After a rough and tumble (literally) first two weeks, the peloton and surviving GC riders limped into the final rest day. Still on tap were three hard days in the Pyrenees and a ITT to decide the overall winner, and two flat stages for the sprinters to contest.
It seems like every year, one of the top guys comes out of the last rest day feeling off and Stage 16 was no exception. This year, American Teejay VanGarderen drew the short straw. The stage on paper did not look particularly hard or decisive, but the peloton made things harder on themselves by contesting breakaway attempts for the first 75km. Usually, a break is established early and the peloton can enjoy a slightly more relaxed pace for the middle sections of the stage, but it was flat out racing for the first half of the stage. Apparently, Movistar, the team of Alejandro Valverde, must have sensed weakness in his rivals and decided to drive the pace up the Port de Balès, the only HC climb of the day. When TeeJay VanGarderen came unhitched in the lower slopes, the pace was lifted even more as the top riders saw a chance to put away a podium rival. When Romain Bardet, another podium hopeful, also dropped of a few kms later, there was no turning back. The guys at the front, aided by some teammates who dropped back from the breakaway, drove the pace relentlessly up the climb and through the descent to the finish. By the end of stage, they had put VanGarderen back three and a half minutes and Bardet back two minutes, dealing significant blows to both riders' hopes of finishing in the top 3.
The breakaway that did finally manage to escape at 75km managed to hold their advantage to the finish. The initial 21 men were whittled down to 5 and Michael Rogers bested the two EuropeCar riders in Voeckler and Gautier with a cagey veteran move with 5km to go, creating a gap and time-trialing to the finish alone. It was the first Tour stage win in Roger's long, decorated career and a well deserved one.
Stage 17 was the shortest stage in this year's Tour, but what it lacked in horizontal distance, it made up in vertical relief. With 3 cat 1 climbs preceding a HC climb to the finish, this was labeled by many as the "Queen Stage," the hardest stage of the Tour. After King of the Mountains contender Joaquim Rodriguez missed out on the early break, the peloton again raced flat out for the opening kms, trying to limit the breakaway. Rodriguez would jump ahead on the first climb to claim the KOM points, putting him into the virtual lead on the road. Rafal Majka, who previously held the KOM jersey didn't seem to contest the points initially, but finally jumped out of the peloton on the second climb, crossing the summit just behind Rodriguez. The Majka, Rodriguez duo repeated their duel on the next climb with Rodriguez getting the better of Majka again, but it wasn't until the last climb that Majka finally showed his cards. He had designs not only on the double points at the top of the finish, but also ambitions to win the stage as well. Majka was untouchable up the HC climb to the finish, dropping Rodriguez and picking off the remnants of the early breakaway one by one. With the maximum KOM points at the top of the finish for winning the stage, Majka wiped out the advantage Rodriguez had built over the first 3 climbs, and retained his lead in the KOM competition.
Behind Majka, the peloton had been reduced to an elite group of riders at the top of the overall classification. The three French riders, Pinot, Bardet, and Peraud ganged up on Spaniard Valverde and repeatedly try to gap him with attack after attack, succeeding temporarily. It was race leader Nibali, however, that would once again stamp his authority on the race by launching a vicious attack that only one man, Peraud, could follow. At the finish, it was Nibali, Peraud finishing a minute ahead of Pinot, Bardet, and VanGarderen.... with Valverde making a miraculous recovery to actually take a few seconds on the Pinot group at the line.
Stage 18 offered one final opportunity for the climbers to gain time. The stage opened in the predictable pattern of a breakaway group jumping ahead early in the stage while the peloton whittled itself over the Col' de Tourmalet, the first HC climb of the day. Movistar and Alejandro Valverde, hoping to avoid another day of being ganged up on by the French, launched a short lived attack off the descent but were caught. It was status quo until midway through the final HC climb to Hautecam, where Nibali attacked an no one could follow. It was a clear concession among the GC contenders that Nibali had already won the tour. The race for the remaining podium spots was just heating up though as again the three Frenchman, with the help of TeeJay VanGarderen, attacked and finally cracked Valverde. In the end, they would 45 seconds on him, resulting in a virtual tie among the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place riders in Pinot, Peraud, and Valverde respectively, with only 15 seconds separating them. It would set up what would be a intense battle for precious seconds in the Individual Time Trial on stage 20. Also of note: KOM leader Majka managed to finish high enough on the final climb to cement his victory in that classification.
Before that could happen though, they would have a bit of a respite in Stage 19, a flattish stage for sprinters with climbing legs like Sagan and Degenkolb. The stage unfolded with a small breakaway including Garmin's Jonathan Slagter. As the break was about to be caught in the closing kilometers, Slagter jumped ahead alone and held out until the last small cat 4 climb before the finish. Here, he served as a launching pad for teammate Ramunas Navardauskas, who used the climb to catch up to Slagter and jump ahead after a brief rest in Slagter's slipstream. The peloton looked to be in position for another heartbreakingly close catch of the lone leader, as they did for Navardauskas's teammate Jack Bauer, just 25 meters from the finish a few days earlier. Once again, though, the weather and wet roads interjected themselves into the race in the form of a crash with 3km to go, not only derailing the sprinters with aims at winning the stage, but also taking GC contender Romain Bardet down (he claimed he was not seriously hurt). With the impetitous of the chase gone, Navardauskas held off the remaining chasers for Garmin, who have been down on their luck ever since the retirement of their leader Andrew Talansky.
