On a day marked by heavy crosswinds, Australian Michael Matthews (Sunweb) won his second stage of the 2017 Tour de France, winning Stage 15 into Romans-sur-Isère Tuesday. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) finished second in a photo finish, with John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) in third.
The stage win was contested out of a 32-man group of contenders, having distanced themselves with 13 kilometers to go in the crosswinds. Missing was German Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), who was dropped early on the stage was also absent from the day’s intermediate sprint, which Matthews won. In all, Matthews took 50 points on Kittel, narrowing the gap in the green-jersey competition to just 29 points with only four road stages remaining.
“I was trying to get in the breakaway early, but Quick-Step was following, they didn’t want me in the breakaway,” Matthews said. “When I heard Kittel was getting dropped, we started to put the pressure on. When we heard it was one minute, we started to pull fully. I also took the intermediate sprint, and with the final, we got 50 points today.
“To get another stage win in the same Tour de France… normally I can only win one stage in a Tour, to get my second win in three days, I don’t really know what to say... I think it won’t sink in until tomorrow morning.”
Riders hoping for a casual post-rest day Stage 15 of the Tour weren’t granted the privilege. The stage, afflicted with difficult wind conditions, proved to be significant in the GC battle.
The peloton shattered into fragments with 13 kilometers remaining as Team Sky drove the pace into a critical corner, the wind switching from tail to cross. Riders complacent with their positioning were quickly caught out in the gusts over 50 kph and consistent wind around 40 kph. The general classification teams and sprinter’s teams were perpetually diligent, attempting to keep their men at the front of the field and out of trouble.
The day’s biggest GC loser was Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), who lost 51 seconds and dropped out of the top five. Though Martin had Jack Bauer and Gianluca Brambilla to help him in the final, the rest of the team was with Kittel — other than Philippe Gilbert, who abandoned the race due to viral gastroenteritis.
“It was a really tough stage and we suffered out there,” Martin said. “It was difficult without Matteo and Philippe, who were forced to say goodbye to the race earlier. Their presence would have probably made the difference today. Can’t say it’s the best situation for us, but the team is upbeat and optimistic about our chances now that the race is heading into the Alps for two days.”
A SUNWEB MASTERPIECE
Sunweb was in control of Stage 16 nearly all day.
Team Sunweb, capitalizing on the difficult course, was instrumental in distancing green jersey Marcel Kittel on the first categorized climb of the day, the Côte de Boussoulet. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) was also left behind but impressively bridged the gap back to the main field with the help of teammates Nicolas Edet and Cyril Lemoine.
Sunweb led Matthews into the intermediate sprint at kilometer 121. He took 20 points without contest, followed by Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida). Kittel crossed the intermediate line over five minutes behind the Matthews group.
With 13km remaining, Team Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski led the peloton through a critical corner as the wind switched from tail to cross. The accelerated pace, along with the difficult wind conditions, forced riders into the gutter with gaps beginning to appear in the field.
Fabio Aru (Astana) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) at the front of the final selection.
A main group of 32 contenders was able to distance itself from the rest of the field. GC contenders that made the front group included Froome, Fabio Aru (Astana) Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac), as well as contenders for the stage win like Matthews, Boasson Hagen, Degenkolb, and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).
Thirty seconds behind, Martin frantically chased in the second group on the road. Teammate Jack Bauer was with him, but their efforts would be in vain. White jersey contender Louis Meintjes (UAE Emirates) was also in the Martin group along with sprinter Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), who would end up missing out on the bunch gallop.
Martin and Meintjes would cross the line 51 seconds back from the Froome group, with Martin drifting from fifth to seventh on the general classification, while Meintjes stayed in eighth overall.
Daniele Bennati (Movistar) made a bold solo attempt two kilometers out from the line, but would be swept up within the final kilometer as the sprint heated up. Matthews had two Sunweb teammates with him in the front group, Nikias Arndt and mountains classification leader Warren Barguil.
Arndt was instrumental in Matthews’ leadout, bringing him into the final corner perfectly positioned for the win. Van Avermaet, not satisfied with his chances in the pure-speed final kick, made an early jump into the final chicane. Arndt pulled off the front as Matthews immediately attached himself to Van Avermaet’s wheel out of the final corner.
“It was a really hard stage all day long,” Van Avermaet said. “I’m happy with how we rode. I think everyone was always in the front and we were never surprised which is how you have to be in these kinds of races. So I’m really proud of the team. Ok, we didn’t win but I think the most important thing is that you do everything right and then the result will also be pretty nice. I think it was a pretty hectic final. I didn’t know the corners very well. You can look in the book but I was a bit surprised that it was such a hard corner and I had to brake a little bit harder than expected. I think with the head wind it was really hard but I tried.”
Matthews jumped with 200 meters remaining as Degenkolb accelerated around Matthews’ right side. Boasson Hagen had to start his sprint from multiple wheels back but used Marcel Kittel’s tactic of surfing from behind up through the draft, nearly overcoming the Australian puncheur at the line.
“This was a really hard stage,” Boasson Hagen said. “The team did very well to keep me at the front all day. Everybody did such a great job. Unfortunately, in the last corner, I was a bit too far down. I knew I had to be at the front at that point but sometimes these things happen. I was probably the fastest rider on the last stretch and I almost made it. It’s a shame. This was a good chance for me.”
Boasson Hagen’s frustration was Matthews’ jubilation, however. “Today our plan was open and we were prepared for different scenarios, as it was difficult to predict how the stage would unfold,” Matthews said. “Once we heard that there were splits in the peloton we were all really motivated to push on and extend the gap. From then on it was an eight-man team time trial to the finish and I was able to finish off the job in the last 500 metres. I’m so grateful for these opportunities and to take the win after the guys worked incredibly hard today is really special.”
Degenkolb was angry with Matthews, however; though his Trek-Segafredo team did not lodge a protest, the German said Matthews pinned him against the barriers, costing him the win.
“Matthews did not hold his line in the sprint, and that cost me the chance for victory today,” Degenkolb said. “I was on his wheel, in the perfect position to launch the sprint at 200 meters, and I started the sprint. I clearly came with more speed from his wheel, and he saw me on the right side and closed the gap on the right side. It made me stop the sprint – stop sprinting for the victory.
“I felt like I had the legs to win today. It was very clear he went off his line into my line. In the heat of the situation, you are immediately angry if the chance for a win has been taken away when you know you have the legs to overtake him. It’s very disappointing.”
Froome’s diligent Sky teammates assured his presence in the crosswind-plagued final selection. He retains yellow going into Wednesday’s significant mountain stage.
“It was a tough stage, everyone knew it was going to split at some point,” Froome said. “I was happy my teammates were on the right side of that. At 20km to go it seemed like the right moment, it was a wide open road and the crosswind was coming from the right. The guys went for it at the right moment, and everything split and opened up. My teammates did a great job, keeping myself and Mikel Landa in the right position for that split.”
Kittel’s podium appearance, as the green jersey wearer, was far less exuberant.
“I can’t say I’m happy losing all those points but there was nothing more we could do today,” he said. “Since the beginning, I tried to come across. It is what it is. We’ll continue to fight for the green jersey. The chance for me to win it in Paris is still there.”
This article was originally published on cyclingtips.com
Photography by Cor Vos