Tag Archives: Tour de France 2014

The Benefit of the Doubt: Another tour, and winner, worth believing in

My last article that looked back on the tour had the following paragraph inserted into it:

And it was again a Tour that looked normal…something we’re forced to analyse in this post-EPO-crazy era. The champion was simply better than the remaining contenders but far from unworldly, and the return of the French to the podium for the first time post-Festina affair ’98 was a welcome sight. If you still cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the bulk of what you seen in this Tour, especially after what has been a handful of promising years now, then I’m not sure what it will take, outside of your own participation.

Well, against my own urges, I thought I’d expand a little and do the very thing that I said we’re now forced to do and analyse this tour from the perspective of the dark (yet receding, I like to think) shadow that lurks near the bright lights of the Tour. ‘The Darkness on the Edge of Town’ as Bruce Springsteen might call the subject of drugs in cycling…always out there and occasionally in need of addressing.

Thankfully, in recent years, it looks as though analysing a Tour from the perspective of drug use is giving us a healthy outcome if done objectively and the hope is that if it continues this way then we’ll eventually reach a point where it won’t require much scrutiny at all. We all know that some people will always try to cheat, regardless of the environment around them, but seeing the pendulum swing from the majority in a broken culture to a minority in a working system culture suggests that at last the sports appears to be getting on top of the battle against drugs and the riders are not feeling that it is a requirement to success.

These men will continue to defy our own limited potential…to rise up to a level of endurance that is hard to comprehend suffering; it’s why we watch…because we know we could never do it ourselves, and yet there’s something beautiful in the suffering; the countryside of France rolling by our screens as a back drop and the glory in what these men go through in order to finish Paris, let alone win the thing.

There was a time when the Tour appeared all too alien, but while it will always remain on an elevated pedestal of natural human performance…that pedestal is at least back on earth and among many examples, the final climb to Hautacam highlighted this perfectly.

Vincenzo Nibali won there. He attacked early, near the foot of the climb and rode solo to glory, hammering home the final nail into the coffin that was everyone elses dreams of winning this Tour. It was as much an act of defiance against anyone who still thought he wouldn’t have won had Contador and Froome finished as it was an attempt to secure further time over any rival.

You could almost hear the calculators clicking when Nibali sprang his attack…the ghost of, and the time of, Bjarne Riis’s ride up this mountain in 1996 looming large. And yet, 18 years down the road from that infamous day, an uber talented climbing specialist, on modern equipment, under modern training and nutritional techniques, lost 2 minutes and 45 seconds to the time put down by a 32 year old Riis who had gone from career domestique to superstar in the matter of a couple of years.

Of course — and in the interests of balance — analysing times on a climb on separate days, never mind separate years, when wind direction and strength, temperature, humidity, relevance of the stage, difficulty of preceding stages, length of the stage before the climb, speed of the racing on the lower slopes, and many other factors can vary dramatically reduce it to an inexact science, especially when there is no certainty that the times themselves are accurate.

But when you look back at Riis’s ride and then at Nibali’s on video, the differences are striking. Riis rode that climb steady on the lower slopes dropping back through the group to analyse his rivals before launching a short attack. He then dropped back to the group and once more went to the back, looking at each of his opponents before a second attack. They were well into the climb before he settled into a punishing rhythm that took him to the stage victory. Nibali on the other hand attacked early and rode the climb as though it were a time-trial. No start-stop attacking; no playing with his rivals.

The Tour came up this climb two years before Riis’s big win and that time it was Indurain eating up his rivals; only Luc Leblanc could hang onto his wheel and out sprinted him to the line. Their time was still more than 2 minutes faster than Nibali. Four years after Riis in 2000 the Tour again came back to Hautacam, and this time it was Lance Armstrong who won with a time more than 1 minute faster than the Italian. On each occasion, times aside, the performances were spectacularly different from that of Nibali’s in 2014.

Naturally, as in any walk of life in which fame and fortune lie as a reward for glory, there will be those that will try take shortcuts to the top, but once upon a time the shortcut was a requirement…the other road simply didn’t go to the summit. Times have changed however, they test for more now…they simply test more now. They have the biological passport starting to reap its rewards and it’s hard to find any champion from the days of yore who remains untainted by a positive test, a link to a scandal, or an admission (forced or otherwise) of guilt. And every rider now understands that their urine and blood samples will be stored away, good to be re-tested should any new breakthrough in testing for any as-of-yet unknown substance become available.

