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Part of a big 23-rider breakaway, Plaza dropped his rivals on the Col de Manse and held off Sagan by 30 seconds to win stage 16 of the Tour de France; Nibali gained 28 seconds in the GC battle but Froome retained yellow

Photo: A.S.O.

CHRIS FROOME

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PETER SAGAN

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RUBEN PLAZA MOLINA

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UAE TEAM EMIRATES

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20.07.2015 @ 18:13 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Ruben Plaza saved what seemed to be a disastrous Tour de France for Lampre-Merida when he took a fantastic solo win in the classic breakaway stage to Gap. The Spaniard joined a big 23-rider front group after a very fast start to the race and turned out to be in a class of his own on the Col de Manse before he held off a desperate chase by Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) on the descent to claim the victory. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) won the GC battle as he gained 28 seconds on his rivals but Chris Froome (Sky) retained yellow despite a dramatic crash from teammate Geraint Thomas who lost 38 seconds.

 

Going into the Tour de France, Lampre-Merida had big hopes that Rui Costa would finally emerge as a grand tour contender. The team selected a line-up that was fully devoted to the former world champion who was the undisputed leader.

 

However, it all came to nothing when the captain crashed in stage 3 and after several days of suffering with an injured knee, he left the race in the Pyrenees. That left Lampre-Merida with a team of domestiques who are not accustomed to ride for personal success.

 

One of them is Ruben Plaza who has been a loyal support rider for his entire career. However, he has been keen to grab the opportunity to ride for himself and today he saved the race for his team when he won stage 16 that finished with the classic climb of Col du Manse and the difficult descent to the finishing city.

 

Plaza had already shown good condition by making it into the successful breakaway in the stage to Mende but the final ascent in that stage was too steep for him. The longer, more gradual Col de Manse suited him much better and he turned out to be the strongest from a big 23-rider breakaway that had escaped after a very fast start.

 

Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal) and Marco Haller (Katusha) had anticipated the climb and hit the slopes with an advantage of 1.05. The peloton had taken an easy day and was trailing by 20.50, making it clear that it was the escapees who would decide the stage.

 

One of the favourites from the breakaway Serge Pauwels (MTN-Qhubeka) had bad luck as he suffered a puncture just as they hit the climb. Meanwhile, Peter Sagan made the group splinter as he set a fast pace right from the lower slopes.

 

Initially, only Simon Geschke (Giant-Alpecin) and Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) could keep up with him but most of the group came back together. Instead, Geschke tried a move and he was joined by Christophe Riblon (Ag2r) and Plaza who showed the first sign of strength. Sagan, Teklehaimanot, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) and Jarlinson Pantano (IAM) were next while Bob Jungels (Trek), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) were further back.

 

Sagan and Teklehaimanot made it back Riblon, Plaza and Geschke before the Frenchman made a move. He sprinted past Hansen and Haller but it was the counterattack from Plaza that worked. The Spaniard quickly got a big gap while Riblon, Hansen, Haller, Sagan, Teklehaimanot and Geschke combined forces.

 

Of course Hansen and Haller were distanced while Plaza extended his advantage t 30 seconds in a very short amount of time. Meanwhile, Jungels, Haller, Voeckler, De Gendt, Pantano and Mate were chasing a little further back and after they had dropped Haller, they started to get closer to the Sagan group.

 

Voeckler tried to bridge the gap but never made it as Riblon made a strong attack. Sagan quickly shut it down and moments later the two chase groups merged.

 

At this point, Plaza had extended his lead to 40 seconds and he continued to gain ground. 1km from the top, he had an advantage of 1.05.

 

De Gendt was the next to try before Geschke made a much stronger surge. However, Sagan responded well and led the group over the top 1.05 behind Plaza, followed by Geschke and Pantano.

 

Riblon tried to attack after the top but failed to get clear and instead Sagan went crazy on the descent. He made the chase group blow to pieces as only Pantano could keep up with him.

 

Sagan constantly gained time on Plaza and finally also distanced Pantano. However, he was still 30 seconds behind when he reached the flat final 3km and at this point it was obvious that he had to settle for another second place. Pantano dug deep to keep the chasers at bay and take third.

