A masterclass from Michael Matthews and Team Sunweb saw the Australian win his second stage win of this year’s Tour. Matthews beat Edvald Boasson Hagen and John Degenkolb in the sprint and significantly reduced the gap to the green jersey of Marcel Kittel. There was also sadness for New Zealand, with George Bennett abandoning the Tour de France.
Electric start as Sunweb show hand early
Stage 16 from Le Puy-en-Velay and Romans-sur-Isere, at 165km in length, looked pretty unthreatening, particularly the final 100km or so. But the battle for the green jersey would be hot over the first 65km if Team Sunweb could seize their opportunity to expose Marcel Kittel on the rolling and hilly trek upwards towards the first category 3 climb of the day and then on to the category 4 climb of the day after 65km. It was a day primed for action if Sunweb could take the initiative.
The day began at an electric pace as riders tried and tried to get into a breakaway. Over the course of the opening 20km up to the first KOM points, breakaways desperately tried to go up the road, but the intensity in the main field was such that only towards the latter stages of the climb did a move look like it might succeed; and then only for a little while as Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal got enough of an advantage to take the points at the top of the Côte de Boussoulet before being reeled in.
Michael Matthews quickly established his intent on the front of the race, to drive the peloton and put Quick-Step Floors under pressure if ever he could. But as the summit of the first climb drew near it began to look like Quick-Step Floors were being far too wise to the move. Eventually though a very small gap appeared at the summit of the climb between the yellow jersey group containing Michael Matthews, and a large group containing the maillot vert of Marcel Kittel.
George Bennett struggling early on
With 140km remaining, and with the break still up the road, the gap from the yellow jersey group to the green jersey group was sitting at 27 seconds; a perfect opportunity for Team Sunweb to exploit. They proceeded to do just that. The head of the race behind the break was dominated by black and white jerseys as they piled on the pressure to put distance between themselves and Marcel Kittel. Also caught out were the likes of Dion Smith of Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Nacer Bouhanni of Cofidis.
Crucially another rider to be caught out was LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett. While some in the Kittel group could attribute their lack of presence to simply being caught out, sadly for George Bennett lack of peak condition was beginning to take its toll as he found himself in the wrong side of the split and now haemorrhaging time on the general classification.
Up at the front of the race the breakaway comprised of Daryl Impey of Orica-SCOTT, Nicolas Edet of Cofidis, Sylvain Chavanel of Direct Energie, Thomas Degand of Wanty-Groupe Gobert and Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal had just 30 seconds in hand with 130km to go; and judging by the intensity shown by Sunweb the breakaway was not going to last much longer. In fact 10km later the entire breakaway had been swept up and for the first time the peloton were the front of the race with so far to race.
Bennett abandons as Sunweb consolidate advantage
With 115km to go the news began to circulate that George Bennett had lost ground on even the maillot vert group, and now found himself out the back of the race on his own; some seven minutes adrift. In fact Bennett was confirmed to be in a group of three riders alongside Laurent Pichon and Daniel McLay 3.27mins back on the yellow jersey; while at this point the Kittel group was 1.28mins behind the yellow jersey group. Later on Bennett would face the terrible decision of abandoning the Tour de France, having started the day in 12th place overall.
While Quick-Step Floors worked hard to regain contact with the peloton and reduce the deficit, they found their efforts thwarted as Team Sunweb continued to pile on the pressure and grow the gap to close to 2 minutes with 103km left to race. While Sunweb continued to grow in confidence, the chasers seemed to do exactly the opposite, with cooperation seemingly a struggle for the green jersey group.
At the summit of the second climb the gap had grown to 2 minutes and from there the gap only continued to grow. With 77km left to race the gap had grown to 3 minutes, and Sunweb were also benefitting from the support of Dimension Data and Lotto Soudal. The boys in red had cause to be particularly enthusiastic as Andre Greipel had succeeded in staying with the yellow jersey group this whole time, a brilliant outcome for the German who was virtually the only pure sprinter to make it into the fragmented peloton.
Matthews asserts threat to green jersey
Heading into the intermediate sprint there was plenty to play for then, with the battle for the green jersey now very much alive. Interestingly though, Nacer Bouhanni – one of those to have dropped back – was now making his way back to the peloton. He had time to get on board with the peloton in time for the intermediate sprint, and with 61km to go he was just 39 seconds behind the pack, while the Kittel group was 3.45mins back. With 56km to go Bouhanni made contact with the peloton after a massive chase effort.
The sprint came with 44km left to race. Team Sunweb continued to lead the way towards the intermediate sprint. With the threat of crosswinds increasing Michael Matthews took his position, with Andre Greipel perched on his wheel. Matthews hit for home and won the sprint easily ahead of Greipel and Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain-Merida; with neither of the other sprinters putting a big effort in to get around the Australian. By the time the Kittel group came through they were 5.50mins adrift.
From here questions now arose as to what would happen in the crosswinds. The stage was far from over, and even the GC riders could try something to gain an advantage over the rest. Trek-Segafredo weren’t afraid to try and put the rest under pressure, although their attack was brought back quickly. But the peloton was reshaping somewhat at the front with BMC Racing, Orica-SCOTT, Cannondale-Drapac and Team Sky now the front runners alongside Sunweb.
