The penultimate stage of the 2016 Tour de France finished with a precarious descent of the Col de la Joux Plane Saturday in pouring rain, and at the bottom, Ion Izagirre (Movistar) demonstrated world-class descending skills to take the first victory for Spain at this year’s Tour.
Izagirre gapped off Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Jarlinson Pantano (IAM) to take the Stage 20 victory in Morzine.
Race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) sealed the Tour de France title for the third time, as most of the general classification contenders finished together in what appeared to be a bit of a stalemate. Froome’s maillot jaune shown brightly in the rain and a smile crossed the Briton’s face as he crossed the finish, a shake of his head reflected his disbelief that he had won the Tour again.
Pantano and Julien Alaphilippe (Ettix-QuickStep) began the final climb of the 2016 Tour at the head of the race, but the two young riders were caught, first by Nibali, and then Izagirre. Alaphilippe was unable to hold the pace, while Pantano was able to cross the summit alongside Izagirre and Nibali.
Nibali, an exceptional descender, struggled in the wet conditions, while Izagirre was fearless. He captured the first stage victory for Movistar at this year’s Tour; the team will also take home third and sixth overall, with Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, as well as the team classification.
“There were many quality riders in our breakaway group, so we’re very happy to finish ahead of them and win the stage,” Izagirre said. “Beating Nibali in a downhill is something that counts in a career, but Pantano also descends very well. I’m super happy. We came here with the Sueño Amarillo (yellow dream), but Froome was the strongest. At the end of the day, we’re happy with a spot on the podium [Quintana’s third], a stage win and the team classification victory.”
Froome will ride into Paris on Sunday with a 4:05 advantage over Roman Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) with Quintana in third, 4:21 behind.
“I’m pretty sore, all my knee and my back, but my legs were better today than yesterday after the crash,” Froome said. “I had that four minutes gap to play with. It gave me a breathing space. I just had to stay in front. It’s a huge relief to cross that finish line. The last 24 hours have been pretty chaotic but my teammates helped me so much to keep the yellow jersey on my shoulders. It’s an amazing feeling [to win the Tour]. It could be like the first one again.”
Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) will take home the white jersey of the winner of the Best Young Rider classification, as he sits fourth overall, 4:42 behind Froome.
“I was never meant to be focused over three weeks of racing,” Yates said. “Yesterday I had my only real bad day and I saved myself pretty well. I maintained the white jersey and I’m super happy with that. The podium would have been nice, but this is the Tour de France. It’s only my second attempt. I’m happy with my performance and the team is, too.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
On Saturday, the riders traversed the final mountains of the 2016 Tour, from Megève to Morzine-Avoriaz. The 146.5km (91mi) stage 20 tackled the hors categorie Col du Joux Plane before a fast descent to the finish.
Attacks flew left and right from the beginning of the stage. The penultimate day of the race represented the last true opportunity for riders to have a try in the breakaway and a chance at a stage win, as the final day on the Champs-Elysees typically ends in a field sprint.
Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) was on the attack again. A group of around 30 riders began to form at the front, but the rolling terrain continued to reshuffle the peloton with riders being dropped from the lead and bridging to the leaders.
Notable riders to make the lead group were Sergio Henao (Sky), Ion Izagirre (Movistar), Nibali, Peter Sagan and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale), Wilco Kelderman (Lotto-Jumbo), Frank Schleck (Trek-Segafredo), Jarlinson Pantano (IAM), Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), and Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange).
The breakaway split to pieces over the Col de la Colombiere, as the leaders had built an advantage of over five minutes on the Team Sky led peloton. Kreuziger had started the day sitting 12th overall, over nine minutes behind, and had virtually moved into second overall. However, at the top of the Colombiere nearly 100 kilometres remained in the stage, including the climb and descent of the Col de Joux Plane.
The green jersey of Sagan guided Kreuziger down the descent of the Colombiere and the Slovak’s advanced descending skills further split the lead group.
