Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) claimed the prize he had been denied 24 hours earlier by the brilliance of race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) by riding clear of a day-long break to win alone at the summit in Risoul and claim the queen stage of the 2014 Tour de France.
It was Nibali, however, who again produced the ride of the day by decimating a group of favourites on the same finishing climb to take second place, seemingly without effort. The shattered remains of the select bunch he had destroyed with his acceleration, however, were never reassembled, and in the scramble for the line, Movistar leader, Alejandro Valverde, was the biggest loser. He remains second overall, but after finishing tenth today, now trails Nibali by a margin of 4.37.
Elsewhere, the story of this mountainous 177km ordeal, on a course that reached the roof of the race at the 2360m-summit of the Col d’Izoard, was of a day-long battle between the new stars of French cycling, Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and FDJ.fr leader, Thibaut Pinot, with Bardet ordering his more experienced team-mates to set a ferocious tempo for almost all of the closing 50km. His efforts to shed Pinot proved in vain, however, with the FDJ man crossing the line just ahead of him, but Ag2r gained a dual reward in the demise of Valverde, who now leads Bardet by just 13 seconds on the GC, and third place on the stage for Jean Christophe Peraud, who alone found the strength to respond to Nibali.
Tomorrow’s 222km stage from Tallard, with a parcours that drops steadily for the last 100km to a flat finsh in Nimes, is likely to represent a day of rest for the GC men. For all but Nibali, it cannot come soon enough.
The Col d’Izoard
The highest climb in the Tour immediately found out those in an elite, 17-strong breakaway group who were suffering. Green jersey holder, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) slipped back to the peloton, while Tinkoff-Saxo’s Nicolas Roche dropped back to the team car in search of instruction. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas continued to drive the breakaway on behalf team-mate, Mikel Nieve.
With 500m remaining to the Izoard’s 2360m summit, white jersey holder, Bardet, called his men to the front of the peloton. At the other end of the bunch, Omega Pharma-Quickstep fell back en masse, with stage nine winner, Tony Martin, shepherding erstwhile leader, Michal Kwitakowski.
As the summit drew closer for the breakaway, Majka, so impressive just 24-hours earlier, when he finished second to race leader Nibali, again set the tempo. World number one, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), slipped past the Pole at the summit, collecting maximum points for the King of the Mountains competition and with it the Henri Desgranges prize for passing the highest point in the race ahead of his rivals.
Despite the continued efforts of Ag2r-La Mondiale, just 10 seconds had been trimmed from the advantage of the breakaway as it approached the summit. Astana and Movistar moved to the fore, with John Gadret unsurprisingly spearheading the challenge of the Spanish squad.
The riders staged a collective descending masterclass on the road down from the Izoard’s summit, and formed a long, snaking line as the road weaved through the barren scree of the Casse Déserte, each man showing the mastery of the bike essential to his calling.
As the peloton split on the 30km descent, Bardet set the pace for a five-man group containing race leader Nibali. If the younger Frenchman had hoped to distance countryman and GC rival, Pinot, he would be disappointed. The FDJ.fr leader, whose dislike of descending is well known, held firm.
The breakaway, further down the descent and on flatter ground, seemed relaxed by comparison. Bardet tried again to distance Pinot and this time found a modicum of success. Twice, Pinot was gapped and was forced to work hard to chase back on. Bardet had two willing accomplices in team-mates, Christophe-Peraud and Christophe Riblon, as well as a heavyweight supporting cast, including Movistar chief, Valverde, and Belkin’s leading man, Bauke Mollema.
With the valley reached, the breakaway had just 25km to cover before the finishing line. Thomas dropped back to collect a bottle, while an untroubled ‘Purito’ Rodriguez took up a position on the front. Riblon drove the favourites’ group with impressive ferocity, cognisant of the absence of Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing), a rival to his team leader Bardet and likely to best the white jersey leader in the penultimate stage time trial.
BMC arrived moments later in the style of a cavalry charge clad in black and red, forcing Bardet to take stock. His effort on the descent of the Izoard, while impressive in intent, had gained him nothing. Both Pinot and Van Garderen were present and correct as the road flattened.
The long road across the valley created two effects: the favourites’ group swelled considerably, and the gap to the breakaway reduced to 1.12. Thomas adopted the position he must now regard as his default: at the head of the breakaway. Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE), the outrageously talented British neo pro, held station on Thomas’ shoulder. Moments later, the escapees rolled onto the closing climb of a hugely challenging day: the 12.6km ascent to Risoul.
The road to Risoul
The chasing group of favourites continued to be driven by Ag2r-La Mondiale, riding hard to lead Bardet to the foot of the climb with a chance of catching the breakaway. Such was the tempo, that Team Sky’s Richie Porte was dropped for the second time in two days, this time on a flat section of road. Riblon then pulled off the front, his work for Bardet done.
