George Bennett has climbed his way into ninth place overall in the Tour de France. The Kiwi crossed the line 8th on the stage – won by Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale – as the overall lead changed hands. The bandaged Romain Bardet took the stage ahead of Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac and new race leader Fabio Aru of Astana.
Much to play for in general classification
Rain and soaking conditions got stage 12 of the Tour de France underway for the 214.5km stage from Pau to Peyragudes. The stage was a monster of a task for the riders with the climbs of the Col de Mente, the Port Balés and the Col de Peyresourde all to tackle before the final climb up to Peyragudes itself. George Bennett began the stage in tenth place overall, with the potential to climb up the standings if he could produce a strong climbing display as he’d done in stage 9.
Jakob Fuglsang began the stage in fifth position overall, but he’d sustained micro fractures to the left scaphoid and the head of the left radius at the elbow. The Dane would struggle with those injuries as the stage went onwards, but for now he was all well in the peloton.
Jack Bauer makes the break
A breakaway quickly established itself at the front of the race and it was the largest of the race so far. Interestingly both Marcel Kittel and Michael Matthews found themselves in the move, looking to capitalise on the early intermediate sprint points that came before any of the major climbs of the day. Also in the move was Kiwi Jack Bauer of Quick-Step Floors, looking after his teammate.
The official composition of the break was Cyril Gautier of AG2R La Mondiale, Koen De Kort of Trek-Segafredo, Imañol Erviti of Movistar, Stefan Küng of BMC Racing, Stephen Cummings of Dimension Data, Diego Ulissi of UAE Team Emirates, Bauer and Kittel of Quick-Step Floors, Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, Nils Politt of Katusha-Alpecin, Julien Simon of Cofidis and Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb. After gaining an initial gap of 1.30mins after 18km, Team Sky allowed the break’s lead to grow to upwards of three minutes inside the opening 40km of racing.
With 156.7km covered the break’s lead broke through the 4 minutes marker. But for Kittel and Matthews it was the intermediate sprint after 90km of racing that was of primary interest. From there the pressure would be off for the two sprinters, although it would be interesting to see if they would continue to work with the break in order to guarantee making the time cut. The break were working well together with Bauer among them, all contributing to the effort that went up over 5 minutes to the good as they approached the intermediate sprint. The rain continued to descend as Jack Bauer led out Marcel Kittel for the sprint. Michael Matthews challenged him though and only just managed to take the points ahead of the German. Jack Bauer crossed the line fourth.
Kittel drops back as Bauer holds on
Team Sky led the peloton through 5.35mins behind the break that continued to work together after the sprint. Their advantage continued to creep up over the 6 minutes barrier, but inevitably the break would eventually begin to fragment; it was just a question of when. The break went over the Col des Ares together, still with a handy lead, but the first of the big challenges awaited with the Col de Menté beginning with some 80km remaining. On the run in to the climb Kittel showed that his strength might definitely be the sprints but it was definitely not the climbs as he dropped back with 82.4km remaining. After words were exchanged between the two riders, Bauer was allowed the freedom to remain in the breakaway, which he duly did.
Once the climb of the Col de Menté began in earnest the break appeared reluctant to attack each other at this early stage of the race, and with two big climbs still to go. Thomas De Gendt looked strong on the climb as he set the pace with Michael Matthews on his wheel. Jack Bauer continued to hold a good position. It was interesting to see Matthews contesting the KOM points, working to try and limit the points gained by De Gendt, and thus support his Sunweb teammate Warren Barguil. Matthews easily won the sprint at the top of the climb, while De Gendt contented himself with second place and the rest of the break fell in behind them.
The climb of Port de Balés was next up, and by now Team Sky were steadily pegging back the break’s advantage although with no real urgency. Jack Bauer remained in the group that had 4.10mins in hand over the peloton with 50km to go. As the break hit the climb the first signs that the allegiances in the team were ending began to show. Stefan Küng was setting a strong tempo on the front of the race, while Jack Bauer moved up towards the front of the group. Gradually the breakaway group split, with Diego Ulissi not able to keep pace with the rest. Thomas De Gendt was able to though, and so too was Jack Bauer who continued to climb strongly. With 8km left to the top of the climb six riders were left at the front.
Bauer drops back as Cummings hits for home
Eventually though something had to give and De Gendt was the one to put the pain down on the rest of the break. With 37km to go the pace finally proved too much for Jack Bauer who dropped back. Stefan Küng was still there though, with Steve Cummings also bridging across with Cyril Gautier. De Gendt looked the strongest though as he attacked again dropping the rest before Cummings eventually bridged over to join him with 35km left to race; and with 2.39mins in hand over Team Sky and the gradually shrinking peloton. It was sad to note that Jakob Fuglsang was at the back of the peloton and looking very uncomfortable with his micro fractures fractures. Finally with 33.5km to go the injuries began to get the better of him as he dropped off the back of the pack. His position in the top ten was very much under threat.
Up ahead Cummings wasn’t content to stay with the Belgian, and with some 33km to go he went on the attack, as Warren Barguil attacked out of the pack just as Jack Bauer was caught by the Team Sky group. Alberto Contador also chose to go on the attack at this point, bridging across to Barguil. His deficit to yellow was enough though that Sky were happy for a little gap to go before Michal Kwiatkowski led the race over to catch the duo.
