Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli may have won four fewer stages combined than Mark Cavendish this year, but their aggressive riding in the medium mountains has ensured that – unlike the yellow jersey battle – the race for the green jersey may go all the way to Paris.
With Cavendish distanced on the Col de Port, the first of four climbs on Tuesday's Stage 16, both the Australian and the Italian champion where in the thick of things behind a three-man breakaway at the intermediate sprint, where Matthews cut the gap to 59 points at the top of the points classification.
Buoyed by his second place in Tignes at the end of the first week of racing, Colbrelli then showed that he could climb in the Pyrenees just as adeptly as he could in the Alps: the Bahrain-Victorious rider was the only man in the break who could keep with David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) after the Frenchman accelerated on the Col de Portet-d’Aspet in pursuit of lone leader Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe).
'Something special' - Cavendish thankful for British support this year
- Konrad charges to Stage 16 win, Pogacar ticks off another day in yellow
- Stage 16, as it happened - Konrad the strongest from the breakaway on day of GC stalemate
Sure, his descending left a lot to be desired – and possibly cost Colbrelli the chance to compete for that elusive maiden Grand Tour stage win – but that was understandable given the history of that particularly difficult descent, where his countryman Fabio Casartelli was killed in a fall during the 1995 Tour.
When Gaudu and Colbrelli sat up for the chasers, Matthews was allowed back into the fold. And although Konrad managed to extend his lead on the run into Saint-Gaudens, both the fast finishers kept to the script and took second and third in the stage, after sweeping past Pierre-Luc Perichon of Cofidis at the crest of the ramped finale.
'The result of a lifetime!' - Konrad wins Stage 16
Matthews’ second place sees him move to within 37 points of Cavendish at the top of the green jersey standings, the Australian’s versatility proving that it’s not always the flat-track bullies who don the green jersey on the final podium in Paris. And he should know: it was his constant chipping away at Marcel Kittel’s lead in 2017 that saw Matthews win the points classification after Peter Sagan was disqualified early in the opening week.
With Wednesday’s intermediate sprint coming before the three climbs, Matthews will no doubt do his best to get in the break in Stage 17 along with Colbrelli, who himself is 84 points down on the Deceuninck-QuickStep sprinter. Realistically, they would have to repeat the same tactics on Thursday, with the sprint coming after two fourth-category climbs and ahead of the two HC summits.
It’s an alliance of sorts, but one in which they are also mindful of the threat posed by the other – for should Cavendish fail to beat the time cut on either of the remaining stages in the Pyrenees, then Matthews and Colbrelli will become direct competitors for green again, not chancers looking for an upset.
Such are the way the points are divided, though, they have to go about their business resigned to the fact that Cavendish – should he survive – is likely to pick up a maximum 100pts (or near enough) from the remaining two finishes at Libourne and the Champs-Elysées.
But the sheer fact that Matthews entered the day 72 points down and is now only 37 points adrift should keep the suspense going a little longer. And suspense is exactly what the yellow jersey battle lacks.
Since moving into race lead at Le Grand-Bornand in Stage 8, Pogacar has not really been troubled – a Ventoux attack from Jonas Vingegaard aside. Oddly enough, the Slovenian defending champion seemed to be very attentive to the early moves on the Col de Port on Tuesday – at one point seemingly riding clear of his rivals with over 110km remaining.
But it was all posturing, and once the race settled and the breakaway finally went, a day of attritional stalemate set in – much to the chagrin of Bradley Wiggins following on the back of a motorbike, the 2012 Tour winner bemoaning the lack of sparks from Pogacar’s GC rivals.
Just as those in the chase group behind Konrad seemed resigned to battling for second place, so too do the rest of the top ten in the supposed fight for yellow. Such stagnancy is no huge surprise given the five-minute gap between Pogacar and his nearest rival, with the next four riders separated by only 40 seconds and dreaming of the podium in Paris.
Which was why the acceleration from Vingegaard’s teammate Wout van Aert, on the short final climb inside the final 5km, seemed so strange.
It was, we were told later, a response to the news that Richard Carapaz – the Ineos rider currently in fourth place just one seconds behind Jumbo-Visma’s Danish tyro – was badly positioned and vulnerable. But even after the Ecuadorian easily glided into the yellow jersey group and avoided being caught in the split, Van Aert continued pulling in the run into Saint-Gaudens.
In fact, the entire top 10 were in the move, so it seemed strange to see the Belgian champion keep up his fast tempo on the eve of two key summit finishes. After all, the final ramp to the line was never going to create any significant splits – and so it proved, with Carapaz leading Pogacar and Vingegaard et al over the line after an unexpected 11th hour tussle ahead of the real business.
But judging by the way this otherwise excellent Tour is going, Stage 17 to Saint Lary, could well feature more fireworks in the polka dot and even green jersey battles than it does in Pogacar’s procession to Paris in yellow.
- - -
You can watch the Tour de France live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk. Download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now. You can also watch the most comprehensive live & ad-free racing on GCN+. Go deeper and get interactive with live polls & quizzes, plus rider profiles, race updates, results & more – plus stream exclusive cycling documentaries.
Road World Championships: Full schedule and top riders
Lefevere: Cav thinks it's time to cash in, but Jakobsen will ride the Tour