The inexhaustible Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale) launched from the head of the breakaway, seeking greater reward than that gained by his doomed attempt at a stage win yesterday. With less then 10km remaining, and a lead of just 49 seconds, it was now or never. He found himself joined by Lampre-Merida’s Jose Serpa, while behind, the remains of the breakaway shattered, Thomas among those shelled as the 10km to go kite hoved into view. Rodriguez fell back from the leading group, while Mikel Cheral became the second of the Ag2r-La Mondiale troops expended.
De Marchi kicked again to rid himself of Serpa, but soon found himself joined by Majka, who rode straight past. Rodriguez, pedaling alone in the maillot pois, was the next to pass De Marchi, while behind him, the yellow jersey group continued to splinter under the relentless assault of Ag2r-La Mondiale.
At 7.7km remaining, Majka’s advantage stood at just 37 seconds from the peloton and only seven seconds from Rodriguez. Nieve was caught and passed by the favourites group, while up ahead, De Marchi managed to stem the haemorrhage of his own advantage and fasten on to the rear wheel of Rodriguez. Further good news for Majka could be found in his increased advantage over the duo, which had stretched from seven to 19 seconds in little more than a kilometre.
Nibali was the very definition of cool, while behind him, Valverde appeared to be suffering slightly. Bardet, the young man who continued to drive their group, had gained an anxious expression, clearly concerned that he would not be able to finish the job started by sending his team to the head of the bunch.
Gritted teeth and a look of pure concentration revealed the intentions of the world number one, but Rodriguez continued to lose time to Majka, the young Pole increasing his advantage to 41 seconds over the Spaniard and 56 seconds over the yellow jersey group.
Matteo Montagutti (Ag2r-La Mondiale) continued to set tempo for his team leader, but his efforts were laboured and the sense that Bardet’s plan might not come to fruition continued to grow. While he had Rodriguez and De Marchi almost in sight as the pair rolled beneath the 5km to go kite, Majka was far up the road.
Europcar’s Pierre Rolland attacked from the front of the favourites’ group and found himself joined almost immediately by Peraud, who quickly brought the move to a halt. Majka, by contrast, continued to look strong, building an advantage that had stretched to 1.01 over Rodriguez and De Marchi and a further 10 seconds over the group of the maillot jaune.
Rolland attacked again as they passed beneath the 4km to go kite, but it was Nibali who moved effortlessly from the middle of the group and to leave Bardet and co. for dead. Seconds later, the Astana man, resplendent in the yellow tunic of race leader, passed Rodriguez as if the Spaniard was standing still. Peraud found some hidden reserve to fasten himself onto Nibali’s wheel , but the contrast in their form could not have been greater – Nibali the picture of calm, Peraud on his limit.
Van Garderen seized the opportunity to put the hurt on Bardet, but a response from Valverde killed his momentum and both were soon rejoined by the Frenchman.
Up ahead, Majka continued to drive forward, inspired by an advantage that remained at 50 seconds with just 2.5km of the stage remaining. Nibali, cognisant of the same statistics, rose from the saddle again, leaving chasing riders and spectators in his wake.
A momentary truce in the pursuing bunch was shattered by Van Garderen, who attacked for a second time, and on this occasion Rolland was the victim, shelled by the American’s injection of pace.
Nibali’s third acceleration, which came just before he passed beneath the 2km to go kite, was immense, slashing Majka’s advantage to 32 seconds, but he was still unable to free himself of Peraud. Van Garderen found an impressive rhythm behind, and this time Valverde cried enough and fell back.
With only 1.5km remaining, victory for Majka was still a topic for debate. Pinot headed a chasing trio behind Nibali and Peraud, which raced with real intent.
The Pole passed beneath the flamme rouge with a lead of 30 seconds, but rocked tellingly in his saddle. Nibali remained a picture of calm, his mouth open perhaps a trace wider than at any point earlier in the stage. His decision not to push any harder was perhaps the first sign that Majka would take the stage.
Majka rounded the final corner alone, his face a mask of pain, and the picture of a rider who would not be denied. He raised a fist briefly on his approach to the finish line, but as he crossed it could not find the energy for further celebration. Nibali made a final acceleration to seal second place and finally break free from the limpet-like Peraud.
Bardet at last launched an assault with 500m remaining, but found himself outsprinted by Pinot. His greater prize, however, was the distancing of Valverde, who wouldn’t cross the line for a further 34 seconds – some 1.24 after Majka.
Tour de France 2014: stage 14 – report
1) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 5.08.27
2) Vincenzo Nbali (ITA) – Astana +24″
3) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +26″
4) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +50″
5) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – ST
6) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +54″
7) Frank Schleck (LUX) – Trek +1.01
8) Laurens ten Dam (NED) – Belkin +1.07
9) Leopold Konig (CZE) – NetApp-Endura +1.20
10) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.24
1) Vincenzo Nbali (ITA) – Astana – 61.52.54
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