On the penultimate climb, the Category 1 Col de la Ramaz (13.9km at 7.1%), the breakaway had been whittled down to a select group of Izagirre, Nibali, Sagan and Kreuziger, Costa, Pantano, Alaphilippe, and Gougeard. Sagan was taking strong pulls on the front in hopes of helping Krueziger finish the day with a substantial gap over the general classification contenders, thus moving him into the top 10, or even the top five.
Nibali put in a half-hearted attack out of the lead group while his team was driving the pace on the front of the peloton. Bauke Mollema (Trek-SEgafredo), who tumbled down the general classification Friday after crashing on the run-in to the finishing climb, apepared to be feeling the effects of his crash and was dropped from the peloton. The Dutchman would manage to rejoin the peloton on the descent.
A chase group managed to join the leaders near the top of the climb, and not soon after he joined the leaders, De Gendt put in an attack. The Belgian crested the summit alone, with Rolland and Costa in second and third position. The riders faced horrible conditions of the descent with a heavy rain pelting down. Astana still drove the pace at the front of the peloton with help from Ag2r-La Mondiale. The peloton crested the summit still around five minutes behind.
The slick descent created a reshuffling among the leaders and in the valley, which was dry, Alaphilippe and Pantano led the race.
Alaphilippe and Pantano began the final climb with nearly two minutes over a chase group containing Kreuziger, De Gendt, Nibali, Costa, Henao, Kelderman, Izagirre, Rolland, and Zakarin. The hors categorie Col de la Joux Plane (11.6km at 8.5%), represented the final categorized climb of the 2016 Tour and the leaders held nearly a seven-minute lead over the peloton. Kreuziger began the final climb sitting virtually second overall with less than 24 kilometres remaining in the stage.
Orica-BikeExchange and Ag2r-La Mondiale led the peloton onto the final climb, trying to close the gap to Kreuziger and protect the position of their respective team leaders in the general classification.
Daryl Impey (Orica-BikeExchange) was setting a fierce tempo on the front of the peloton on the lower slopes on the climb, putting Aru into trouble; the Italian rider was seen going out the back as the riders became shrouded in the mist covering the Joux Plane.
Mollema, who appeared to be having an off day after being dropped on the penultimate climb, was the first to attack on the Joux Plane. Meanwhile, Nibali attacked out of the chase group in pursuit of the two leaders.
With less than six kilometres left in the climb, Alaphilippe attacked Pantano, but the Colombian wouldn’t be dropped easily and he managed to claw his way back up to the Frenchman. Nibali was closing fast on the leading duo, just 35 seconds behind.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was the next GC rider to attack and the Andorra resident quickly bridged to and passed Mollema. Team Sky had moved to the front of the select group containing the general classification contenders. They brought back Mollema and the Trek-Segafredo rider was out the back of the group with five kilometres still to ride to the summit.
Pantano and Alaphilippe continued to take swings at each other, with one not able to get rid of the other, but their cat and mouse games saw Nibali join the leaders with 3.5km to the summit. The Sicilian immediately attacked, but the two were able to follow.
Nibali proved to be too strong and after accelerating for a third time, he dispatched Pantano and Alaphilippe. The 2014 Tour de France winner had three kilometres left to the summit, and 15 kilometres left in the stage.
Izagirre, who had been part of the chase group at the base of the climb, caught Alaphilippe and Pantano. He didn’t slow as he passed them; Pantano was able to latch onto the wheel of the Movistar rider, but Alaphilippe was unable to lift his pace.
Inside the final kilometre to the summit, Izagirre and Pantano made the junction to Nibali. The trio looked set to battle for the stage win on the long descent to the finish with the select group of GC contenders more than three minutes behind.
Pantano took the honor of cresting the climb first, and the battle for victory would come down to a wet, narrow, technical and precarious descent.
Izagirre, who grew up in the hilly and wet Basque country of Northern Spain and is a former top junior cyclocross rider, showed his descending skills and was able to gap the other two to take the stage win, 19 seconds over Panatano with Nibali in third, 42 seconds behind.
