Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb has won stage 14 of the Tour de France.  Matthews took Sunweb’s second stage win in two days on the steep final climb to the line ahead of Greg van Avermaet and Edvald Boasson Hagen, while the yellow jersey went back to Chris Froome after an intense finale saw Fabio Aru lose 22 seconds to Froome

The 181.5km from Blagnac to Rodez would be tricky to predict.  The stage featured just two category 3 climbs, but the final 40km featured just two short downhill sections before a very short uphill finish.  It was a day where a breakaway was – for the first time – really expected to make it all the way to the line; so the composition of the move was set to be most interesting.

 

De Gendt and Voeckler partner in 5-man breakaway

 

There were a couple of predictable names in the breakaway, with Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal and Thomas Voeckler both making their way into the break.  Apart from them there were also Reto Hollenstein of Katusha-Alpecin, Maxime Bouet of Fortuneo-Oscaro and Tiimo Roosen of Lotto Soudal.  The quintet’s lead would be interesting to monitor, as the sprint teams were less likely to take centre stage at the head of the peloton.

At 55.5km into the stage the intermediate sprint was located and although the five riders took the first batch of points, the sprinters behind would be where the significant points would be divided up.  Marcel Kittel of Quick-Step Floors arrived at the sprint full of intent, thanks to the lead out from his teammates, including Jack Bauer.  Kittel took the points ahead of Michael Matthews.  From there Bahrain-Merida, BMC Racing and Team Sunweb remained at the front of the race, and really didn’t give the break much to work with at all.  With 109km remaining the break’s lead had gone down to below 2 minutes.

The break’s lead hovered at around that 20 minute mark for a little while, with Team Sunweb seemingly full of intent at the front of the race as they clawed the break’s lead back steadily to 1.40 minutes at the 90km to go point.  Eventually the peloton seemed to relent and allow the break to rebuild a reasonable lead of 2.35mins.  But almost as if to make clear that they were in control, the bunch just as mercilessly slashed 50 seconds straight off of their deficit to the leaders and with 64km remaining the gap now sat at 1.50mins.  BMC Racing were at the head of the peloton, with Bahrain-Merida, Sunweb, Movistar and AG2R La Mondiale all paying close attention to the goings on at the front.

Dion Smith crosses the line in stage 14 of the Tour de France, photo Sirotti
De Gendt last man standing

 

Again the break were able to maintain a lead of 2 minutes as the race reached 60km to go.  But again the peloton showed their strength and made it clear that the break were not going to be getting much in the way of a free ride to the finish, bringing the break’s lead down to 1.30mins with less than 40km to go.  It was on the second categorised climb of the day where the unity in the break finally ended.  Rather it was at this point that both Bouet and Hollenstein simply ran out of energy.

Roosen, De Gendt and Voeckler were the last men standing in the break then and they had their work cut out if they were to go all the way to the line.  Roosen too was feeling the pace set by De Gendt and he finally succumbed 1km from the summit.  De Gendt and Voeckler crested the summit with 1.42mins in hand as Sunweb led the peloton behind them with BMC right alongside them.  As the peloton passed over the summit the gap had grown to 1.49mins.

Finally, after looking the stronger on the final climb, De Gendt struck for home alone with 32km left to race.  His lead was 1.28mins with 31.5km left to race.  In the peloton the intensity was lifting though thanks to AG2R La Mondiale.  The race at the back end of the peloton was breaking up and Bardet, Froome and co perhaps sensed another opportunity to isolate Aru again.  Voeckler found himself caught with 29km left to race, while De Gendt was a kilometre up the road and with 1.27 mins still in hand with 27.5km to go.

 

Counter attack goes clear but lacks cooperation

 

BMC Racing and Sunweb regained control of the peloton and continued to work away at reducing the lead of the Belgian who passed through 25km to go with 1.08mins in hand.  De Gendt’s lead continued to drop to below 1 minute with 21km to go, but the Lotto Soudal rider was looking good as he continued on towards the finishing, getting into time trial mode as he held on to the last strands of hope that maybe he could hold on to the finish.

