Down to the wire: Tour de France podium battle to be decided on final mountain stage

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MEGEVE, France (CT) – Remove Chris Froome (Sky) from the equation and this year’s battle for the Tour de France general classification has been a thoroughly engaging contest.

Unexpected names like Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) have all appeared in the upper reaches of the GC, each staking their claim for a podium place in Paris. Meanwhile, more-fancied contenders like Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Fabio Aru (Astana) have perhaps underperformed when considering the pre-race expectations placed upon them.

While Froome is all but assured of Tour victory number three it’s still far from certain who’ll join him on the podium come Paris. Prior to yesterday’s stage 19, five riders had been within 45 seconds of the podium. And by the end of that chaotic day’s racing, all but one of the top 10 — Froome — had changed their GC placing.

Romain Bardet was the day’s biggest winner. With the group of GC favourites in disarray on the day’s final descent — and Froome dusting himself off after sliding out in the wet — Bardet and teammate Mickael Cherel punched off the front of what remained of the peloton. It was, according to Bardet, a spur-of-the-moment decision, and one that ultimately paid dividends.

“It’s beautiful to ride a bike instinctively. This attack was absolutely not planned,” Bardet said. “It was a flash in Mikaël Chérel’s mind. He said ‘Let’s go flat out in the downhill’.”

Bardet dropped Cherel, caught lone leader Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and then rode away to his second Tour de France stage victory in as many years. More importantly perhaps, the win saw Bardet leap from fifth to second overall, giving the Frenchman every chance of finishing on the podium.

If Bardet was the biggest winner on the day then Bauke Mollema was the biggest loser. The Dutchman, who had been sitting second overall since the stage 13 time trial, crashed on the descent before the final climb and never recovered.

“I was fast to get back on the bike but there were tricky parts with a lot of corners, crashes in front of me,” Mollema said. “At the bottom there were little groups. I started the climb with a gap, 20 seconds back and I couldn’t close it.

“The classification is gone. I’m 10th now, but that was not the goal.”

Adam Yates, too, found himself slipping off the podium on stage 19. The 23-year-old Briton was distanced on the final ascent and eventually lost 30 seconds to Nairo Quintana (Movistar) — enough to see the Colombian move back into third and Yates drop down to fourth.

Yates was typically philosophical when analysing the day’s events. He’d come into the Tour de France saying he wasn’t concerned about a good GC placing — to hold a podium place for so long was simply a bonus.

“All in all we can still be happy,” Yates said. “Yeah, we’re not on the podium any more but we’re only a couple of seconds away and I’m still 23, and it’s only my second Tour de France. So we’re not really in a bad situation are we?”

Yates would later be docked 10 seconds for taking a hand-sling from teammate Ruben Plaza and goes into today’s stage 20 some 19 seconds away from the podium.

Behind Yates, Australia’s Richie Porte (BMC) moved up from fifth to fourth on the Tour’s penultimate day in the mountains but in doing so he lost some time and, in all likelihood, his chances of finishing on the podium in Paris.

Like many of the other GC contenders, Porte crashed on the rain-affected 19th stage but managed to battle his way back to the bunch. He tried escaping from his GC rivals on the final ascent but the conditions worked against him.

“It was so slippery that you couldn’t really attack,” Porte said. “When I did try and attack my tyres were slipping. I thought [I’d] try and ride my tempo and crack a few but it didn’t quite work out.”

Porte’s two efforts on the front were quickly nullified by Nairo Quintana. And then in the final kilometres, the Tasmanian was distanced, losing nearly 30 seconds to his main rivals. He now sits 50 seconds behind a podium place with Yates 31 seconds ahead.

There’s just one stage left to decide the general classification at the 2016 Tour de France, and that stage is shaping up nicely. With three climbs over 10km long, a 9km descent to the finish line, and more bad weather on the way, just about anything could happen.

Barring a crash considerably worse than the one he endured yesterday, Chris Froome will secure his third Tour de France title by day’s end. Behind him, though, the podium and indeed the top 10 are wide open.

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