while the gap went out to 10 minutes.
There were 21 riders in the group. Europcar were well-represented, with Kevin Reza, as well as Voeckler and Gautier. Ag2r, with one eye on the team classification (which they lead), one eye on having riders up the road to support Peraud and Bardet if they needed it late in the stage, and half an eye on the stage win, put both Matteo Montaguti and Samuel Dumoulin in it. Pinot’s team-mate Jeremy Roy was there, along with Tinkoff’s Rogers, Lampre’s Jose Serpa, and Lotto’s Tony Gallopin. Sky put Vasil Kiryienka and Bernhard Eisel in the break. It was largely a cohesive and strong group, without any really dangerous out-and-out climbers in there to complicate the group politics.
Two overlapping races happened on the Port de Bales. One for the stage and one for the GC contenders.
The race for the stage was a mix of sporting logic and tactics. Only the strongest three riders made it to the top of the Bales together, followed not far behind by two more, and it turned out that two of the ensuing quintet were from the same team – Europcar. Both Voeckler and Gautier had attacked on the climb, so when the leading group of five coalesced on the descent – Rogers, Serpa and Kiryienka were the others – it looked like their aggression had given them the advantage.
Even at the moment Voeckler let Rogers’ wheel go on the descent, it looked like Europcar were bending the race to their will with an impressive piece of break management. Their attacks on the climb had helped turn a three-against-18 break into a two-against-three race by the top. Then they turned that into a one-against-one on the descent, trusting Gautier to finish the job. Unfortunately for them, their advantage immediately turned into a defeat: Rogers had been hatching his own tactical plan.
The race between the GC contenders was more complex. Movistar did a lot of work on the climb, putting all but a small handful of riders into deep trouble. Then Pinot’s attacks pulled Nibali, Valverde and Peraud clear. Somehow Pinot’s team-mate Arnold Jeannessen managed to catch up, and he went straight to the front to help Pinot gain time on Bardet and van Garderen. Valverde’s team-mate John Gadret was also close.
The group caught Dumoulin near the top of the climb, and the Ag2r rider was able to pace Peraud up to the summit, where Pinot had inched just a handful of metres clear, and give him a push over the top.
Down the other side, they also caught FDJ’s Jeremy Roy, who’d been long dropped from the break, and the two Frenchmen gave everything to help Pinot gain time on the descent, while Gadret also contributed, helping to cement Valverde’s second place overall. Meanwhile, Dumoulin had waited for Bardet, and was helping him limit his losses. Among all this tactical teamwork and shifting alliances, Nibali kept his head down, feeling no need to gain any more time than the four and a half minute advantage he already holds.
In Luchon, the winners and losers assessed their positions. Bardet and van Garderen had bad days, although the loss of Bardet’s white jersey was tempered by the fact his Ag2r team took a 26-minute lead in the team classification (which they also won at the Giro d’Italia). What’s more, Peraud moved up to fourth, and is a much better time triallist than Valverde and Pinot, in second and third.
Pinot took over the white jersey, while Nibali defended yellow easily. Rogers and Tinkoff celebrated an unlikely but well-worked stage win. On the other hand, after 16 stages, only eight teams have so far won stages, leaving 14 teams winless with only five days left. They are running out of time and road to do something about it.
Michael Rogers chose the longest stage of this year’s Tour to claim his first Tour win. Behind, there was a
Images from stage 16 of the 2014 Tour de France, won by Michael Rogers. Photos by Graham Watson