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Spanish rider Ruben Plaza clocked up the best result of his career at 35 years of age, winning stage 16 of the Tour de France in Gap on Monday.
The Lampre-Merida rider attacked on the final climb, the Col de Manse, surging 15 kilometres from the finish line and riding flat out to the summit. His efforts earned him a considerable buffer over the chasing group behind, with his former breakaway companions going over the summit one minute behind.
Peter Sagan made it into the day’s break yet again and chased down various attacks on that final climb. Having kept things together uphill, he hammered it on the descent, using his well-known skill to cut the lead from one minute five seconds at the top to 30 seconds at the finish.
The result marked his fifth second place of the Tour and further reinforced his grip on the green jersey. Together with the intermediate sprint he extended his total to 405 points, dwarfing the 316 held by closest rival Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
However the day’s big winner was Plaza, who took a Vuelta a España stage back in 2005.
“There has been a long time between these two victories,” he said. “In the Vuelta a Espana I won in a time trial. Today I won in this stage and I am very, very happy about this.
“I know that Peter is very strong in the downhill, but I had a gap at the top of the climb and I was more or less relaxed. When I reached three kilomteres to the line it was okay.”
However he had a scare on one of the corners, with his bike sliding. “On the right corner my rear wheel moved very far. I couldn’t control the bike,” he said, describing the moment.
He was able to regain control, though, and continued on. He said that he couldn’t afford to be more cautious. “I had to go all the way full gas afterwards because Peter was really near.”
Sagan said that he was climbing at his own tempo on the ascent, marking his rivals. “At the top of the climb I had one minute five,” he said. “I did a full gas descent, I did some risks also but it was not enough to win the stage.
“I wanted to win today but it is very hard. Everybody was just looking at me. But maybe my time is coming.”
Behind Plaza and Sagan, IAM Cycling’s Jarlison Pantano came in 36 seconds back, having been with Sagan on the descent but being unable to stay with him through the corners. Simon Geschke (Team Giant-Alpecin), Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) and Christophe Riblon (AG2r La Mondiale) were 40 seconds back, with Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) a further 13 seconds adrift in eighth.
The first of the general classification contenders came in 24th, with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) getting a gap on the final climb and then building his advantage on the snaking, slippery descent. He came in 17 minutes 44 seconds behind Plaza, with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) leading in most of the other riders from the top ten 28 seconds later.
The riders who had started the day sixth and ninth overall were however missing from this group. Geraint Thomas crashed on the descent when Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) lost control and got his line wrong, the Frenchman inadvertently shouldering the Briton and causing him to also run wide, hit a pole and go over a fence.
Thomas was fortunately unharmed and was able to get back riding, but he lost 38 seconds to that group.
Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) was even more delayed, with the French rider cracking badly and finishing 55th, 21 minutes 51 seconds behind Plaza and three minutes 39 seconds behind the Contador/Chris Froome group.
Froome maintains his three minute 10 second lead over closest rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and is a further 22 seconds up on van Garderen. Thomas remains sixth despite his time loss, but Gallopin slips two places to eleventh. Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) is now up to ninth and Barguil moves to tenth.
How it played out:
A total of 169 riders took the start for the 16th stage of the Tour de France, a 201 kilometre race form Bourg de Peage to Gap. Missing was the Belgian rider Greg van Avermaet, the winner on stage 13, who left the race as his wife was having a baby.
Right away after the start a sizeable chunk of riders broke clear, with green jersey wearer Sagan and Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) present for the third day in a row. This group split into two after 15 kilometres; the first half included those two riders, as well as Andriy Grivko (Astana), Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Simon Geschke (Giant-Alpecin), Marco Haller (Katusha), Nelson Oliveira, Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre-Merida), Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), Pierrick Fedrigo (Bretagne Séché), and Serge Pauwels (MTN-Qhubeka).
The second group featured Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), Michal Golas (Etixx – Quick-Step), Matteo Trentin (Etixx – Quick-Step), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Laurent Didier (Trek Factory Racing), Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing), Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Jarlison Pantano (IAM), Pierre-Luc Perichon (Bretagne Séché), Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka).
These covered a staggering 53.6 kilometres in the first hour, helping it build a strong lead.