The result of Stage 20 was a surprise to absolutely no one. The lone Individual Time Trial of the race this year, stage 20 featured a long and lumpy 55km course that was perfectly suited for Time Trial specialist Tony Martin. Martin smashed the rest of the field and won by an almost literal mile. The graphic below shows just how far ahead he was of everyone else.
The drama would unfold later as the top riders, who start in reverse order of GC standings, took to the course one by one. Leopold Konig, riding for first time Tour team Netapp Endura, put in a great effort, good enough for 5th on the day, but more importantly took enough time to jump two spots in the GC, from 9th to 7th. VanGarderen, after taking his lumps against the climbers in the mountains, set his sights on revenge in his specialty discipline. He started the day in 6th overall, just over two minutes behind Romain Bardet. VanGarderen put in a very good ride, finishing in 6th place on the stage. However, Bardet was doing a good (for him) effort as well and seemed poised to defend his 5th place overall until bad luck struck and a flat tire ultimately cost him the position by a mere 2 seconds.
Meanwhile the three men in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th within 15 seconds of each other were playing out their battle. Peraud, perhaps the best time trialist of the three, put in a blistering effort and despite a bike change due to mechanical issue, still finished 7th on the stage. Pinot, managed to limit his losses, but lost 30 seconds to Peruad, conceding his 2nd place in the GC. Valverde, who is normally pretty good in the TT had another bad day, losing 3:30 minutes to Peraud. Pinot and Peraud would cement their positions on the podium with their rides, the first time since 1997 that a Frenchman, let alone two, finished on the podium. For Peraud, in particular, this was a special day since the year before, while in 9th overall, he had crashed out of the race during the final ITT almost within sight of Paris.
Stage 21 traditionally begins as a celebration and ceremonial victory lap, before finishing on the Champs Elysee in what is the Superbowl for sprinters. The stage unfolded as expected initially, with champagne toasts and congratulations all around for overall winner Vincenzo Nibali. However, perhaps in fitting fashion for such a brutal Tour, it was not without drama as 2nd placed rider Peraud hit the deck in a bizarre crash where his front wheel seemed to inexplicably lose contact with the ground in a corner. After a brief moment of panic as the peloton had just begun to rev up for the actual racing, a truce was called at the front so that Peraud could rejoin and not lose time or position. After Peraud was able to chase back on to the peloton, racing began with several attacks, including from none other than Jens Voigt. The man that led out the attacks 3 weeks ago in England in stage 1, wanted to make his mark on his 17th and final Tour de France by doing what he does best: riding alone in front. After his attack was caught Richie Porte, teammate of fallen defending winner Chris Froome also took a dig. In the end though, it all came together for a wild bunch sprint. After the final corner, Alexander Kristoff launched his sprint first and seemed to get the jump on everyone else, but Marcel Kittel simply had another gear and kept accelerating as Kristoff hit his top speed. Kittel nipped Kristoff at the line by a wheel length and won his second victory in a row on the Champs.
I can say, without exaggeration, that this was the most insanely unpredictable, ruthless, but also entertaining Tour de France since I started following cycling over 10 years ago. Even as the GC competition seemed locked up with a week to go, exciting battles were going on all the way up to the end, and every stage had either a compelling storyline or some dramatic turn of events.
It was a shame that some of the most exciting riders ended up making early exits, but Nibali definitely deserved the victory. He gained 2 minutes on the cobblestones, 5 minutes in the mountains, and over a minute in the ITT. That, as well as managing to stay out of trouble while almost no one else could, shows that he was clearly the best overall rider there this year.
While 37 year old Peraud will probably not have much more to give, the two younger French riders in Bardet and Pinot are giving the French great hope in the future. VanGarderen, at just 25 as well, showed that his 2012 5th place was not a fluke and should be a big name to watch for the Americans as well. These guys will be duking it out for years to come.
Some have said that Peter Sagan doesn't deserve to win the Green Jersey for sprint points because he didn't win a stage. The Green Jersey, ultimately is about consistency though, and with four 2nd place finishes and a handful more in the top 5, he certainly was consistent, showing versatility that most of the other sprinters lack.
Rafal Majka was somewhat of a revelation this year. He rode in the Giro d' Italia and finished 6th overall in just his 2nd try. He wasn't even supposed to do the Tour this year and was rather upset when he was drafted as an emergency addition after another rider was suspended for doping. It's probably safe to say, with 2 stage wins and the KOM Polka Dotted Jersey, he's pretty happy he rode the Tour after all.
De Marchi won the distinction of the most aggressive rider. He was a constant presence in breakaways and driving the pace from the peloton. While he didn't win a stage, he certainly was a big catalyst and animated the race stage after stage.
Finally, there's Ji Cheng, the "Lanterne Rouge," a distinction given to the last place rider in the Tour (named after the red lantern hung at the back of the caboose in trains). Ji was intially somewhat of a token participant as the first Chinese rider ever to ride in the Tour. While no doubt his inclusion was partially motivated by expanding interest in Asia for cycling, he took advantage of the opportunity and put in mile after hard mile at the front of the peloton for his team. He earned not only the respect of other riders, commentators, and fans, but also the bad ass nickname "The Breakaway Killer." With so many good riders who didn't finish the tour, the Lanterne Rouge is a distinction he should embrace with pride.
Welp, onward to the Vuelta a Espana in August! Thanks for reading.