Bevin and Bauer show strength in lead group
With 31km to go Patrick Bevin began to fall back from the peloton, having been present until now. It was a promising sign to see Bevin in the mix up until now; with the Cannondale-Drapac rider having battled with injuries sustained in stage 1. Thankfully though Bevin was back in the bunch swiftly, having only dropped back to collect bidons for his teammates as the worst of the crosswinds awaited.
The race was set to reach crunch point at 18km to go where the crosswinds would come into effect to the max. There was no danger that Marcel Kittel would regain contact with the peloton, as the German was now 8 minutes adrift.
With 21km to go Jack Bauer of Quick-Step Floors was still on hand to support Daniel Martin in the main field. A number of teams were beginning to swarm at the front, with Cannondale-Drapac fighting for Rigoberto Uran, Quick-Step Floors fighting for Daniel Martin, Orica-SCOTT fighting for Simon Yates and Astana hitting the front for Fabio Aru. Movistar were making their way up the middle of the road, while UAE Team Emirates also got in position.
Crosswinds wreak havoc with peloton
Fabio Aru and Astana had done brilliantly to position the Italian so well, as he was not reputed to be the greatest in crosswinds. But they were right where they needed to be, firmly out of trouble as the kilometres ticked away and the 18km point struck. Michal Kwiatkowski hit the front for Team Sky as they went through the village that gave way to the crosswind and from there the race was on. Lotto Soudal, Dimension Data, BMC Racing, all were making their way forward. Michael Matthews was still there or thereabouts, but now the effort put in to get rid of Marcel Kittel looked to have taken its toll on Sunweb.
With 16km to go Team Sky began a team time trial at the front of the race. They were perfectly poised and proceeded to put everyone under pressure. The pace was electric and Fabio Aru began to look like he was struggling to hold the wheel. That trouble was short lived though as he managed to make his way to the front. But Froome now found allies as it began to become apparent that the likes of Simon Yates, Fabio Aru and more could gain advantages over some of their rivals who found themselves further back.
It looked like Louis Meintjes was one of the riders to be caught out, and it was confirmed that both the South African and Daniel Martin were caught out. Jack Bauer was on board with his teammate, trying to close the gap. Andre Greipel was also in the second group; something that would fill the likes of Michael Matthews and Edvald Boasson Hagen with confidence. With 11.4km to go Jack Bauer charged forwards, but Daniel Martin couldn’t stay with the New Zealander in the conditions. With 10km to go the Martin group had lost 24 seconds to the rest of the GC contenders. Further bolstering Michael Matthews’ stage ambitions was the fact that Alexander Kristoff was also caught out.
Bauer spends energy but Martin loses time
Dimension Data looked like they were the best placed in terms of numbers for the sprint with 8km left to race. They were all at the back of the race at this point, but it was surely just a matter of time before they hit the front to try and dictate the sprint. It looked like the sprint would be contested between Michael Matthews, John Degenkolb and Edvald Boasson Hagen at this point; although Greg van Avermaet was present in the lead group and couldn’t be discounted. The riders were now enjoying a tail wind as the gap to Daniel Martin continued to hold at around 30 seconds. Meanwhile Alberto Contador was a further 35 seconds adrift.
With 4km left to race Jack Bauer finally sat up, having expended every bit of energy. He’d done everything today, from trying to bridge the gap with Marcel Kittel on the first climb, to trying to save Daniel Martin’s GC campaign. Sadly his Quick-Step Floors team would know stage 16 as a day to forget, although for Bauer the day further strengthened his reputation as one of the strongest domestiques in cycling.
With 2km to go Daniele Bennati of Movistar launched an attack to try and spoil the party. Warren Barguil of Sunweb launched the chase, but the Italian had a gap. The sprint to the line would be uphill, but Bennati had given himself a great chance of taking the stage. The run in to the line saw Michael Matthews well positioned as the riders hit the final kilometre. Boasson Hagen and Matthews had to strike soon if they were going to take the stage, but finally with just over 500m to go the catch was made.
Matthews takes third career Tour victory
Sunweb led out the sprint with Matthews sitting second wheel ahead of Degenkolb and Boasson Hagen. But then a sudden acceleration came from Greg van Avermaet who almost succeeded in stealing a march. But having come through the final bend Michael Matthews, John Degenkolb and Edvald Boasson Hagen passed him. Matthews had the lead, although Degenkolb and Boasson Hagen were closing. In the end a photo finish confirmed that Michael Matthews had done enough to win his second stage of this year’s Tour ahead of Boasson Hagen and Degenkolb, with Van Avermaet and Christophe Laporte of Cofidis completing the top five.
Louis Meintjes led home the chase group but they’d lost a total of 50 seconds. Alberto Contador lost about 1.30mins.
Overall the result meant that the top four remained unchanged, but Daniel Martin now dropped from fourth to seventh at 2.03mins. Mikel Landa and Simon Yates gained one place each to slot into 5th and 6th, while Louis Meintjes held onto 8th but was now 6 minutes adrift and just ahead of Damiano Caruso and Nairo Quintana.