Which brings me to another point: There’s no sign that any unknown substance has hit the peloton. Back in the early 90’s when EPO first made its appearance, the speeds soared. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon both spoke about the sudden rise in speeds. LeMond and Fignon were all but 31 and 32 years of age respectively by the 1992 Tour and yet both looked like old beaten up men, no longer able to hack it with the young lads as Fignon finished 23rd and LeMond abandoned. Challenging one another to win the Tour just three years before, they were suddenly left behind. To put it in perspective, Alberto Contdor is 31 now, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour aged 32, Cadel Evans won it at 34, and Jean-Christophe Péraud has just finished second this year aged 37. The idea that LeMond or Fignon should have been finished in their early 30s to these sudden accelerations seemed bizarre, but it is now obvious why in hindsight.

The speeds of races today however have not suddenly shot up skewing who should and shouldn’t be fast. The average speed of this tour as a whole was 40.69 km/h, the 4th fastest on record, though it must be remembered that a large majority of the ride down the east side of France that incorporated about nine stages was with a tail-wind.

That aside however, the three Tours faster than this one came 8, 9 and 11 years before and it was barely quicker this year than it was twenty some years before, which bodes the question, not whether that is a bad sign that they’re still as fast as dirty Tours, but if drugs were still rampant today then, coupled with improved technology, nutrition and training, why aren’t they going even faster still? History would suggest that if drugs were still rampant 14 years into the 21st century, and especially if some new product had hit the peloton, then speeds would be 1 or 2 km/h faster than ever before.

But they’re not.

You may still be unsure, forever scarred by the past, or you may have had questions, but this Tour has answered them about as well as it could be expected and while we’ll never know for sure, or at least not for many years, certainly not enough to put our mortgages on it, at the very least this Tour and its champion have earned the right to the benefit of the doubt and such a step in recent years is a big positive for the direction in which cycling is heading.


A different Tour but the same old magic

There’s no such thing as a bad Tour. Every Tour is a good Tour, maybe even a great Tour…at least that’s what I think. So this years was no different despite the winner coming home almost eight minutes ahead of the next man. There’s way too much goes on over the three week Tour de France…so many stages, too much drama, all kids of terrain, and plenty of competitions beyond the yellow jersey for the whole thing to ever be written off as not good.

We had everything once again: Rolling stages in front of mammoth crowds in England, sprint stages in sunshine and rain, tribute stages going through old battle fields 100 years on from the start of that horrific war, a mini-Paris-Roubaix stage on the cobbles, four mountain ranges of stages in the Jura, Vogues, Alps and Pyrenees all with their own unique style and all bringing a different context to the outcome of the race, a crucial time-trial stage for French cycling, and the traditional crit in Paris stage.

We had crashes that eliminated contenders, crashes that made hero’s out of those that continued, good weather, bad weather, sprint victories, individual stage glory, individual stage heart-break, long exploits and suffering in the mountains.

We had a points competition dominated by a consistently brilliant yet stage starved Peter Sagan; a mountains prize that went back and forth and came down to the final big climb; a young riders prize fought out between two young men who became the toast of their nation; a yellow jersey contest that may have been all but won halfway through, but by a champion that continued to attack and prove himself as worthy a champion as you’ll ever seen; and a podium consisting of a Frenchman for the first time since ’97 and Frenchmen for the first time since ’84.

And it was again a Tour that looked normal…something we’re forced to analyse in this post-EPO-crazy era. The champion was simply better than the remaining contenders but far from unworldly while the return of the French to the podium for the first time post-Festina affair ’98 was a welcome sight. If you still cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the bulk of what you seen in this Tour, especially after what has been a handful of promising years now, then I’m not sure what it will take, outside of your own participation.

It’s OK for some people to defy our own limited potential with their own superb performances and cycling brings this out in athletes like no other sport. The Tour de France, on a global stage, simply magnifies it.

But this was no normal tour from the perspective of the script. The typical script of the tour would suggest that the first week belonged to the sprinters and that the favorites would keep their powder dry until the high mountains and time trials. The first of the high mountains, either the Alps or Pyrenees would sort the men from the boys and the second of the two ranges would find us our winner.

This year was very different.

We’d the rolling dales of Yorkshire for a start and had one of the big contenders, Vincenzo Nibali, with a stage win and yellow on his back by the second day, but it was stage five on the cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix that truly changed the normal order, and it was Nibali who shone brightest.