The peloton were steadily closing though and with 16km remaining De Gendt’s lead had been cut to 46 seconds, with Sunweb and BMC Racing still partnering together on the front of the peloton.  At the 15km banner the gap had gone down to 33 seconds as the road ramped up once again on an uncategorised climb.  The peloton were closing rapidly on him but could he hang on to the top of the rise?  The answer came swiftly and decisively as Tony Martin and Tony Gallopin led the catch.  No sooner had the catch been made though than Tony Martin made a dig off the front of the race.  Simon Geschke pursued him though and didn’t allow Martin to gain a significant gap.  It was interesting that for a large chunk of that rise Martin had a lead of some 10 metres, but eventually he was brought back just as another attack went courtesy of Maurits Lammertink of Katusha-Alpecin.

Damiano Caruso and Nikias Arndt bridged across, but Caruso was not there to support the break, instead he was there simply to monitor the move, much to Lammertink’s annoyance.  Pierre Luc Perichon of Fortuneo Oscaro had also managed to join the move, but Caruso’s lack of cooperation was really affecting the success of the break, although they were able to gain a 15 second advantage with less than 10km to go.  Team Sky had taken over the pace-setting on the front of the peloton, knowing that the finish of the stage was a 570m climb that averaged just under 10% gradient.

Fabio Aru crosses the line after losing the yellow jersey to Chris Froome, photo Sirotti
Bauer sets pace, Matthews takes victory, yellow switches hands

 

Up ahead it became clear that neither Caruso nor Arndt were prepared to work with Lammertink or Perichon, while in the peloton Trek-Segafredo came frorward to challenge Team Sky at the front of the pack.  With 8km remaining Pierre Luc Perichon made a dig for victory, which was matched by Caruso who proceeded to adopt his customary position of sitting on the break, which saw much of the impetus taken out of the break.  With Quick-Step Floors’ Jack Bauer contributing to the chase, Lammertink now took the initiative and went on the attack.  This time he gained an advantage as Bauer swept up the remnants of the break.

Crucially though, Aru was a little way back in the peloton and in danger of being caught out in the run in to the finale.  Team Sky had managed to hold their position with 4km to go, but Aru found himself several riders back as the riders sped through the very technical turns towards the finish.  Bauer was still on the front of the race, in pursuit of Lammertink.  Bauer’s speed was impressive, hitting 85kph down through 3km to go.

Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar looked poised to strike as the race passed through 2km to go.  Michael Matthews, Nacer Bouhanni, Chris Froome, Edvald Boasson Hagen, all of these and more combined to make the final climb to the finish a very interesting one to watch.  John Degenkolb was also present and ready to strike as Oliver Naesen took the lead with Philippe Gilbert on his wheel.  Van Avermaet was third wheel as Gilbert then took the lead.  He didn’t have the lead he might have needed though to seal the win as Van Avermaet and Matthews continued to tail him.  Michael Matthews then struck for home and this time made no mistake as he took the stage win in style.  Van Avermaet took second, Edvald Boasson Hagen third and Philippe Gilbert and Jay McCarthy completed the top five.

Crucially though the GC battle saw Chris Froome arrive home in seventh place and from there the clock started to Fabio Aru.  Rigoberto Uran and Daniel Martin also slotted into the top ten on the stage, but Fabio Aru, Louis Meintjes, George Bennett, all had lost a few seconds to Froome and co.  In the end Aru crossed the line 23 seconds adrift of Michael Matthews and 22 seconds behind Chris Froome.  The result meant that Chris Froome returned to the yellow jersey, with an overall lead of 19 seconds over Aru, with Bardet third at 23 seconds.

Rigoberto Uran sits in fourth place overall at 29 seconds, while Mikel Landa, Daniel Martin, Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Louis Meintjes and Alberto Contador complete the top ten.

George Bennett crossed the line 25th on the stage, losing 21 seconds to Chris Froome, Daniel Martin and Rigoberto Uran.  But he finished alongside Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador and took three seconds out of Louis Meintjes, and four out of Fabio Aru.  Bennett continues to sit in 11th place, 1.02mins away from the top ten.

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