Kreuziger, who was hoping to crack the top-10 overall, finished the stage 1:44 behind in sixth place. Rodriguez managed to hold the gap he opened on the climb and finished the stage nearly 50 seconds ahead of the other GC contenders. Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) brought home the group containing the GC contenders, while Froome smiled as he crossed the line while alongside a few of his teammates.
Richie Porte (BMC Racing) finishes the race fifth overall. “Coming down off those descents before the Joux Plane, everyone was just frozen solid,” he said. “The Joux Plane is not an easy climb and at the pace they set it was quite hard to do anything from it. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) set a place that was basically impossible to attack off. It is just a nice day to get done. Every descent we did today was just dangerous and slippery so I don’t think anyone wanted to risk anything, and I think Team Sky had it under control anyhow.”
The bottom half of the top 10 on the general classification saw a bit of a shake up. Kreuziger will ride into Paris in 10th position. Mollema and Aru cracked on the Joux Plane and both fell out of the top-10 overall. Aru began the stage sitting sixth, but lost over 17 minutes on the stage and will ride into Paris in 13th overall. Mollema lost over nine minutes on the stage and should finish the race in his current position of 11th.
For the third time in three Tour attempts, Quintana finished on the podium, though on the third step for the first time, this time behind Froome and Bardet.
“I finish very happy,” Quintana said. “Three Tours, three podiums, it’s a lot of joy. We finished this Tour on a stage win, but also with the team [classification] victory. We did the best we could. We were rewarded and very happy with Ion’s stage victory. We came with a more ambitious objective, we tried but this is the greatest race in the world. I must be happy with this third place.”
Bardet could only smile over his best-ever Tour result. “It’s a lot of emotion,” he said. “I’m going to repeat myself, but last night we took a lot of time to enjoy it and we were able to go back into it today to retain this second place. We managed the day well. It’s an exceptional performance and we can be proud to have succeeded in these conditions. I wanted to finish at the highest position I could in line with my abilities. I really enjoyed myself, I felt comfortable with the leaders, we were able to take risks and create favourable conditions. Its great to ride in this fashion. It will remain an important moment in my career.”
On Sunday the 2016 Tour de France will conclude after nearly three weeks of traveling around France. The celebratory champagne will flow as the riders leave the start in Chantilly, but the mood will turn serious when the riders enter the Champs-Élysées. They will navigate eight laps around one of the most famous boulevards in the world and look for the sprinters to have the final say.
Adam Yates is set to become the first Briton to wear the white jersey of the Tour de France and take it all the way to Paris. Not only will the 23-year-old take home the white jersey, Yates fought all the way to the line for 13th place and an incredible fourth on the general classification that will give the Australian team its best overall result at the Tour.
“Yesterday wasn’t my best day and we ended up just missing out on the podium, but of course I’m super happy,” said Yates at the stage finish. “Barring any bad luck on tomorrow's last stage to Paris then these should be the final results and I’m very satisfied with what we’ve achieved.”
“This is only my second Tour de France and I am only 23years old so I will definitely be back and I hope to challenge for the podium, if not more in the future.
“I am glad it's over, it has been a long, tiring three weeks and the team have been fantastic day in, day out.”
Christopher Froome (Team-Sky) finished in the Yates group and retains the race lead and the yellow jersey going into tomorrow’s final stage.
Sport director Matt White described how the difficult conditions contributed to the cagey racing witnessed on stage 20.
“Today was always going to be a stressful day,” said White. “There was so much at stake for most of the top ten and with so much on the line it's natural to be reluctant to take the risk, especially in those conditions.”
“When you take race leader Chris Froome out of the equation, this is probably one of the closest general classifications in modern Tour de France history and you could see from today’s finale how closely everyone marked each other with nobody wanting to lose any ground.
“It was a very tough stage and the weather made it even harder, the slippery road surface made the favourites very cautious and unfortunately that meant the opportunity to try and gain back some time never arose for us."
This article is a modified version of that originally published on cyclingtips.com
Photography by Cor Vos