In 2003, a 23-year-old Australian named Michael Rogers believed he could win his first-ever Tour de France stage, a 6.5 km time trial in Paris that appeared perfectly suited to his track background. He finished 19th.
Today, 10 Tours and 193 stages later, Rogers slingshotted past Cyril Gautier on the frenetic descent of the Port de Bales and held off the pursuit of the four-man group behind him all the way into Bagnères de Luchon to claim Stage 16 for his first Tour victory.
Behind him, race leader Vincenzo Nibali matched every move thrown his way and conserved his 4:37 lead over Alejandro Valverde ahead of tomorrow’s summit finish at Pla d’Adet.
It was a bittersweet win for the Rogers, who was on the offensive because the leader of his Tinkoff-Saxo team, Alberto Contador, left the race last week following a crash. “I could be grateful to him for having abandoned the Tour,” said Rogers afterwards, “but no, I'm heartbroken.”
Rogers outlasted 20 other riders from a slow-to-form breakaway that contained Thomas Voeckler and two of his Europcar teammates, including Gautier. History made Voeckler the prohibitive favorite. The Frenchman had won each of the Tour’s last two stages to Luchon, in 2010 and 2012, with the same formula: taking part in a large early escape, cresting the final climb of the day alone in front, and holding off all comers on the descent into town.
Voeckler tried to stick to that formula again, attacking repeatedly on the slopes of the hors-categorie Port de Bales, last and most difficult of the stage’s five climbs. But Rogers metronomically shut down each of Vockler’s swashbuckling escapades, then kept an aggressive Gautier in his sights on the descent before pulling away.
There have been plenty of near misses for Rogers over the years, especially in 2006, when he lost the prologue by just six seconds. Three days later, Rogers won the field sprint in Valkenburg but finished second to T-Mobile’s Matthias Kessler, who broke away from the pack to win the stage. As he crossed the line that day, Rogers stretched out his right arm to celebrate his teammate’s victory.
This time, though, it was Rogers’ day. Once more, he stretched out his right arm on the line—but this time, it was so that he could take a bow, one that he had thoroughly earned. His margin of victory was nine seconds, leaving second-place Voeckler to rue his missed opportunities. “It's extremely disappointing,” said Voeckler. “There were two of us at the front, we have to consider this as a failure.”
Farther down the road, the lead peloton containing Nibali grew ever-smaller on the slopes of the Bales, as the steady tempo set by Nibali’s Astana team and Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar squad shed riders one by one. Moments after top-10 riders Tejay van Garderen and Bauke Mollema became the latest to lose contact, FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot rode off the front, forcing a response from the other contenders. Unable to match the Frenchman’s pace was Pinot’s compatriot Romain Bardet, who began the day in third overall and wore the white jersey as the race’s best young rider. By the stage’s end, Pinot had wrested both distinctions from the AG2R rider.
But Pinot could do nothing to eat into the advantage of Nibali. The Italian has not conceded time to any of his rivals since Contador stole back three now-meaningless seconds at the end of stage 8. “I don't underestimate anyone,” said Nibali.
Notes from the Tour
- Lampre rider Chris Horner finished 38th on the stage and moved up two places to 20th overall. If the 42-year-old American can keep his place into Paris, he will become the oldest rider to finish in the top 20 in the Tour since Italy’s Giovanni Rossignoli finished 19th as a 42-year-old in 1925.
- Stage 14 winner Rafal Majka was first over the day’s first climb, the fourth-category Côte de Fanjeaux. That result earned him one point in the King of the Mountains competition and broke a tie with Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez for the lead in that contest. Majka will wear his first polka-dot jersey tomorrow.
- Midway through the stage, the Tour passed the memorial to Fabio Casartelli, an Italian rider who was killed in a crash on the descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet in 1995. After the stage, Nibali paid tribute to his fallen compatriot. “I want to dedicate a victory to his family,” said Nibali.