Though today’s stage was pretty much all about the last climb up to the finish line, the category 3 Mur de Bretagne, it was a finish that threw up plenty of surprises, making a mostly slower day in the saddle well worth the watch.
Prior to the finish, there was once again only one intermediate sprint and a single category four climb. These were once again given over to the early breakaway riders: Pierre-Luc Perichon, Bartosz Huzarski, Roman Sicard. Their lead maxed out at four minutes, but was never unmanageable for the peloton.
Other splits and breaks appeared and then where neutralized — the the stage was never going to be fought anywhere other than the slopes of the Mur de Bretagne. BMC took a lot of turns at the front of the charge for the lower slopes, wanting to protect Tejay Van Garderen. Cannondale-Garmin also rode hard to Dan Martin, and Sky found the front when the gradient began to pick up at 1.8km to go. The breakaway was finally defeated at around 10km to go, as riders began to lose contact at the rear of the race.
Attacks came thick and fast on the climb. Alexis Vuillermoz went with Adam Yates and fought hard to gain ground, but it was in vain. The Sky-led peloton quickly swallowed them back up. Valverde seemed to be struggling to make keep the pace during the first slopes of the climb, but he quickly found his legs and moved up the peloton to just behind the Sky riders. Sagan was never far behind, but tried to find an extra reserve of energy for the sprint and found it wanting. Froome also made no real kick for the line but, driving the peloton for the last 600m and at furious pace, he secured himself an 8th place and no loss of time to his rivals. One such rival, Vincenzo Nibali, lost contact with the main group and found himself further down in the general classification by ten seconds.
The final push came again from Vuillermoz. He found the sprint so many were lacking, and went very early, with over 500m to go. It looked at first like a bridge too far, but Vuillermoz kept fighting and kept on finding ground between himself and the pack. Only Dan Martin followed, and still there were several bike-lengths between him and Vuillermoz. Martin could only watch and angrily beat his bars as Vuillermoz took an emphatic victory; evidently Martin was the first to realised he’d left his sprint too late. Valverde, recovered from his moment of faltering, led the group in, barely ahead of Sagan in fourth.
Sagan’s fourth place position means he has finally taken the green jersey from Vuillermoz. Froome has lost no time on general classification, with an 11 second gap back to Peter Sagan and 13 to Tejay Van Garderen. Expect Tejay to try to make up these bonus seconds on tomorrow’s team time trial, and don’t be surprised if you see him wearing yellow as he enters the mountains. He and Froome will certainly be hoping to increase the distances between themselves and other hopefuls for G.C. like Contador, Quintana, and Nibali. But today all credit goes to Vuillermoz, the first French victor at this year’s Tour de France. Opening up such a huge gap on steep gradients is no mean feat, and to leave the likes of Dan Martin banging his handlebars is a sign that Vuillermoz is in the form of his life. Let’s hope for more finishes like this next week, as we enter the high mountains.