An epic ride on an epic day of mud, blood and big time-gaps put Nibali further into yellow and all his rivals (with the exception of Chris Froome who crashed out) minutes in arrears. It was a stage in which many felt you couldn’t win the tour but you could lose it. Nibali however may have proved that wrong. He never looked back.

On stage 10, Contador crashed out and Nibali attacked the rest to win his second stage and cement his lead. It was another crucial stage — one that seen the top six overall come Paris all finish in the top six on this day (albeit with Péraud behind Pinot and Valverde) — and we still hadn’t reached the Alps or the Pyrenees. By the time we did hit the high mountains it was less about Nibali trying to defend or indeed those around him trying to pull back time and more about Nibali attacking. A victory in each of those high mountain stages weren’t the decisive ones that won him the tour as the script dictated they ought to have been, but merely further acts of dominance.

The Tour was won on the cobbles and sealed in the Vogues. The rest was a race for the final spots on the podium and the minor jersey prizes. And yet it was still fantastic to watch.

This Tour probably won’t go down in the top five of all time (though I have to think that fifth stage across the Pave of Northern France will go down as one of the great stages in Tour history), but as I said at the top…there’s no such thing as bad tours, only good, and this one was very good with a superb champion.

A look back at how wrong my Tour de France predictions were

Before the Tour started I climbed off the fence once again to give my predictions on how I felt the race would unfold and once again I proved that you shouldn’t put your money were my mouth is! Below is a look at how things panned out…

Overall Classification prediction (In brackets their actual finishing place)
1. Alberto Contador (DNF)
2. Chris Froome (DNF)
3. Vincenzo Nibali (1st)
4. Andrew Talansky (DNF)
5. Rui Costa (DNF)
6. Alejandro Valverde (4th)
7. Thibaut Pinot (2nd)
8. Jurgen Van den Broeck (13th)
9. Bauke Mollema (10th)
10. Romain Bardet (6th)

So not a single one correct. I was closest with Mollema in 10th instead of 9th while the French duo of Pinot and Bardet, along with Valverde, did better than I expected though that is in part due to the number of DNF’s in my top five: Four of them!

Points: Peter Sagan (1st), Mark Cavendish (DNF), Marcel Kittel (4th).

Correct on first but then again the odds on him retaining his green jersey title were good…it’s hardly a coup to have predicted that! And who knew Cav wouldn’t make it to the finish of the first stage?

Mountains: Pierre Rolland (20th), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Did not place), Joaqium Rodriguez (3rd).

Only Rodriguez out of the three put his hat in the ring for this competition. Rolland was too tired after the Giro and Van den Broeck was virtually invisible for the three weeks and didn’t score a single mountain point. Rodriguez coming back from a serious injury suffered at the Giro had a go for it but was no match for young Rafal Majka.

White: Andrew Talansky (DNF), Thibaut Pinot (1st), Romain Bardet (2nd).

Close enough, and had he not crashed out, Talansky would very much have been in the mix. Got to think however that Pinot and Bardet will stake a claim to win it again next year.

Team: Tinkoff-Saxo (11th)

Tinkoff lost Contador and as a result their targets for the tour changed to stage wins. It meant some of their better riders losing big time one day in order to get in on breaks the next. Ag2R La Mondiale came as a bit of a surprise winning it, but should they have? With Jean-Christophe Péraud, Romain Bardet and Ben Gastauer (21st overall) all on the team it’s little wonder they ended up at the top.

Most stage wins: Mark Cavendish (0)

Cav didn’t even finish the first stage and so the duel between himself and Kittel was taken away with us leaving Kittel to sweep up 4 stage victories. Nibali also came through with four wins, a dominance I doubt anyone forseen even if they felt he could have still pipped Froome and Contador to the yellow jersey.

Stages: (In brackets is the actual winner)
1 – Mark Cavendish (Marcel Kittel)
2 – Alejandro Valverde (Vincenzo Nibali)
3 – Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)
4 – Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)
5 – Peter Sagan (Lars Boom)
6 – Sylvian Chavanel (André Greipel)
7 – Peter Sagan (Matteo Trentin)
8 – Rui Costa (Blel Kadri)
9 – Joaquim Rodriguez (Tony Martin)
10 – Alberto Contador (Vincenzo Nibali)
11 – Peter Sagan (Tony Gallopin)
12 – Jérémy Roy (Alexander Kristoff)
13 – Pierre Rolland (Vincenzo Nibali)
14 – Joaqium Rodriguez (Rafal Majka)
15 – Marcel Kittel (Alexander Kristoff)
16 – Nicolas Roche (Michael Rogers)
17 – Vincenzo Nibali (Rafal Majka)
18 – Vincenzo Nibali (Vincenzo Nibali)
19 – Peter Sagan (Ramunas Navardauskas)
20 – Tony Martin (Tony Martin)
21 – Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)

