The pack with Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, climbs Lautaret pass, French Alps, during the fourteenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 177 kilometers (110 miles) with start in Grenoble and finish in Risoul, France, Saturday, July 19, 2014.
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
By Elliot Chester
July 19, 2014

Rafal Majka didn’t, or couldn’t, relax. The Tinkoff-Saxo rider was all alone at the front of the Tour de France in the final kilometer of Saturday’s Stage 14, which concluded with a summit finish at Risoul. But rather than slow to zip up his jersey, stand up in the saddle and coast over the finish line, as stage winners customarily do to give their sponsors extra airtime, Majka mashed the pedals all the way to the top, barely taking the time to raise a fist in celebration.

Just 24 seconds later, the reason Majka didn’t, or couldn’t, relax—overall leader Vincenzo Nibali—whirred across the finish line to claim second on the stage. A kilometer or two more, and the efficient Italian might have caught Majka to set up a repeat of yesterday’s finish in Chamrousse, where Nibali won and Majka finished second, 10 agonizing seconds behind. Today, though, the roles were reversed, as Majka became just the second Polish rider ever—after Zenon Jaskula in 1993—to win a stage in the Tour de France.

“[Majka] claimed a beautiful win,” said Nibali. “I'm happy for him.”

Off the Back: Five Thoughts on the Tour de France Today

He could afford to be magnanimous. In the larger scheme of the overall classification, Nibali was the undisputed victor for the second straight day. The maillot jaune extended his overall lead to 4:37 over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who struggled across the line in 10th, 1:24 behind Majka. Valverde had initially tried to counter Nibali’s searing attack, which came under the banner signifying four kilometers to go and which only AG2R’s Jean-Christophe Peraud could follow, but by the stage’s end he held on to second by just 13 seconds over France’s Romain Bardet.

Early on in the stage, it was Bardet who looked strongest, or at least boldest. The 23-year-old Frenchman has had the Col d’Izoard, the second of the 177 km stage’s three climbs and at 2360 m the highest point of this year’s Tour de France, on his mind for months. In mid-May, Bardet tried and failed to climb the Izoard, derailed by a thick layer of snow that blanketed the slopes of the legendary climb. Yesterday, after Bardet’s impressive seventh place up to Chamrousse kept him in third overall and in the white jersey as the race’s best young rider, he invoked the mountain again saying, “I don't know how much action there'll be on the Izoard, but it would be a good thing for me if there was some.”

No attacks came from Bardet or his AG2R squad on the 19 km ascent of the Izoard; the descent was another story. As the pack twisted and turned its way down the Alpine switchbacks at speeds nearing 60 mph, Bardet and Peraud peeled off the front of the group, forcing Nibali and the other contenders to respond. Eventually, they all came back together, with American Tejay van Garderen, who started and finished the stage fifth overall, the last to latch on prior to the start of the final climb.

There, it was French rider Pierre Rolland who went on the offensive. The second of Rolland’s two attacks, however, unwittingly provided Nibali with a perfect springboard to bridge away from his group and away towards the summit. Behind, van Garderen led the chase, but his accelerations lacked the viciousness of Nibali’s and failed to reel in Nibali ahead or gain him time over Bardet and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, both of whom stayed on van Garderen’s wheel before sprinting away as the finish came into view.

Up ahead of them all was Majka, the final survivor of a 17-man breakaway that formed less than 30 minutes after the peloton departed from the start in Grenoble. For Majka and his Tinkoff-Saxo team, the victory represented a measure of redemption after their leader, two-time winner Alberto Contador, crashed out of the race on Stage 10. “This is also a victory for Alberto,” Majka said aftterward.

Notes from the Tour

  • Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain began and ended the day in an unusual position. At the start, he wore the polka-dot jersey as King of the Mountains, but only because the new leader of the competition, Nibali, was already wearing yellow. After going first over the Izoard, Rodriguez became the virtual leader of the competition once more on the road, only to see it evaporate when Majka’s stage win left the pair tied with 88 points. As the better placed of the two overall, Rodriguez will wear polka-dots again tomorrow.
  • Thanks to Rolland’s aggressiveness and the struggles of Jurgen van den Broeck, there are now four French riders in the top 10 overall: Bardet (third), Pinot (fourth), Peraud (sixth) and Rolland (tenth). Last year, no French riders finished in the top 10; the last time that occurred was in 1991 with Charly Mottet (4th), Luc Leblanc (5th), Laurent Fignon (6th) and Gerard Rue (10th).