George Bennett survived a brutal stage 15 of the Tour de France on the eve of the Tour’s final rest day.  Bauke Mollema took the stage ahead of Diego Ulissi and Tony Gallopin while there was a bit of shuffling in the general classification.

The fifteenth stage of the Tour de France saw the riders tackle an unpredictable 189.5km from Laissac-Sévérac-l’Église to Le Puy-en-Velay on the day before the second and final rest day of the 2017 Tour de France.  The stage featured two category 1 climbs that almost book-ended the stage, and more than likely gave the breakaway contenders for the stage a little bit of hope that maybe they could stay clear today.

 

Best chance for breakaway so far

 

Attacking started very early on in the stage, with Warren Barguil of Team Sunweb, Serge Pauwels of Dimension Data, Tony Martin of Katusha-Alpecin and Damiano Caruso of BMC Racing among those to get into the first breakaway of the stage.  It was an uncertain start by the break, who weren’t allowed much more than 20 seconds for a good chunk of the opening 10km before the break finally was allowed a little breathing space.  On the first category 1 climb of the day Warren Barguil set a strong tempo and even fractured the group as he pursued more points in the king of the mountains classification.  Barguil dragged Serge Pauwels and Damiano Caruso along with him, as behind him the breakaway swelled significantly in size.

At the top of the climb Team Sky were leading the peloton, but with a deficit of 2.40mins to Barguil which was growing.  Tsgabu Grmay of Bahrain-Merida and Dylan van Baarle of Cannondale-Drapac were the first riders from behind to catch up with the three leaders.  The rest of the group between the leaders and the peloton were a little over a minute back on the front runners with 150km to go, a gap that grew slightly on the second climb of the day as Barguil led the field again to the top of the climb to collect a few more points and continue to consolidate his lead.  By now the lead had stretched to 4.25 mins.

From here the chase group began to close down the gap to the leaders, while Team Sky continued to content themselves with just monitoring the chase.  The catch was made between chase group and lead group with somewhere around 130km of racing remaining; resulting in a very strong leading group with many teams represented.  There was a lot of muscle in the group, with Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo, Jan Bakelants of AG2R La Mondiale, Tony Gallopin of Lotto Soudal, Lilian Calmejane of Direct Energie, Primoz Roglic of LottoNL-Jumbo, Nicolas Roche of BMC Racing, Diego Ulissi of UAE Team Emirates, Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb and teammate Simon Geschke, Alessandro De Marchi of BMC Racing and Tony Martin.  

 

Matthews takes sprint points, Martin attacks

 

 

All in all the lead group was 28 strong and with the highest placed in the group being Damiano Caruso at 11.26mins behind the lead of Chris Froome.  But importantly for LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett the Italian started the stage 4.47mins back on Bennett’s 11th place so the New Zealander would be hoping that Team Sky wouldn’t relax too much during the stage.  With 109km of racing to come the break’s lead was 5.17mins, meaning that Caruso rose to virtually sit in 11th place overall.

Simon Geschke made his way to the front of the break to lead out Michael Matthews at the intermediate sprint with 93.5km, with the Aussie taking maximum points, thus denting the points classification lead of Marcel Kittel.  With no points on offer for the bunch they were content to roll through at 6 minutes behind the break.  Onwards then, and the lead for the breakaway increased to upwards of 7 minutes with 80km of racing remaining.  With less than 70km of racing to go an attack came from the breakaway courtesy of none other than Tony Martin.

The German was very disappointed to miss out on the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France in Düsseldorf, and hadn’t yet been able to stretch his legs in a break; but his attack saw no reaction from the rest of his breakaway companions, and in no time Martin had built a lead of upwards of a minute to the break, while the bunch found themselves now 8 minutes in arrears. Martin flew down the long sweeping descent as he headed towards 50km to go.  Up ahead was the final major obstacle of the day, the second category 1 climb which began with 41km to go.  He had a pretty convincing advantage over the break, with a lead of more than 1.10mins and with 45km remaining a lead of 9.20mins over the peloton.  As the climb began it would be interesting to see if the breakaway could peg him back or not, but behind them a change in the peloton was about to put Chris Froome under pressure; as AG2R La Mondiale surged to the front of the race.

 

Froome suffers mechanical, AG2R sense opportunity

 

Very quickly the pace began to show as AG2R La Mondiale sensed an opportunity, compounded by the fact that Chris Froome suffered a mechanical issue right at the wrong time.  After getting back on board, Froome began the climb with a 50 second deficit to the Romain Bardet group.  In the group with Bardet were Louis Meintjes of UAE Team Emirates, Fabio Aru of Astana, Simon Yates of Orica-SCOTT, Daniel Martin of Quick-Step Floors, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, Alberto Contador of Trek-Segafredo and of course George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo.  The gap to Chris Froome was closing, but not quickly as they still had 47 seconds in hand on Froome.

Up ahead Martin looked to be struggling, but that was more to do with the fact that he’d hit the steepest part of the climb.  Behind him Serge Pauwels of Dimension Data launched an attack, but he was countered by Warren Barguil who went off in pursuit of Tony Martin.  But the race was on behind them as Chris Froome still worked to try and get back on board with the Bardet group.  Impressively the gap was still closing, with 33 seconds the gap as up ahead Martin closed to within 3.3km of the summit.  He was being closed down by Barguil though who was now just 18 seconds behind him.

The chase continued on for Chris Froome and Mikel Nieve, but they got a surprise as they passed Nairo Quintana who was heading backwards.  With 34.8km remaining up the road Warren Barguil and Serge Pauwels caught and passed Martin.  It looked like the two of them were the new contenders for the stage, and while Barguil had the lead, Pauwels was doing just enough to remain in contention and in sight of the polka dot jersey.