5 correct out of 21, or 24%! It should be noted that I made these predictions on the morning of each stage hence why I didn’t have Cavendish winning a stage beyond the first one despite prior to the tour picking him to win the most stages. But let’s be honest, taking Kittel to win stages 3, 4 and the final one into Paris with Cavendish gone and his dominance apparent, was hardly a coup, and likewise taking Tony Martin to win the time-trial. In the mountains, the way he was riding, taking Nibali to win the queen stage on Hautacam was far from pushing the boat out either!

So keep this in mind when I return with picks for next years Tour.

The predictable final day

Stage 21: Évry to Paris Champs-Élysées, 137.5km. Flat.

The slow procession of bikes with hand shakes and clinks of champagne glasses followed by a ramping up of the speed onto the streets of Pairs and the final bunch sprint was inevitable, it always is. The closing ceremony of the big event with a little bit of fun at the end; like a Sunday club run in which a few lads have a dig at the speed signs before rolling home.

And yet a magical day anyway…the Eiffel Tower,  Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre; all as the backdrop for the greatest crit on earth. A few protagonists will try and get away to spice things up before the fastest men in the world get their reward for hauling their big frames over the mountains.

It all started three weeks ago on the dales of Yorkshire, England and ended on the smooth cobbles of the  Champs-Élysées. So different in many ways, and yet the result was still the same: A sprint victory for Marcel Kittel, the nailed on fastest man in the world now.

It’s a day the rest of the bunch get to celebrate their completion of the tour. Stay upright and don’t make some catastrophic mistake that will end all your hard work now. Lieuwe Westra knows this all too well having abandoned in Paris in last years Tour and second place man, Jean-Christophe Peraud almost came to the same fate when he crashed today only for Nibali to control the bunch and let him back on again. Nobody would want to see him lose his podium position in that manor.

Rather it is a day to enjoy the sights and the sounds and roll over the line after the sprinters with a satisfied look on your face or even your hands in the air. Vincenzo Nibali didn’t even raise his arms as you thought he might. Instead his Astana team-mates patted him on the back, finally free of the burden of looking after their leader in this rolling pack of 164 that made it home to Paris.

Then there is the endless parade of riders to the podium. Not everyone gets to go up there and collect their completion medal, but it’s not far off it. The stage winner, all the jersey winners, the most combatitive rider prize (Alessandro De Marchi), the winning team, and then the podium finishers. Lots of flowers, lots of podium girls, loads of Bernard Hinault, and plenty of cheers.

Nibali was the happiest man of the lot, no doubt, but the proudest? Well how do you measure such an individual accolade? Something tells me Cheng Ji, the first Chinese man ever to ride the Tour, and as such the first to finish it, will be just as proud as Nibali tonight despite finishing 6 hours, 2 minutes and 24 seconds behind him as Lanterne Rouge in dead last.

And then it’s all over. Like a three week Christmas Day that suddenly ends on New Years morning and the realisation that the fun is all over, that it’s back to the real world again for another year. Sure there’s the Vuelta, the Worlds, the Giro di Lombardia and then, next spring, the Spring Classics and the Giro, but what’s that old stupid cliche: The tour’s the tour?

I’ll now go and try throw together some review of the whole thing, some thoughts on it all and try put it into some kind of context with which to look back on…or at the very least give some favorite moments! Then it’ll be the next stage of the tour: Tour withdrawal. Into the decompression chamber once more to help with my integration back into regular society!

1. Kittel (GIA) in 3h20’50”
2. Kristoff (KAT)
3. Navardauskas (GRS)
4. Greipel (LTB)
5. Renshaw (OPQ)
6. Eisel (SKY) all s.t.

