Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) won stage 14 of the Tour de France on Saturday, riding away from a crumbling break on the ascent to Risoul, as race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) padded his advantage with a second-place finish.
After finishing second to Nibali the day before, Majka gave it his all in the final ascent, finishing 24 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey, who fought a brief duel with Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) to take second on the day.
The 24-year-old Pole, who was brought to the Tour to help Alberto Contador in the mountains, said he discussed the stage with team manager Bjarne Riis and it was agreed that if he made the break, “it was possible to win.”
“In the final ascent I attacked in the first kilometers,” Majka said. “I found myself in front, and I tried to keep my advantage.”
Nibali, for his part, was not intent on overhauling Majka for another stage win. He had bigger fish to fry.
“From the team car, I was told: ‘If you still have something in the tank, go for it,'” Nibali said. “I was looking at gaining some time over Alejandro Valverde. I heard that he cracked after I left him. Péraud stayed on my wheel and then sprinted! That’s cycling, I suppose. …”
Nibali’s bid was successful. Not only did he deny Péraud a runner-up finish, he put more time on Valverde. The Movistar captain, who sat second overall as the stage began, was distanced on the grind to Risoul and finished 10th, 1:24 behind Majka. He retains second overall, but lost nearly a minute to the race leader.
The break du jour
A big break formed up for the mountainous 177km race from Grenoble to Risoul, with two category-1 ascents and the beyond-category Col d’Izoard.
Sky’s Geraint Thomas was best-placed overall, sitting 18th at 14:05. Joining him were Majka; green jersey Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and polka-dot jersey Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha); Mikel Nieve (Sky); Steven Kruijswijk (Belkin); Cyril Gautier (Europcar); Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo); Amaël Moinard (BMC Racing); Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale); José Serpa (Lampre-Merida); Nicolas Edet and Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis); Jesus Herrada Lopez (Movistar); Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge); Christophe Riblon (Ag2r); and Albert Timmer (Giant-Shimano).
The escapees took something like five minutes at one point before NetApp-Endura joined Astana in the pursuit, thinking of Leopold Konig, who finished third on Friday and was sitting 10th on the overall.
Sagan flatted and dropped out of the break before it reached the Col d’Izoard, content to have added to his advantage in the points competition. And with 55km to go the escapees had just under three minutes’ advantage.
The Izoard saw a whittling down of break and chase alike, with only 10 riders summiting ahead of the pursuit as Rodriguez continued to collect mountain points.
Off and on again
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) briefly lost contact on the long descent between peaks, but his team dragged him back into contention. Ag2r then took charge of the GC group on behalf of Romain Bardet, sitting third overall at the start of the day.
Ahead, De Marchi tried his luck as the bunch closed to within 40 seconds. Serpa rode up to him, but couldn’t stay there. Then Majka zipped past the both of them, and Rodriguez launched his own pursuit, intent on defending his polka-dot jersey. De Marchi latched onto him, and the two soldiered along some 17 seconds behind the lone leader.
Péraud and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) had a half-hearted go with 4.5km to go, but got nowhere.
And then Nibali gave it some stick, and only Péraud could follow. They quickly dispatched Rodriguez and De Marchi, and then set out after Majka.
“With Romain we were supposed to attack on the final climb but Nibali beat us to it, so I went with him,” said Péraud.
Van Garderen was next to make a move, but with less success. And then another dig pushed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) out the back.
Going under the red kite it was clear that Majka would take the stage. Nibali was chasing a half-minute back with Péraud locked to his wheel, while Pinot and van Garderen led a second chase with Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and Bardet.
Nibali pads lead
After a gasping Majka crossed the line for the win, too weary to zip up for a victory celebration, Nibali and Péraud fought it out for second, with the race leader winning that battle. Shortly thereafter it was Pinot and Bardet crossing swords for fourth and fifth, while van Garderen followed them in for sixth.
Director Paulippe Maudit said the plan was to have Majka and Roche in the day’s break “and they managed excellently.”
“Throughout the day, Nico was working very hard to push on and keep up the pace in the group so Rafal would have a better chance of making it all the way to the finish line. And Rafal executed the tactics brilliantly,” he said.
Race leader Nibali tipped his hat to the stage winner, saying Majka deserved the victory.
“He’s going well. Yesterday he was in the breakaway and today he claimed a beautiful win. I’m happy for him,” said Nibali. “But I can’t say I let him. I don’t know if I could have caught him.”
As for Valverde, he said he had a mechanical after a touch of wheels with Pinot, but conceded that Nibali holds all the cards in this Tour.
“Of course it was hard today, but I rode well yesterday and made a difference. That’s the Tour. I didn’t crack,” he said. “As I said, I had a small problem with Pinot and I could not receive assistance the way I needed, and as there was a long stretch on the flat, it was hard.
“Nibali is the strongest for sure. He’s the strongest but others are very close. Yes, my rivals for the podium are Pinot, Bardet, but also Van Garderen.”
When the overall was tallied, Nibali led Valverde by 4:37, with Bardet third at 4:50. Pinot sits fourth at 5:06 with van Garderen fifth at 5:49.
“The main thing was not to lose time,” said Pinot. “It was my worst day on the Tour. In the climbs I was a little behind. As early as the Lautaret, I had stiff legs from yesterday. But … I didn’t lose time on Bardet, Van Garderen, Valverde or Peraud.”