AG2R La Mondiale had an opportunity to distance Froome but they were ultimately thwarted by a great chase effort from Sky, photo Sirotti
Froome bridges gap as bennett struggles

 

Meanwhile Romain Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale group were continuing to set a furious pace on the front of the GC group, while behind him Chris Froome lost his final worker.  It was AG2R La Mondiale with their numbers vs the maillot jaune, and it looked good for Froome as he caught the vehicles just behind the GC group.  Alexis Vuillermoz was now setting the pace as Mikel Landa sacrificed his position to go back and help Froome up to the group.

Up ahead Barguil had 1.3km to go to reach the summit of the climb, but Pauwels was still there or thereabouts and staying close to the Frenchman who was looking for Team Sunweb’s third consecutive stage win.  All the while there was still the matter of the large group between the GC group and Barguil and Pauwels.  Finally with 32.5km to go for the leaders Froome caught the tail end of the GC group with the crisis for now averted.  But as Froome caught the group George Bennett was just beginning to show signs of struggle.

At the top of the climb Barguil crested the climb ahead of the rest but the break were making their way back to him, but in the yellow jersey group Romain Bardet launched a piercing attack and was chased by Rigoberto Uran.  Froome was able to keep up though, but George Bennett now found himself dropped off the pace.  He wouldn’t be breaking the top ten at this stage, with Alberto Contador still in the yellow jersey group, but he would take some time out of Nairo Quintana at this stage, it would be interesting to see how far behind the Froome group Bennett would be and whether or not he’d be able to regain contact.  If not would he be able to stay clear of Quintana?

 

Bennett rejoins yellow jersey group

 

Barguil waited for the rest of the remnants of the break to catch him, having taken maximum points on the climb, but no sooner had the rest of the break caught him than Bauke Mollema threw himself into an attack.  He built a slender lead that sat at 11 seconds with 25km to go as behind him came the chase group of Damiano Caruso, Warren Barguil, Diego Ulissi, Thibaut Phinot, Tony Gallopin, Primoz Roglic, Tiesj Benoot and Serge Pauwels.

With 21km to go Mollema had 6.32mins in hand on the Froome group, which was bolstered by the return of George Bennett.  The courageous Kiwi had been out of camera shot for the last few kilometres, but the Kiwi’s determination to dig deep and maintain his hopes of a top ten finish were paying off at least a little bit by being able to get back on board with the majority of his rivals; with Quintana still 1.3km behind them.

On the front of the Froome group Dylan van Baarle and two AG2R La Mondiale riders were doing the work on behalf of Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran.  Bennett had slotted on the back of the Froome group and all he needed to do was stay there for now, simply stay safe on the descent.

 

Mollema digs deep as chase is on

 

With 14km to go Mollema had just about 50 seconds in hand on the remnants of the break.  Behind him though Primoz Roglic launched an attack with Warren Barguil on his wheel.  The pair had a lot of work to do, but they’d managed to drop the rest of the break including Diego Ulissi and Daniel Navarro of Cofidis.  They were closing on Mollema, who crested the summit of the final climb of the day with 20 seconds in hand on the polka dot jersey and Roglic.  But while this battle was going off the front of the race, at the back Quintana was losing more time on the maillot jaune.

At 12km to go Diego Ulissi bridged the gap along with Tony Gallopin, joining Barguil and Roglic as Mollema pressed onwards with his 20 second advantage.  Back in the yellow jersey group a further twist awaited as Simon Yates went on the attack on the final category four climb.  George Bennett was still in the group, as were the rest of the contenders; excluding Quintana.  Eventually the attack was nullified as they crested the summit of the final categorised climb of the day.  Mollema, however, was proving elusive for the chasers as he continued time trial his way towards the stage win.

As the kilometres ticked away Daniel Martin seized an opportunity to attack on the descent.  The Irishman started the stage 1.26mins behind the yellow jersey and had much to gain if he could gain a time gap.  4km from the finish, the battle up ahead saw Mollema still in the lead but by just 10 seconds or so to the four chasers.  With 3km to go the gap was sitting at 13 seconds, and it began to look like the quartet were sprinting for second place on the stage, having done too little, too late.

 

Mollema wins, Bennett drops to 12th

 

Through the 1km to go banner Mollema continued to accelerate and bury himself for the stage win.  Behind him it was all about second place, but the Dutchman was able to enjoy the stage win.  After rocking and rolling his way towards the finish line Bauke Mollema finlly looked behind him and then sat up; the victory won in style.  The sprint for second place saw Tony Gallopin hit for home only for Diego Ulissi to just take second place with Roglic fourth and Barguil fifth.

Nicolas Roche sprinted away ahead of the next group of the road to take sixth while behind them the battle continued for the GC riders.  Dan Martin had succeeded in getting a gap and catching up with the group containing Thomas De Gendt, Tsgabu Grmay and Simon Geschke.  The group worked well together, but Froome and co were just a matter of seconds behind and not likely to lose significant time. Martin’s group crossed the line 14 seconds ahead of the Froome group which was enough to move up from 6th to 5th.

Meanwhile Nairo Quintana finally crossed the line over 10 minutes back on Mollema, and out of the top ten overall.  Damiano Caruso, however, had managed to gain enough time on George Bennett to deny the Kiwi a return to the top ten.  Caruso slotted into tenth overall, while Quintana actually bumped Bennett down to 12th overall.  Bennett is still in a good position though as he heads into the second rest day of the Tour.  He sits 6.39mins back on Chris Froome, with 34 seconds separating him from Damiano Caruso in 10th place, and 23 seconds separating him from Nairo Quintana in 11th.

Tour de France stage 15: RESULTS

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