1. Nibali (AST) in 89h59’06”
2. Peraud (ALM) +7’37”
3. Pinot (FDJ) +8’15”
4. Valverde (MOV) +9’40”
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +11’24”
6. Bardet (ALM) +11’26”
7. Konig (TNE) +14’32”
8. Zubeldia (TFR) +17’57”
9. Ten Dam (BEL) +18’11”
10. Mollema (BEL) +21’15”

1. Sagan (CAN) 431 pts
2. Kristoff (KAT) 282 pts
3. Coquard (EUC) 271 pts

King of the Mountains:
1. Majka (TCS) 181 pts
2. Nibali (AST) 168 pts
3. Rodriguez (KAT) 112 pts

Yong rider:
1. Pinot (FDJ) in 90h07’21”
2. Bardet (ALM) +3’11”
3. Kwiatkowski (OPQ) +1h13’40”

1. AG2R La Mondiale in 270h27’02”
2. Belkin Pro Cycling +34’46”
3. Movistar Team +1h06’10”

De Marchi (CAN)

Martin blizes time-trial; Nibali honours yellow; Frenchman sweep remainder of podium

Stage 20: Bergerac to Périgueux, 54km individual time-trial.

The man expected to win, did win and, thanks to his position in the general classification, had completed the job long before the battle that would garner all the attention got under way: The fight for the final podium positions. Tony Martin could well have gone back to his hotel, had a shower, a bite to eat and returned to the podium such was the certainty of his ride that nobody to come after would beat it, but instead he was made to sit beside the finishing line, watching various riders come up to the line and fall well short of his mark.

As a result however he got to enjoy the exciting climax to this years tour podium. Coming in, Vincenzo Nibali held such a lead that nothing short of a disaster would have put his Tour into jeopardy, but rather than play it safe and coast around, Nibali still went out hard, determined to honour the yellow jersey. The effort put him into fourth for the stage and resulted in him taking yet further time from those around him in the overall standings.

Nibali will ride into Paris with a 7minute, 52 second lead over the nearest man, the biggest winning margin in the Tour since Jan Ullrich beat Richard Virenque in 1997 by 9 minutes, 9 seconds. Thinking back to that day who would have though it would be the last (and only) time the then 23 year old Jan Ullrich would win the Tour de France and also the last time a Frenchman would stand on the podium…until now.

At least one podium spot was all but guaranteed between second place Thibaut Pinot and third place Jean-Christophe Péraud with Spaniard Aljeandro Valverde the only one who could potentially strip one place away from them, but it became evident early that Valverde wasn’t going to be doing that. Valverde was the slowest of the top six and it soon became a battle between Pinot and Péraud to sort out which order they would stand on the podium. Pinot came in with a 13 second lead over his fellow countryman, but Péraud stormed off the starting ramp and had overturned the entire defect plus a further 12 seconds by the first time check at 19 kilometres.

Indeed, Péraud was the fastest of the main contenders at the first check taking 5 seconds from Tejay Van Garderen and 6 seconds from Nibali, but a bike change slowed his progress and he himself began to lose ground on that pair as the course wore on. By the second check Péraud was now well behind Nibali and Van Garderen and 24 seconds up on Pinot who had matched Péraud for pace, shy a single second.

By the third check Péraud had studied himself and put 36 seconds into Pinot’s time and it was clear the elder statesman of the pair at 37 years of age would not only live out his dream by finishing on the podium but would do so in second place. He hit the line with the seventh best time on the day, 45 seconds better than the young Pinot.

Péraud broke down crying after the finish and Pinot will be satisfied with a top three. The French waited 17 years for someone to do this and two have come along at once. It’s the first time two Frenchmen have finished on the podium since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault in 1984.

It also had the potential to be the first time three Frenchmen finished in the top five since Charly Mottet, Luc Leblanc and Fignon in the 1991, but Romain Bardet struggled almost as badly as Valverde and, like his teammate, was forced to make a bike change. Unlike Péraud however, Bardet’s change cost him: Van Garderen, who required 2’07” coming into the stage, put 2’09” into the youngster and took fifth place by a mere 2 seconds. It was like a miniature version of Fignon vs. LeMond all over again…the Frenchman losing out right on the final stretch to the American, albeit for minor placings this time.

And so Tony Martin could finally move away from the waiting area and onto the podium and head back to his hotel for a long overdue lie down. His ride was on another level to the rest. He beat Tom Dumoulin by 1 minute, 39 seconds, Jan Barta by 1’47” and was two seconds shy of putting two minutes into the yellow jersey. Still, Nibali won’t mind; he proved himself the strongest over the three weeks as a whole and further illustrated that against his rivals today. He will coast into Paris tomorrow to win the Tour de France.

