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by Shane Stokes
July 19, 2015
MENDE, France (CT) – Talk about good timing. On Mandela Day, the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth and a date highlighted by the South African MTN-Qhubeka team of being of particular significance to the squad, its rider Steve Cummings took victory at the Tour de France.
The success is the first-ever stage win by the team, which gained entry to the race by virtue of a wildcard extended by the organisers ASO earlier this year. Cummings’ triumph came after the Briton caught the leaders Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) on the descent off the Mende climb and then pushed forward on the flat run into the line.
Cummings reached the finish two seconds clear of the French duo, celebrating jubilantly. Apart from being the most significant win thus far for MTN Qhubeka, it is also the Briton’s biggest success.
“I just time trialled the last climb, I just did my own pace,” he said, speaking about how he tackled the ferociously steep ascent. “I didn’t think about the victory, just about getting up it as fast as I could. That pacing probably won it for me.”
He admitted that he had been slightly intimidated prior to the Tour. “You get here and you look at the riders…the level is so high and it is so hard to get in the breakaway. But the team just supported me, keeping me calm in the first week. It is great to get this win for them.”
He, Pinot and Bardet were all part of the day’s large breakaway group. Bardet pushed ahead towards the top of the climb but Pinot managed to bridge across. Both were however taken unawares by Cummings, who was not as strong on the climb but who floored it down the descent and then cornered much quicker on the twisting run to the line.
“I threw caution to wind and just went for it,” he said. “It paid off and I won the stage.”
Behind, race leader Chris Froome (Sky) came under attack from Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (both Movistar). The latter soon drifted backwards, while Froome gradually worked his way back up to Quintana and dropped challengers Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team).
Quintana jumped again towards the top and got a slight gap, but Froome inched his way back up to him and then sat on him from the summit right down to the finishing straight, where he sprinted clear for 20th place. More importantly, he opened a one second lead over Quintana, padding his lead fractionally.
Valverde jumped Contador just before the summit and sped down the descent, finishing four seconds behind Froome. Contador came in 19 seconds behind the race leader, while Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and van Garderen were 30 and 40 seconds behind.
Froome extends his lead after the stage, ending the day three minutes and ten seconds ahead of Quintana, who overtakes van Garderen for second. The latter is now three minutes 32 seconds back, while Valverde is four minutes and two seconds back in fourth.
Contador overtakes Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas to move into fifth overall but is now a distant four minutes 23 seconds back, his Giro/Tour double dreams all but over.
Froome said that he is very satisfied with how things are positioned with the Alps fast approaching.
“I have just over three minutes. It is a great gap going into the last week,” he said, clearly optimistic.
Asked about his leadership in the King of the Mountains classification, he said that it wasn’t a big target, but could be a nice bonus.
“I am here focussed on yellow. If that comes with the polka dot, that is fantastic.”
The fourteenth leg of the year’s Tour de France was another transition stage between the Pyrenees and the Alps but, unlike some other such stages in the past, it was a very difficult one.
The 178.5 kilometre race included four categorised climbs, but also plenty of undulating roads early on.
The latter plus the category four ascent of the Cote de Pont de Salars (km. 20) made it likely that a break would go clear prior to the day’s intermediate sprint at Millau (km 78.5).
The later ascents of the Cote de Sauveterre (category 2, km. 146), the Cote de Chabrits (category four, km. 169.5) and the category two Cote de la Croix Neuve in Mende (km. 177) made for a very tough finale.
This in turn guaranteed exciting racing if a break was clear, and also plenty of attacking from the group of general classification contenders.
A total of 175 riders lined out in hot conditions in Rodez. Inside the first ten kilometres a big crash took down a number of riders including GC rider Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), green jersey contender Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Steve Morabito (FDJ), who was forced to withdraw from the race with a fractured clavicle.
Early on, Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Ruben Plaza (Lampre-Merida) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) were particularly active and at kilometre 18 Sagan, Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Gianpaolo Caruso (Katusha), Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge) and Bartosz Huzarski (Bora-Argon 18) got away.
A group of 19 others bridged across to them, but despite the presence of Jarlinson Pantano his IAM Cycling team chased hard at the front of the bunch.
The move was whittled down at kilometre 45 when Andriy Grivko (Astana), Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ), Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick Step), Ruben Plaza (Lampre-Merida) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) clipped away. Those five became four when Talansky punctured out of the move, but the group swelled again when a number of others bridged across.
Sagan was one of these and he made the most of his presence in the front group to win the intermediate sprint. He took it ahead of Plaza, Grivko, Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) and others. Given that the other green jersey contenders missed out, the 20 points gained gave him a substantial boost in his campaign.
Soon afterwards 20 riders regrouped at the front. These were Sagan, Givko, Plaza, Jungels, Romain Bardet and Jan Bakelants (AG2R-La Mondiale), Ladagnous, Thibaut Pinot and Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar), Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team), Koen de Kort (Giant-Alpecin), Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge), Michal Golas and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick Step), Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Kristjian Koren (Cannondale-Garmin), Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling), Pierre-Luc Périchon (Bretagne-Séché Environnement) and Steve Cummings (MTN-Qhubeka).
They opened a lead of eight minutes and 15 seconds, but chasing by Team Sky reduced this to around seven minutes.
Golas decided to play his hand with 27 kilometres remaining, jumping clear of the breakaway group. He was chased and then caught by Koren 11 kilometres from the finish. Behind, FDJ were chasing hard for Pinot, trying to set him up for a possible stage win and thus to make up for what had been a disappointing Tour.
Their work helped to whittle down the two leaders’ advantage to just nine seconds with five kilometres to go and, with the final climb biting in, they were caught by Bardet with 3.8 kilometres left.
He then pushed on alone. Pinot bridged across two kilometres later, making it two out front just before the summit. They thought they were set to fight out the win between them but Cummings had played things perfectly, closing in on them on the descent and then shooting past to race on to victory.
Behind, Quintana got clear of the yellow jersey group and was chased by Nibali and Valverde. Froome was gapped and had Contador on his wheel.
Nibali got up to Quintana soon afterwards and then went past, driving the pace. Froome reeled in Valverde, who then latched in behind Contador. Van Garderen was being gapped on the steep slopes, but was working hard to limit his losses.
Froome was riding a measured pace and gradually reeled in Quintana, dropping Contador and Valverde. However the Colombian went again approaching the summit and got a slight gap, only for Froome to get back up to him and then sit on him.
Contador was chasing behind with Valverde on his wheel. The latter put in a big jump just before the summit, quickly opening a gap and then hurtling down the descent to almost get across to Froome and Quintana.
However the race leader saw him coming and jumped hard before the junction was made, getting a time gap on both rivals.
The Tour continues Sunday with a 183 kilometre stage from Mende to Valence. Although the final 56 kilometres are either downhill or flat, things are much lumpier early on.
The riders start climbing soon after the start and work their way up to the category three Cote de Badaroux (km. 9.5) and the uncategorised Col de la Pierre Plantee (km. 18.5).
After some up and down roads the riders will then reach the category four pairing of the Col du Bez (km. 69.5) and the Col de la Croix de Bauzon (km. 73.5).
The peloton will descend to the day’s intermediate sprint at Aubenas (km. 108) then, soon afterwards, the road pitches skywards for the toughest climb of the stage, the second category Col de l’Escrinet (km. 126.5).
Once past the summit, that brings the riders to the easier final third. However the damage may well have been done by that point, with many big sprinters likely well out the back and a break potentially clear.