In a chaotic stage through the foothills of the Pyrenees, an assured performance from Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) restored a bit of order after a brave and bold solo attack from the breakaway over 40km from the finish.
Mollema was part of a 14-man move which took an eternity to come together after a hectic opening two hours of racing saw the peloton cover a monstrous 100km in south-west France. The 34-year-old attacked on a rolling plateau ahead of the fifth of five categorised climbs that peppered the parcours, catching his fellow escapees napping en route to a second career stage win on the Tour.
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Just days after finishing in third place following the historic double ascent of Mont Ventoux, Mollema had time to savour his first Tour stage win since 2017 as he entered the town Quillan after a hard-fought 183.7km stage through the Languedoc-Roussillon region renowned for its majestic Cathar castles.
Austrian champion Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) pipped Colombia’s Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) for second place when a four-man chase group came home at 1’04”, with Italy’s Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Canada’s Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) completing the top five.
Woods – despite suffering a nasty fall on the penultimate descent – came out on top of a thrilling uphill duel with Dutchman Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) to take the polka dot jersey from Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, but the subplot of the day came from Frenchman Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) whose 11th place after starring in the break saw him rise to second place in the general classification.
Coming into Saturday’s stage in ninth place over nine minutes down on the race summit, Martin moved above Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) and knocked Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) off the virtual podium by moving to within 4’04” of the yellow jersey, Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).
An aggressive start to the stage saw numerous big-hitters try to get themselves ahead of the pack, with the likes of Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo), Simon Geschke (Cofidis) and Deceuninck-QuickStep duo, Kasper Asgreen and Julian Alaphilippe, all at the forefront of the race.
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A break of five riders formed ahead of the first climb but the quintet’s gap hovered around the 30-second mark, and they were reeled in shortly after the intermediate sprint with 105km remaining.
It was on the Col de Montsegur where Poels and Cattaneo went clear with Woods in pursuit, a strong trio which coaxed a chase group of seven out of the peloton, with Mollema, Martin, Konrad and Higuita joined by Louis Meintjes (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert), Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange) and Omar Fraile (Astana-PremierTech).
As Poels and Woods took it in turns to take maximum points over the next two summits, a French foursome of Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ), Elie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic) and B&B Hotels duo, Quentin Pacher and Pierre Rolland, managed to bridge over to the leaders ahead of the fourth climb, the Cote de Galinagues.
Then came the potential turning-point: shortly after taking the KOM points that took him above Quintana in the polka dot jersey standings, Woods hit the deck on a bend as he led the break down the narrow descent – forcing Cattaneo and Mollema into taking drastic evasive action around his sprawling limbs.
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The Canadian was quickly back on his bike but he has only just rejoined the leaders – and therefore was perhaps not in the best position to respond – when Mollema threw the dice early and kicked clear on a rolling plateau some 42km from the finish.
Mollema’s gap quickly grew to over a minute – and the flying Dutchman retained his cushion going over the final climb, the Col de Saint-Louis, as the chase group fractured behind. With the peloton going over the summit almost six minutes down, Frenchman Martin – despite missing out on the chance of a stage win – rode into Quillan in the knowledge that he would enter the high Pyrenees as the closest challenge to Pogacar’s yellow jersey.
Sunday’s Stage 15 is a 191km slog into Andorra which features four monster climbs – including the highest point of the race, the Port d’Envalira (2,408m) – ahead of a fast and technical downhill finish at Andorra-la-Vieille after the decisive twisting ascent of the Col de Beixalis.
With defending champion Pogacar over four minutes ahead of his nearest rival – but the next eight riders on GC separated by less than that – it could well be a race for the remaining podium positions that comes to the fore in the Pyrenees.
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