The magnificent season of Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff continued with a second Tour de France stage victory to add to his early-season triumph at Milan-San Remo.
The Norwegian broke the hearts of breakaway duo, Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp) and IAM Cycling’s Martin Elmiger, who were passed within sight of the finish line in Nîmes by a rampaging peloton that almost left its effort too late.
Heavy rain and a series of roundabouts had appeared to place victory within the grasp of the leading duo, but with Lotto-Belisol driving the bunch for sprint king, Andre Greipel, their advantage was slashed as the flamme rouge neared.
Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) who had joked before the stage that he had hoped for rain rather than more heat, finished second, while green jersey holder, Peter Sagan (Cannondale), collected another useful points haul by finishing third.
There was no change to the sharp end of the general classification, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will hang a yellow jersey in his hotel wardrobe tomorrow for the second of the 2014 Tour’s two rest days.
The stage in detail
With 60km remaining, a momentary disturbance in the peloton brought mild disagreement and a further display of Nibali’s tactical awareness. The race leader, feeling pressured by the jostling peloton, moved smartly along the outside of the bunch and joined the back of BMC Racing’s train. Sagan, recognising the good sense of his friend and former team-mate, followed suit.
Crosswinds created the constant threat of echelons, which spread anxiety through the peloton like wildfire. Up ahead, Bauer and Elmiger continued to lead in the steadily falling rain, with Bauer giving place to the Swiss champion at the intermediate sprint. Brian Coqard (Europcar) was the first of the bunch to cross the same line, about 1.30 later. Sagan also collected points, finishing behind Coqard and Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quickstep).
Bauer and Elmiger continued to share the workload evenly as they passed beneath the 40km to go mark, with both showing excellent form. Odds on their survival would have been long, but there was nothing in their on-the-bike demeanour to suggest that they would concede willingly.
A darkening sky hung with increasing weight above Nîmes, and the rainfall over the leading pair and the pursuing bunch seemed to gain in intensity. Nibali put his Astana team on the front in a bid to stay upright in the worsening conditions.
With breakaway and peloton still upright as they passed beneath the 30km to go kite, the worst of the weather seemed to have passed. Bauer and Elmiger increased their lead to two minutes, indicating a more relaxed attitude in the peloton. The leading duo had shown admirable resistance in the worst conditions and pushed on with what appeared to be renewed vigour as the skies brightened.
Five kilometres later, the weather had changed entirely, from clement and improving to atrocious. Both Elmiger and Bauer slowed significantly for the roundabouts on the approach to Nîmes. The peloton, deprived of the same road space, was no less cautious. Giant-Shimano headed the pack, while up ahead the escapees had been plunged into almost complete darkness and rode in the glow of the headlights of the trailing convoy.
With the 20km to go kite looming, Lotto-Belisol arrived in numbers at the head of the bunch, slotting in alongside principal rivals, Giant-Shimano. The Dutch squad’s leader, Marcel Kittel, extended an arm in a plea for caution on the approach to yet another roundabout.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) launched a counter attack with a little over 18km remaining, seemingly transformed from the rider who dropped off the back of the peloton 24 hours earlier. His team’s decision to waste no further energy on what they clearly regarded as unwinnable queen stage appeared to be paying dividends for the young Pole.
His escape was short-lived, thanks largely to an ever-increasing tempo dictated by Lotto-Belisol. Sunny skies and drying roads contributed to a renewed sense of confidence in the peloton and as the pace increased the gap fell to the two escapees, whose only hope appeared to lie in yet more roundabouts. Bauer and Elmiger negotiated the hazards with caution, but without the sacrifice of speed demanded of the peloton
With just 7.5km remaining, the white jersey of German national champion, Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), appeared for the first time. His team-mate, Adam Hansen, continued to drive the bunch, and as the skies continued to lift, all looked well for the Belgian squad.
Odds would have continued to shorten on the leading pair as the 5km kite hoved into view. A gap of 35 seconds suddenly seemed feasible. The efforts of the bunch suffered sustained disruption from the likes of Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and team-mate, Tony Martin, both of whom launched separate attacks.
Giant-Shimano responded, but their effort suddenly looked like too little, too late. They held a lead of 25 seconds with 1km to go, and with Martin disrupting the sprint trains, they leading duo might have gained new hope.
Europcar took the initiative in the shape of Kevin Reza, but it was Kristoff who found the acceleration necessary to claim victory. A charging Sagan was forced to swerve around a fading Renshaw, allowing Haussler to claim second.
Tour de France 2014: stage 15 – result
1) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – 4.56.43
2) Heinrich Haussler (AUS) – IAM Cycling – ST
3) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale
4) Andre Greipel (USA) – Lotto-Belisol
5) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
6) Brian Coquard (FRA) – Europcar
7) Ramunas Navardauskas (LTU) – Garmin-Sharp
8) Roman Feillu (FRA) – Bretagne Seche Environment
9) Michael Albasini (SUI) – Orica-GreenEDGE
10) Jack Bauer (NZL) – Garmin-Sharp
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 66.49.37
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +4.37
3) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +4.50
4) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +5.06
5) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +5.49
6) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +6.08
7) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin +8.33
8) Leopold Konig (CZE) – NetApp-Endura +9.32
9) Laurens ten Dam (NED) – Belkin +10.01
10) Pierre Rolland (FRA) – Europcar +10.48