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Sunday, 26 July 2015

TOUR DE FRANCE 2015 - WEEK 3

 Stage 17 
The Alps. The last hope for some, the last struggle for others.
The rest day, as per script, became a stress day, with doping allegations, data crunching, numerology and mythology having their 15 minutes of fame.
Then, like at the opera after the instruments are tuned up with a well rehearsed cacophony, all was ready and quiet. Well, if 50km/h and a few mountain passes can be considered quiet!
A few riders tried to ride through illness and fatigue, some of those eventually had to give up. Notably, Kwiatkowski, who coincidentally has been told his contract won't be renewed by Etixx-QuickStep. But the biggest surprise was the retirement of BMC leader Tejay van Garderen, leaving the race in 3rd place. The American struggled from the start and was repeatedly dropped until he eventually threw in the towel, unable to keep up with the pace. That opened up the race for the podium.

The winner of the day came from the breakaway win a strong attack by Simon Geschke, grabbing his first Grand Tour stage win. At one point Pinot seemed to ride away for a solo victory but on a technical descent he hit the tarmac and lost nerve and position. The GC contenders couldn't open gaps between them, apart from Nibali who upped the pace to claim back a handful of seconds. Contador crashed as well and Sagan, who had done his job collecting more points from the intermediate sprint, was happy to lend him his bike. The Spaniard finished two minutes behind Froome, all hopes for a miraculous final week all but over.

Stage 18 
With body fat down to single figures, pro riders are prone to illness, and it was only a matter of time that another important piece of this puzzle that is the Tour was going to be lost to illness. In this case it was Renshaw, Cavendish's leadout man. From full-fat squad to semi-skinned lineout, Etixx's final week was the exact opposite of the successful 1st week and plans for the sprint in Paris had to be redrawn.
This climbing stage left nothing to the imagination. The Glandon from the south side is a 47 km monster, which came after a few lumps of great magnitude. This time the breakaway was kept within striking distance, but at the back two riders were struggling, Gallopin and Sagan, the latter having performed at the highest level in almost every stage so far. The day went to Bardet who launched the final attack on the slopes of the Glandon and kept his advantage through the fascinating Lacets de Mantvernier, a climb that resembles a skiing slalom. Nothing happened in GC apart from separate but futile attemps by Nibali and Contador. Nobody bothered to chase the Spaniard, an awkward first for him.
On the slopes of the Glandon, when Hesjedal veered to the right to join a group ahead, a motorbike just behind that group accelerated away to the left, nearly taking out the Canadian rider. A feat accomplished about 50 metres up the road when Fuglsang pulled away to give Bardet a turn at the front and the motorbike passed him at speed to his right hitting his handlebars and crashing the Danish rider. Predictably, said motorbike driver was thrown out of the Tour.

Stage 19 
The final attacks, the last chances to turn the classification around.
With a category 1 climb from the off, most riders were on the rollers for a thorough warm up.
Also the first stage where Geraint Thomas showed weakness and dropped down to 15th place overall. The toxic atmosphere generated by suspicions of doping towards Team Sky took a turn for the worst with spittings and insults directed at Froome on the slopes of La Toussuire. Another controversy materialised when Froome had to briefly stop to dislodge a stone from his bike and at the same time Nibali attacked after seemingly turning around in the direction of the yellow jersey. That in itself was not the problem as the Italian by then was pretty much out of contention and he went on to win the stage with a solo ride, but it did prompt the front group to up the tempo. Quintana finally showed his climbing prowess and started to chase Nibali with Froome on tow. No difference between the two at the finish line but it assured fireworks for the next day.

Stage 20 
Last day in the Alps. Unofficially the last day of the Tour as Sunday would be a sprinters party.
Geniez, from FDJ, pretty much set off from the neutral zone in a solo quest for glory. It didn't happen in the end but it helped paving the way for his teammate Pinot, who managed to keep Hesjedal's attacks at bay, then Quintana's threatening surge in the final kilometres.
All eyes were on the diminutive Colombian. He did try a couple of attacks on the slopes of the Col de la Croix de Fer, but they were more tasters for what was to come later.
Alpe d'Huez, the monster of the Tour, dotted with fanatic fans from all over the world. It's a legendary climb with 21 hairpins, which carry plaques with imprinted the names of every winner.
It was not a matter of if but when Quintana would attack. And he did. He tried a couple of times but both times he was caught by a very strong Poels, while Porte paced a struggling Froome up the climb. Then the attack stuck. The gap finally increased and the Colombian was able to put in a stoical performance, almost succeeding in winning the stage as well. But in the end the deficit in GC went down from 2'38" to 1'12", impressive but too little, too late. A slightly under-the-weather Froome managed to limit the damage and to prepare for a well earned ride into Paris following the yellow brick road.

Stage 21 
All classifications settled, Yellow and Polka dot to Froome, Green to Sagan, White to Quintana. Combativity Award to Bardet and Best Team to Movistar, the attention moved to the last sprint. Cavendish would normally be a favourite, but a reduced team meant he would have to freelance his way to the line. Kristoff and Degenkolb had not reaped any rewards from this Tour. Sagan had not won any stages (not for lack of trying). Greipel was simply the fastest and ready for the task. An earlier race, the women's La Course (won in incredible fashion by Rabo Liv rider Anna van der Breggen with a solo attack a la Tony Martin), was marred by high speed crashes as the cobbled surface on the Champs Elysees was made wet and slippery by heavy rain. The Race Director therefore decided that timings for GC would stop when the peloton entered Paris. The reduced sprinters' teams still had the task to deliver their men safely and in as good a position as possible for the final and blistering leap to the line. After the usual jostling for positions, it was Kristoff who in the last few hundred metres launched a blistering attack. Perhaps too soon and Greipel followed and passed him, dragging a spirited Coquard over the line in second place. The German sprinter sealed his other 3 wins with the biggest of them all, while a spent and rather lost Cavendish closed a lacklustre Tour with an underwhelming sixth place.
Froome was crowned winner for the second time. The top five riders had all won at least once a Grand Tour, a result never achieved in the whole history of the Tour de France.

Conclusions 
It was meant to be the Tour of the "Fab 4", it became "Fab 5" with Van Garderen, then 4 again when the American left, then 2 when Nibali and Contador showed a lack of preparation/fitness. Quintana showed his potential once again but he was possibly let down by team tactics of the wrong sort.
Another major factor that played a big part in riders' performances was the weather. Extreme temperatures, especially in stage 1 and stages 12 to 19 where they never went below the 30 degrees mark, proved crucial in hampering the fitness levels and increasing fatigue in a peloton under stress.
This Tour will unfortunately be remembered for the rise in abuse by fans, both on the road and on social media. And for having two yellow jerseys abandoning for injuries in the first week.
But it was also the Tour that launched an African team to stardom: MTN Qhubeka was central in most breakaways, had their first win and held the mountain jersey... all from a wild card invitation.
The French teams had their glory moments, especially FDJ and AG2R, but also had the least impressive team of the race, Cofidis.
Team Sky were prepared and worked well as a team, managing to grab the yellow jersey early and defending it for almost 3 weeks.
Etixx-QuickStep had a fantastic 1st week, weakened later by various retirements and a hilly terrain in which Uran faded straight away.
Lotto Soudal had a ball. Lots of wins with Greipel, they were active all the way, and their Australian veteran Hansen finished his record breaking 12th consecutive Grand Tour.

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