 

At this point, the GC battle was on. After a slow day in the saddle, the fight for positioning had finally intensified things as BMC strung things out. Marcel Sieberg (Lotto Soudal) took over but it was Wout Poels who led the group and Sky onto the climb.

 

The Dutchman set a modest pace until Tinkoff-Saxo took over. Michael Rogers upped the pace significantly and made the group blow to pieces as Richie Porte (Sky) was one of the riders to get distanced.

 

Roman Kreuziger took over and his pace was enough to distance the likes of Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal), Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). Suddenly only the Czech, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Warren Barguil, Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Tejay van Garderen, Romain Bardet, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana were left.

 

Kreuziger kept riding into the strong headwind for a long time while Poels managed to rejoin the group. When he swung off Scarponi took over but it was Bardet who started the attacking.

 

The Frenchman got a small advantage but Valverde quickly reacted, bringing the Frenchman back. The Spaniard kept riding on the front and didn’t respond when Barguil took off.

 

Poels took over for Sky but he was distanced when Contador, Bardet and Valverde attacked. They quickly joined Barguil but Froome reacted strongly to bring it back together.

 

That’s when Nibali made a strong attack and as no one reacted he quickly got an advantage of 15 seconds. Behind, it was up to Gesink to lead the chase until Poels rejoined the group and took over.

 

Nibali had a 15-second advantage when he crested the summit and unsurprisingly Valverde took off in pursuit. The Spaniard was brought back by Thomas but kept riding on the front on the difficult descent, keeping the gap to Nibali at around 12 seconds.

 

The dramatic highlight happened when Barguil missed a turn and went straight into Thomas who was thrown off the road. Luckily, the Welshman was quickly back on his bike but he was forced into chase mode. Due to the crash, Poels and Barguil had been dropped but they made it back.

 

After the descent, it was left to Gesink to lead the chase behind Nibali who constantly increased his advantage. The Dutchman only got a bit of help from Valverde until Contador and Mollema sprinted for the minor placings, with the Trek captain leading the main contenders across the line 28 seconds behind Nibali. Poels dropped back to help Thomas limit his losses and so the Welshman is still in fifth. The big loser was Gallopin who was dropped from a group with Rolland and Pinot on the descent and dropped out of the top 10.

 

Froome defended his advantage of 3.10 of Quintana as he goes into the second rest day. The action will heat up on Wednesday when the riders will tackle the first stage in the Alps. It includes three smaller climbs before the Col d’Allos – the highest climb of the race – precedes the short 6km climb to the finish in Pra Loup.

 

One for a breakaway

After a day for the sprinters, the breakaway was expected to make it to the finish in stage 16 which included the traditional finish in Gap. The course was 201km long, started in Bourg de Péage and had a flat first third. From there the road was gradually rising until the riders tackled a category 2 climb with 71km to go and then descended to an undulating section. In the final they went up the well-known category 2 Col de Manse before they headed down the tricky descent to the flat final kilometre in Gap.

 

It was another very hot day in France when the riders gathered for the start. One rider was absent as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) had gone home to be present for the birth of his first child.

 

A big group gets clear

Everyone expected this to be a stage for a breakaway and so it was no surprise that the start was extremely fast, with the riders even enjoying a tailwind. As almost all teams wanted to have a rider in the early break, it was a big 29-rider group that escaped and had an advantage of 25 seconds after just 5km of racing.

 

Andriy Grivko, Michele Scarponi (Astana), Christophe Riblon (AG2R), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Saxo), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Thomas De Gendt, Tony Gallopin, Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal), Simon Geschke (Giant Alpecin), Marco Haller (Katusha), Michal Goloas, Matteo Trentin (Etixx-QuickStep), Bob Jungels , Laurent Didier, Markel Irizar (Trek), Jarlinson Pantano (IAM), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Nelson Oliveira, Filippo Pozzato, Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre), Daniel Navarro, Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Pierrick Fedrigo, Pierre-Luc Perichon (Bretagne Séché), Jan Barta (Bora-Argon 18), Edvald Boasson Hagen, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Serge Pauwels (MTN) were 24 of the riders in the group that escaped but they were unable to cooperate. Hence, the group split and it was Grivko, Riblon, Sagan, De Gendt, Geschke, Haller, Jungels, Oliveira, Plaza Molina, Navarro, Fedrigo and Pauwels who formed a 12-rider front group with a 1.55 advantage over the peloton at the 20km mark. At this point, Scarponi, Erviti, Teklehaimanot, Pantano, Hansen, Golas, Trentin, Voeckler, Didier, Irizar, Pozzato, Mate, Barta, Perichon and Boasson-Hagen were still chasing, 40 seconds behind. The rest of the group, including Gallopin, waited for the peloton.

