This was supposed to be a routine flat stage, a pause for breath between Pyrenean pain and the long time trial tomorrow. Instead we had rain making the peloton’s life miserable, a perfectly executed, pre-planned attack by Ramunas Navardauskas to break Garmin-Sharp’s Tour duck and Peter Sagan hitting the deck as another stage slipped from his grasp.
Questions & answers I: The bunch or the break?
This stage was always going to go one of two ways. Either a large break involving a majority of the (many) teams yet to taste success was going to escape a long way up the road, or a smaller, more manageable group was going to be kept under close watch by the teams of the sprinters who have been silently suffering in the gruppetto all week.
The answer: the latter. Only five men made it into the breakaway, and Cannondale then set to work to keep the leash shorter than the odds on Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali carrying the yellow jersey into Paris on Sunday.
Questions & answers II: Sagan, or not Sagan?
The only remaining questions were whether the undulating hills of the final 30km would tip the balance in favour of the strong men or the pure sprinters and, in either case, whether Peter Sagan (after ten top five finishes and four second places) would finally notch his first stage victory to underline in triplicate his dominance in the green jersey competition.
The answer: this wasn’t a day for the pure sprinters, but it wasn’t to be Sagan’s day either as he came down in a crash involving about a dozen riders just inside the 3km mark. While only abandonment can prevent the Slovak from claiming a third consecutive green jersey, it just hasn’t been his Tour on a parcours on which he could have won four or five stages in other circumstances.
Questions & answers III: Three into two won’t go – but who will be left out?
For the men placed second, third and fourth on GC – Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who remain separated by the minuscule margin of 15 seconds – this was a welcome détente from hostilities, although they would have hoped for a less stressful ride today.
Their final showdown will take place over a lumpy 54km course in tomorrow’s individual time trial. Only then will we know who will be flanking Nibali on the podium on Sunday.
My money’s on Pinot to produce the time trial of his life but to end the day a minute short and relegated to that most horrible of placings: fourth. As for the other two, I have to favour Valverde – the reigning Spanish national TT champion – over the 37-year-old Peraud, who himself is no slouch against the clock. Confident predictions are difficult in a long time trial this late in a three-week race, though.
However it pans out, we should see Sunday’s podium contain a first-time Tour champion in Nibali, with the other two both being newbies to the Paris podium. Valverde, Peraud and Pinot’s best Tour finishes are fifth, ninth and tenth respectively.
VeloVoices rider(s) of the day
In much the same vein as Kathi yesterday, I’m going to name not one but several riders as my performers of the day. In fact, it’s a grand chapeau to the entire surviving Garmin-Sharp team – who combined to execute a beautifully conceived plan which launched Navardauskas to the kind of strong-man’s late solo attack which was more than a little reminiscent of his victory at the 2013 Giro.
Navardauskas has featured mainly as a sprinter on the tougher flat stages – he was third on the opening stage, and fifth and seventh respectively on stages 12 and 15 – but he’s also the reigning Lithuanian time trial champion. He showed that part of his armoury today, launching an attack off the front of the peloton on the final climb and tapping out a solo tempo over the final 13km which brought him home seven seconds ahead of the field.
But his victory owed a significant debt to the rest of a team missing both GC leader Andrew Talansky and climbing specialist Janier Acevedo. Each of the remaining seven played a role today. In particular, Tom-Jelte Slagter, who has spent much of this race in attacks, propelled himself clear of the rest of the five-man break 32km from home to act as the hare to Navardauskas’ hound. And Alex Howes attacked on the descent ahead of the final climb, ruffling the peloton’s already damp feathers to set up Navaradauskas’ decisive counter-punch.
As a team, Garmin have been more willing than most to mix up their tactics and animate stages. The effect of registering a stage win, in terms of boosting both the sponsors and team morale, cannot be overstated. Garmin fully deserved the spoils of victory today.
Stage 19 result
1. Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp) 4:43:41
2. John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) +0:07
3. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) same time
4. Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
5. Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo) s/t
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 85:29:33
2. Thibaut Pinot (FJD) +7:10
3. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +7:23
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +7:25
5. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) +9:27
6. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +11:34
7. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) +13:56
8. Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) +14:15
9. Leopold Konig (Netapp-Endura) +14:37
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Trek) +16:25
Points leader: Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
King of the Mountains leader: Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Best young rider: Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Team classification: Ag2r La Mondiale.