Cummings was getting nearer the top of the climb, but with 30km to go he still had a long way to race with a lot of climbing and a strong Team Sky led pack behind him. While Warren Barguil attacked again, Cummings crossed the top of the climb with 1.59mins in hand. Thomas De Gendt and Cyril Gautier were both on hand to take second and third place respectively. Warren Barguil was in hot pursuit behind them though, trying to ensure that he’d take another ten points and defend his KOM lead.
Crisis averted for Team Sky on foot of Peyresourde
On the descent it was interesting to note that Cummings’ lead over the peloton continued to drop to just over 1.30mins before the pack began to relent a little and allow his lead to grow a bit more. But with a big climb ahead it was looking unlikely that the Brit would be able to sustain a lead to the end.
Cummings hit the lower slopes of the Col de Peyresourde with a lead of just over 2 minutes. On most other stages that would be enough for the Brit to win the stage, but not today. In the chase group disaster very nearly struck right at the foot of the climb as Mikel Nieve misjudged a turn and went off the road followed by Chris Froome and Fabio Aru. Fortunately all managed to stay upright and even more fortunately for Froome and Aru was the decision by the rest to wait for them.
Once the three riders had caught back up the pace was back on, although the brief lull played into the hands of Cummings. He regained about 10 seconds of his advantage, but it still would sutely not be enough. Meanwhile Team Sky set about shedding riders in their group. Carlos Betancur was one of the early riders to go but then Nairo Quintana dropped off the pace again. Warren Barguil had held on but he too fell back, Contador though was still present; looking improved from stage 9.
Bennett strong as rivals Contador and Quintana fall back
With 9km left to race Cummings’ lead went below 1 minute. Team Sky still had three riders on the front, while Aru, Bardet, Contador, Yates, Uran, Bennett, Martin, Meintjes were all still present. George Bennett was still looking composed and in control at this stage, but the pace from Team Sky was destroying the lead of Cummings who saw his entire lead evaporate by the time the race reached 8.6km to go. Back down the road Quintana was riding solo and losing time rapidly. The Colombian had begun the stage 1.40mins ahead of the Kiwi in 8th place. Now that position was under threat.
Bennett continued climbing with a good steady tempo. His style didn’t look laboured as he held on to the wheel of Rigoberto Uran, sitting ninth wheel. On Bennett’s wheel was Daniel Martin, with Louis Meintjes and Simon Yates behind him. The group as a whole looked to be quite well settled at this stage, as if they were content to work hard together up the climb and battle for the stage on the final climb to Peyragudes. Team Sky were looking very much in control after their scare on the lower slopes, but as the group neared the top of the climb Alberto Contador finally began to suffer, even with just 300 metres to go to the top of the Peyresourde. His descending skills were vast, however, so it was perfectly possible that the Spaniard would regain contact on the descent. But the gap was opening rapidly.
The eight riders in the leading group crested the top of the climb and began the descent with Mikel Nieve leading the way. The descent of the Peyresourde was significantly less technical than that down Mont du Chat, and Team Sky felt free to let loose on the downhill as the kilometres flew away. The final climb was just 2.4km in length, but it was steep; averaging 8.4% and reaching 13% towards the finish. The stage was set for the final showdown.
Bennett attacks for stage, but Bardet wins
Bennett had moved back in the group just a bit, and interestingly Alberto Contador hadn’t managed to catch up with the group as they hit 2km to go. Nieve finally stepped aside and allowed Mikel Landa to set the pace. Landa’s pace wasn’t as severe as Nieve’s, and it raised the question as to when the attacks would finally begin. The final 500m would be the toughest and it looked like the GC contenders were content to wait for then, as the race neared 1km to go. Back down the road Nairo Quintana had been joined by Damiano Caruso of BMC Racing and Warren Barguil; but how much time would he sacrifice? With 1.2km to go it was 1.30mins.
Daniel Martin began to move up towards the 1km to go point, poised to strike under the flamme rouge. But everyone looked tired at this point. It was almost impossible to pick a winner as they neared the final 500m. Bennett was still there and finally the Kiwi hit for home with 800m left to race. He managed to get a gap as well, but not enough as Landa ppaced the group back over to him.
Bennett now slotted into fifth wheel as Aru now became the next to attack. The Italian was chased by Daniel Martin as George Bennett began to suffer. Romain Bardet was on Aru’s wheel, but Froome was beginning to finally crack. Bardet then hit for home with 100m left to race. The Frenchman buried himself for the win and finally crossed the line to take the win ahead of Rigoberto Uran and Fabio Aru. As Chris Froome struggled to keep in touch, the seconds ticked away as Mikel Landa crossed the line for fourth place and Louis Meitnjes and Daniel Martin both finished ahead of Froome; with the Brit finally stopping the clock 20 seconds behind Fabio Aru. The Tour de France had a new race leader in the Italian national champion. George Bennett took eighth place over the line 27 seconds back on Bardet, and guaranteed himself a climb up the general classification; but how far would he climb?
Now attention turned to Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana and the time gap that they were conceding. Quintana crossed the line 2.03mins back, holding on to eighth place by just 3 seconds from the New Zealander who now climbed into ninth place overall. Later, however, it was announced that George Bennett along with Rigoberto Uran and Serge Pauwels were penalised 20 seconds for accepting water bottles from spectators in the final 20km of the stage.
The general classification now took on a different shape, with Fabio Aru the new leader of the Tour de France by 6 seconds from Chris Froome, while Romain Bardet held third at 25 seconds. Rigoberto Uran and Daniel Martin took fifth and sixth, while Yates and Landa were now 6th and 7th; with Jakob Fuglsang dropping out of the top ten.