 

A big fight

Surprisingly, Barta was dropped from the chase group and found himself 1.35 behind the leader at the 31km mark. At this point, the chasers were at 1.05 while the peloton had sat up and was distanced by 5.00.

 

The two front groups fought hard against each other and so the gap was still 55 seconds at the 35km mark. After another 8km of racing, the chasers had brought it down to 40 seconds.

 

Kennaugh abandons

An ill Peter Kennaugh became the first Sky rider to abandon the race while Barta waited for the peloton. At this point, the riders had raced for an hour during which they had covered a whopping 53.6km!

 

Etixx-QuickStep and Astana were not content with the situation so when the gap had gone out to six minute, they put Lieuwe Westra, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Mark Cavendish and Julien Vermote on the front. That forced both front groups to ride hard and the gap was slowly coming down.

 

Sagan wins the sprint

No one wanted to challenge Sagan in the intermediate sprint which he easily won with a small acceleration. De Gendt, Jungels, Haller and Fedrigo were next across the line.

 

At this point, Richie Porte (Sky) suffered a puncture and he had to work pretty hard to rejoin the peloton that was riding fast. With 112km to go, the gap was only 5.25.

 

Astana and Etixx-QuickStep give up

Five kilometres later Astana and Etixx-QuickStep gave up and the peloton almost came to a standstill as the riders enjoyed a chance to recover. As a consequence, the gap increased wuickly and it was 8.05 when Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard finally upped the pace slighly for Sky.

 

With 100km to go, the chasers had brought the gap down to 55 seconds and the balance was about to tip. While Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) worked his way back from his usual bike change, the leaders decided to wait for their chasers and the junction was made with 95km to go. Unfortunately, Didier had been dropped, meaning that it was a 23-rider group that could recover a bit as Rowe and Stannard rode slowly in the paloton.

 

Majka goes down

At the bottom of the Col de Cobre with 78km to go, the gap was 10.40 and Sky still showed no interest in binging them back. As they went up the climb, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Paul Martens (LottoNL-Jumbo) hit the deck but both were able to continue.

 

Pauwels beat De Gendt in the sprint at the top of the climb while Boasson Hagen was third across the line. 13 minutes later Rowe and Stannard led the peloton over the summit and they almost came to a standstill as they went down the descent, waiting for Geraint Thomas who had had a puncture.

 

The attacking starts

Sagan accelerated hard on the descent and was joined by Boasson Hagen. However, the pair waited and instead Oliveira tried. He had no luck and as there was no cooperation, Sagan and Grivko made an attempt but they were also brought back.

 

The group went back to work but a short moment before the attacking started again. Oliveira, Haller and Boasson Hagen made the next attempt and were joined by Hansen. This forced Sagan to make a sprint to bring it back together.

 

Hansen and Haller get clear

Golas made an unsuccessful attack but it was the move by Hansen that was promising. As no one responded, he quickly got an advantage of 20 seconds while Teklehaimanot had to fight back from a puncture. At this point, Rowe and Stannard had again accelerated but the peloton was now a massive 15.30 behind.

 

The chase group started to work well together until Haller attacked and he quickly got a big advantage. That prompted Hansen to wait for him and those two riders had a gap of 30 seconds with 35km to go.

 

Hansen and Haller increase their advantage

Haller and Hansen were working well together and had built an advantage of a minute when they entered the final 25km. At this point, the peloton had still not shown any signs of urgency and the gap had gone out to a whopping 18.10.

 

Hansen and Haller hit the Col de Manse with an advantage of 1.05 while Rowe and Stannard set the pace in the peloton 19.10 behind. While the breakaway battled it out for the stage win, they continued their slow riding until the drama finally unfolded on the climb.

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