Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff crushed a breakaway’s dreams in the finale to stage 15 of the Tour de France on Sunday.
Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp) and Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) had escaped early on and stayed out front as both hares and hounds negotiated a long rainy stretch going into the final 60km of the 222km stage from Tallard to Nimes.
It was a long, flat ride, billed as one for the sprinters, heading into the Tour’s second and final rest day.
But when the rain began to fall, Bauer and Elmiger started to look like less of a doomed escape and more like a sure thing.
The rain persisted, growing heavy at times, as the gap dipped toward 90 seconds with 25km to race.
With half that remaining the gap was down to less than a minute. Lotto-Belisol and Giant-Shimano pushed the pace on the still-wet roads, laced with roundabouts, while Katusha and Belkin kept a watchful eye on affairs, but the bunch couldn’t negotiate the traffic furniture in the rain as smoothly as the break.
The wet and the roundabouts helped keep the break on life support, and in the final kilometer it seemed that Bauer and Elmiger would fight a two-up duel for the stage win.
Kristoff, who also won Thursday’s 12th stage in Saint-Etienne, said he thought the peloton had left it too late.
“I was scared of course that they would keep ahead but there were some strong pulls at the end by Giant-Shimano to pull them back,” he said.
Some 400 meters from the finish Bauer swept around Elmiger and drove for the line — only to see the sprinters swamp him with 200 meters to go. And it was the 27-year-old Kristoff who took the stage ahead of Heinrich Haussler (IAM) with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) third.
“Normally I’m not the fastest sprinter on the flat against André Greipel and Marcel Kittel but I’m lighter than them. Possibly that turned to my advantage today,” said Kristoff.
“At the end I had the best lane but I wasn’t sure I’d win until 100 meters to the finish.”
Bauer, who wound up 10th, said it was a “bitter, bitter disappointment.”
“”It’s a childhood dream to win a stage of the Tour and for a domestique, like myself, I’m normally working for others. This was my first chance to be up the road and with the chance in the wind and the weather, me and Martin realized we had a chance for the win,” he said.
“I faked to be tired but felt I had more punch left. I left it until 400 meters to go. I thought I had it but then I realized in the last 50 meters that I had nothing. A lot of people wanted a sprint finish but for us it was important. After losing (Andrew) Talansky and not really having many stages in the last week that suit, today was a day we had to gamble that a break would stay away. It was so close but so far.”
His companion for the day said the catch came “very quickly,” and added that having teammate Haussler finish second took a little of the sting out of being swept up at the line.
“After a day like that, we’re happy … but not entirely,” said Elmiger.
On the overall, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) retained the overall lead. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) remains second at 4:37, with Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) third at 4:50.
The race leader had a bit of a fright when Tejay van Garderen’s BMC squad began setting a brisk pace in an area where there was a risk of crosswinds that could break the bunch into echelons.
Realizing the danger, Nibali accelerated, easily zipping up to the front and tucking in behind the BMC train.
“There was a lot of wind coming from the side at that time and I saw BMC all massing at the front,” said Nibali. “I didn’t want to lose the right moment to get up front because when there’s wind, you have to be at the front.”