The more this Tour de France changes, the more it stays the same.
Stage 17 of the 2014 race, from St Gaudens to Pla d’Adet, was a tapestry made up of scenes from previous days in the race, a postmodern montage of cut-and-pasted images that were so good the first time, the race felt we had to see them again. If they made a Greatest Hits of the 2014 Tour, it might look like this stage.
We’d seen the winner before. Rafal Majka of Tinkoff won his second summit finish, and may have clinched the King of the Mountains classification. We might have thought that he and Joaquim Rodriguez, both in the break and separated by two points going into the stage, were engaged in a battle of almost-equals, especially when Rodriguez just pipped the Pole over both the Peyresourde and Val Louron Azet climbs.
But on the final climb, their body language and respective trajectories betrayed the lie behind that assumption. While Rodriguez ploughed a lonely and laboured furrow up the right hand side of the road, with the racing line on the left, Majka accelerated and twice turned to wink at the television cameras, in the style of Winifred Atwell, once before his main attack, once after. The difference between them was the difference between black and white.
Watching the GC battle was like trying to focus on a badly-tuned television – it took place with a lot of distracting white noise from the surviving breakaway riders, who were spread over the climb to Pla d’Adet, getting between the overall contenders, sometimes pacing them if they were in the same team.
Even a lot of the riders in the 22-strong break were familiar. Vasil Kiryienka, Alessandro De Marchi, Majka, Rodriguez and Ion Izaguirre had all spent varying amounts of time off the front of the race before today, while Bauke Mollema, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland and Jurgen Van den Broeck were all GC contenders with a peripheral enough role to be allowed up the road, Astana’s rationale being that if they were a real threat to Vincenzo Nibali, they’d be closer to him overall.
The Tour was stretched almost to breaking point on Pla d’Adet. But while Nibali helped himself to another wedge of time on everybody except Peraud, and Majka was busy dismantling the break, the impression was that if this stage had exploded the peloton, the pieces landed remarkably close to where they had been before. Nibali’s seamless trajectory towards final victory continued, his closest rivals had a hell of a fight, once again battering each other into an equal state of fatigue, and a familiar cast of supporting actors delivered some of the best lines.
The stage started in a similar way to yesterday’s. A break of 22 riders eventually formed, one more than in stage 16. But while yesterday’s break, Europcar’s tactics on the final climb and descent aside, was a cohesive and happy crowd, conflicting agendas made this one a fractious affair.
The riders could be roughly divided into four overlapping groups. First, there were stage hunters (further subdivided into the competent – Majka, Giovanni Visconti and Kiryienka, for example – and the optimistic – Kristijan Durasek and De Marchi).
Visconti also overlapped with the second group, the tactical domestiques. These included Movistar riders there to help Valverde later on – which also included Izaguirre and Jesus Herrada – and Peter Velits and Amael Moinard from BMC, hoping to help Tejay Van Garderen avoid a repeat of yesterday’s semi-disaster.
Third, some GC riders, all around 10th or 15th overall, were slumming it in the break, hoping to either gain time on the rest of the GC riders, or at least minimise their losses by getting a head start on the final climb. These included Pierre Rolland (who’d brought along a personal domestique, Yukiya Arashiro), Jurgen Van den Broeck, Bauke Mollema and Frank Schleck.
Fourth, Rodriguez and Majka were after the mountains points.
Kiryienka attacked alone at 56 kilometres to ride, and was chased on the Peyresourde by Roche and Herrada. These two, in turn, were chased by the disintegrating break, but it took until the top of the Col de Val Louron Azet for everything to come together, by which time there were 13 riders left in front. No, 14 – they’d caught Kiryienka. No, 13 again – they dropped him like a stone.
And, by the way, the 10 riders left in the yellow jersey group after Astana, then FDJ, then Astana again put the pressure on, were only a couple of minutes behind by this point. The 10 became nine when Romain Bardet attacked over the top and gained 30 seconds on the descent.
Rolland, Moinard, Visconti and Roche slipped clear of the rest of the break in St Lary Soulan, and started the final climb about 30 seconds clear of the others. Then, two minutes later, Bardet started the climb the same distance in front of the yellow jersey group.
Visconti dropped the others with eight and a half kilometres to go. Behind him, it took Majka two goes to drop the other survivors of the break, and then another few kilometres to catch Visconti. The Italian was able to hold on to the Pole, but his grip slipped with two and a half kilometres to go.
Just like yesterday, Arnold Jeannesson paced the yellow jersey group, working for Pinot and pulling them up to Bardet, but when Nibali attacked with five to go only Peraud could match him. The accelerations initially put Valverde into trouble and he dropped to 40 seconds behind Pinot, Bardet and Van Garderen. But he linked up first with Herrada, then Izaguirre, and not only pulled back his three rivals, but put a few seconds into them on the line.
Tomorrow is the last act of a three-part play in the Pyrenees. It seems already clear who the main characters will be.
Two stage wins and polka-dot jersey for Pole Rafal Majka as Vincenzo Nibali puts more time into rivals
Three stage wins and the mountain classification lead after overall contender Alberto Contador crashed out