The peloton limped out of a chaotic week one licking their wounds and hoping week two would bring better fortunes. Unfortunately week two brought only more carnage, more bad weather, and saw even more top name contenders eliminated from the race.
Stage 8 was the first taste of the GC battle as the peloton reached the foothills of the Vosges mountains at the end of the stage. The short, but steep climbs were surprisingly selective as only an elite group was left at the top of the penultimate climb. The wet and tricky descent before the final climb brought down American GC contender Andrew Talansky before the battle on the final climb even began... costing him 2:30 against his rivals, but more importantly exacerbating his injuries from his stage 7 crash the day before. Blel Kadri managed to survive from the breakaway to win the stage, but the story of the day was Nibali staying with Contador (nearly) step for step on the final climb, showing that his form on the cobbles was no fluke. Because the climbs were so short, any time gains between the GC men were small, but it was a great preview at who had good form and who didn't.
Stage 9 was a chance for the peloton to recover a bit before the first true mountain stage. From the beginning, the peloton was content to let a large breakaway group, filled with relatively well placed riders to the GC, go up the road. Race leader Nibali's team seemed to purposely relinquish the yellow jersey so they could be relieved of the pace making responsibilities. Time trial specialist Tony Martin jumped ahead of his breakaway companions and took the stage in a solo victory, his first non-time trial stage win in the Tour. Tony Gallopan was the best placed rider in GC among the breakaway and won the right to wear the yellow jersey on Bastille day as a Frenchmen.
Stage 10, the first real mountain stage, was expected to be the first battle between what had increasingly become a two person war between Contador and Nibali. Unfortunately, that battle never happened as Contador crashed on the rainy, wet descent off of one the stages opening climbs. Initial reports that the crash was caused by his bike frame breaking proved to be false, and what actually happened was he hit a pothole while reaching for a energy bar from his back pocket. He tried to soldier on but after some 15 km he, like other pre-Tour favorite Chris Froome, also was forced to abandon the race. It was later revealed that he had a broken tibula and managed to ride 15km up a mountain on it before the pain was just too much (these guys are amazing).
Contador was not the only one to have a bad day as Andrew Talansky's crashes of the previous days were too much to overcome, causing him to helplessly lose 10 minutes on the final climb. Then 3rd placed rider Tiago Machado also crashed early in the stage. At one point he had gotten off his bike and stepped into an ambulance leading to reports of his abandonment, but he ultimately got back on his bike and finished the stage (outside the time limit, but the race committee granted him an exception)
The GC contenders left standing duked it out on the final climb as expected. The abandonment of Froome and Contador left the race with a decidedly anti-climatic feeling as Nibali, who was clearly stronger than the rest, effortlessly rode away for not only the stage win, but also reclaimed his yellow jersey. I couldn't help but remember Tejay VanGarderen's frustrated comments following a rough stage 5 and Froome's abandonment: "You guys got your drama, but it could theoretically make the race less exciting towards the end."
Stage 11, coming out of the rest day, was supposed to be a routine flat stage for the sprinters, but high drama unfolded as Talansky, unable to recover from his injuries, was dropped midway through the stage. In obvious agony, he slipped further and further back from the peloton, and it was clear his team was not going to drop back to aid him. Left to ride to the finish alone, at one point, he actually stepped off of his bike and sat on the side of the road, but remounted after a chat with his team director. Ultimately, he finished the stage just inside the time limit in a heroic effort that drew the TV cameras to him for much of the stage and well after the winners crossed the line, a rare thing cycling coverage.
The stage was won by Tony Gallopin, who was clearly not dejected after losing his yellow jersey the day before. He made a series of attacks late in the stage and finally was able to create a gap with 3km to go, holding the advantage to the line.
Stage 12 unfortunately saw the abandonment of another GC big name. Despite gutting it out to the finish the day before, Talansky could not continue with the condition of his back. After the peloton reeled in the breakaway towards the end of the stage, the stage seemed to be Peter Sagan's to win with other top sprinters being dropped by a small climb (Kittel) and crashing in the final kms (Griepel). However, another weak showing by his team left him isolated and forced to follow someone else's wheel in the final sprint, and he could not overtake winner Alexander Kristoff, despite a strong acceleration before the line.
Stage 13 brought the peloton to the first of 2 stages in the Alps. Nibali again asserted his dominance, winning another stage and gaining time on his rivals in the final HC climb of the day. It was clear that, barring the unexpected, he was going to win the Tour, and the remaining battle was for the remaining places on the podium.
All was not lost for the fans however, as several interesting side battles began to emerge. Two young Frenchmen, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, are locked in a fierce fight for not only the white jersey (highest rider in GC under 25 years old), but also for the podium. Joaquim Rodriguez collected more King of the Mountains points, creating a tight fight for the polka dot jersey between himself and Nibali. American Tejay Vangarderen also rode well and limited his losses, placing himself in the top 5 and within striking distance to the podium.
Many had labeled Stage 14 as the tour's "Queen Stage," a designation given to the hardest stage of the tour. The opening cat 1 and HC climbs thinned the peloton to an elite field of the top GC contenders. After a brief attack on the downhill, a battle was set up on the final climb of the day: an cat 1 climb to a mountain top finish. Rafal Majka survived from the breakaway to win the stage (a victory he dedicated to fallen teammate Contador), but behind him a fierce battle again broke out among the GC riders. Nibali once again showed his dominance riding clear of all but one rider, 6th place Jean-Christoff Peraud. The two young Frenchmen Bardet and Pinot again went toe to toe all the way up the climb, and VanGarderen had another solid stage, distancing himself from others below him in the standings and keeping within striking distance.
I actually have not watched Stage 15, so I'll withhold comments except to say that Alexander Kristoff won his second stage in a bunch sprint.
I will preview the final week in a separate diary entry....