The intermediate sprint occurred in the town of Die, 86.5 kilometres after the start. There Sagan took the uncontested gallop, boosting his haul by 20 points.
Didier was dropped from the second group soon afterwards, but the remaining 11 in that group rejoined the dozen out front at kilometre 105.
This 23 man group extended its lead to 13 minutes by the top of the category two Col de Cabre (Km 130), which was taken by Pauwels.
Sagan was keen to push on and try to get a stage win. He hammered down the descent but the others in the break were not impressed. They began attacking inside the final 50 kilometres, damaging the cooperation in the group.
Hansen was feeling better after his injuries earlier in the race and jumped away with 40 kilometres left. Haller chased and bridged across, but the duo were caught on the day’s second climb, the Col de Manse.
Stage win battle unfolds
After a flurry of attacks Plaza made his move three kilometres from the summit. With 13 kilometres left he was 55 seconds clear of the nearest chasers.
He was visibly suffering but working hard as he neared the top of the final climb, knowing that once he got over the summit he had a very strong chance of success.
Behind, Sagan was covering everything and also riding, trying to set a high enough pace to both deter attacks and also to eat into Plaza’s lead.
Further back, Sky led the peloton onto the Col du Manse, 19 minutes and 42 seconds back.
With one kilometre to go to the top of the climb Geschke attacked but was chased down by Sagan, who dragged the others back up to him.
Plaza went over the top of the climb and began his descent. Sagan led the others over the top, continuing to close down every jump but bizarrely not trying to get clear himself.
Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff Saxo team hit the front of the bunch and started to ramp up the pace. Roman Kreuziger pushed hard to set Contador up for a possible move; Geraint Thomas and race leader Chris Froome sat on the latter’s wheel, ready to react.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) were dropped.
Gripping downhill chase showcases Sagan’s skill
Plaza was dropping down the descent and almost lost it coming into a right hand bend, with his wheel sliding on the melting roads. He managed to keep things upright, though, and continued to lead into the final seven kilometres.
Sagan was fully focussed on trying to get back up for a stage win and thundered down a descent. He ran slightly wide on a corner but stayed upright and continued to speed through the bends.
Kreuziger sat up after doing his work for Contador. The Astana team took over to try to set up Vincenzo Nibali, but Contador continued to remain close to the front.
Sagan came off the descent 30 seconds behind Plaza, having halved the latter’s advantage on the descent, but Plaza had only two and a half kilometres to go and was able to race home 30 seconds clear.
The stage win was decided but those behind had plenty to race for. Bardet attacked on the climb and stretched out the yellow jersey group. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) closed him down and, after a stall, Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) had a go.
Contador then jumped hard and stretched things out, getting up to Barguil before the two were caught. Nibali then tried a gap. Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) jumped but the others covered him, leaving Nibali out front alone.
The Astana rider is known as a strong descender and knew he could take time back on the downhill, but wanted to maximise his gains by riding hard beforehand. He had started the day eighth overall, eight minutes 17 seconds back, and was aiming to move up.
Froome’s team-mates chased behind, but Nibali went over the summit more than ten seconds clear.
Valverde attacked on the false flat after the top but was quickly closed down. Nibali went under the ten kilometre to go banner and began the real descent, hammering down with a 13 seconds lead over his chasers.
Berguil got a corner very wrong and collided with Thomas. The Frenchman stayed upright but the Welsh rider was knocked sideways and went off the road, hitting his head on a post. He got going again but was delayed.
Nibali continued to push under the three kilometre to go banner. Valverde and Gesink led the chase, with Froome sitting behind. Gallopin, meanwhile, looked shattered and was losing time.
Gesink had started the day sixth, one place ahead of Nibali, and continued to ride behind. However the Italian would not be caught and crossed the line 28 seconds ahead of the chasers.
Contador sprinted in, causing the group to speed up slightly and increasing the time gained over Geraint Thomas. The latter had started the day 31 seconds behind the Spaniard but conceded a further 38 seconds.
The riders now have the second rest day of the race but what has been a very tough and aggressive Tour will continue Wednesday with a 161 kilometre race from Digne Les Bains to Pra Loup.
Tour de France (2.UWT) Bourg-de-Péage → Gap