1. Martin (OPQ) in 1h6’21”
2. Dumoulin (GIA) +1’39”
3. Barta (TNE) +1’47”
4. Nibali (AST) +1’58”
5. Konig (TNE) +2’02”
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +2’08”
7. Péraud (ALM) +2’27”
12. Pinot (FDJ) +3’12”
26. Bardet (ALM) +4’17”
28. Valverde (MOV) +4’28”

1. Nibali (AST) in 86h37’52”
2. Péraud (ALM) +7’52”
3. Pinot (FDJ) +8’24”
4. Valverde (MOV) +9’55”
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +11’44”
6. Bardet (ALM) +11’46”

Pinot v Péraud v Valverde in the time-trial

Forget Vinenzo Nibali. He’s won the Tour now. Nothing shy of serious mechanical trouble or a crash is going to stop him and so with the points, king of the mountains, and team competitions all settled, attention turns to the rest of the podium; the battle for 2nd and 3rd, separated between three men by just 15 seconds and with a 54km time-trial set to decide it.

Here is the current General Classification between the three protagonists of Valverde looking for his first Tour de France podium in six attempts, and Péraud and Pinot looking to become the first Frenchmen since Richard Virenque in 1997 to finish in the top 3:

Péraud +13″
Valverde +15″

So who is going to make the most of this time-trial and grab second, or at least third? It’s extremely hard to say. None of the three are time-trial specialists, but all of them have shown an ability to do well against the clock when required. In particular Valverde and Péraud who have won their national time-trial champions, with Valverde doing just that this year.

It’s difficult to say who will be feeling the best on the day, who the course will suit the best and who has come out of the mountains with the most in their legs. The Pyrenees would suggest Pinot is going the best and Valverde the worst but that rarely stacks up in an individual time-trial.

The only evidence we can really look at is their past head-to-head action, and even that is circumstantial at best. It turns out they’ve done three time-trials in the Tour de France against one another before; two in 2012, one in 2013. There was a second time-trial in 2013 but Pinot had abandoned by then and Péraud crashed out during the warm-up for it.

Here’s how the three time-trials stacked up:

2012 TOUR, STAGE 9, 41.5KM
29. Péraud in 55’03”
34. Valverde +22″
59. Pinot +1’33”

2012 TOUR, STAGE 19, 53.5KM
41. Pinot in 1h09’44”
76. Péraud +1’07”
113. Valverde +3’05”

2013 TOUR, STAGE 11, 33KM
13. Valverde in 38’41”
19. Péraud +10″
55. Pinot +1’16”

Each one of them going the fastest in one of the three. But you have to factor in what was happening at that moment in the Tour. Was one of them a GC contender, was any of them saving energy for a potential stage win instead, were they all feeling at their best? It’s unlikely they done any of those three time-trials with the same mentality that they’ll do this one tomorrow.

Yet it does give an interesting look and it is clear that they’re all pretty close…exactly what we want given how close they also are on GC in this Tour.

There is one other benchmark with which to draw it again. A race far from the prestige of the Tour and a time-trial in which none of them stood to win a podium place but which all three competed as recently as this season: The Tour of the Basque country. It sorted itself as follows:

5. Péraud in 39’08”
8. Valverde +27″
10. Pinot +50″

Once again, there wasn’t much between them.

It really is up for grabs, though if I had to come down off the fence for just a moment I’d stick my neck out and say Péraud will do enough to grab second and Valverde might do enough to take the third overall place. Or maybe they’ll all finish on the exact same time and we’ll wonder what a scenario that might have been had Nibali not been there!

Ramunas Navardauskas pulls out a result for desperate Garmin

Stage 19: Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour to Bergerac, 208.5km. Flat.

Ramunas Navardauskas, the man with the best sounding name in cycling, has ended the Garmin-Sharp teams miserable Tour by picking up a stage victory just three days from Paris. Things went south for Garmin when their team-leader on whom they had pinned all their hopes to the point that veteran team-member David Miller was not selected, abandoned the tour injured on stage 12. Attention turned to stage wins and no doubt the wish that Miller was present, but it was the man who was selected in his place, a potential domestique to Talansky, that came through and grabbed the win.

It was a miserable day all round. It should have been a day for bright faces and tired but happy bodies with the mountains now behind them for good, but the rain came hard and relentless to serve them a reminder as to the conditions they faced earlier in the race.

The tricky conditions as a result put everyone on high alert, nobody wanting to make a mistake now so close to completing the event. At first glance it appeared a stage made for the sprinters but the conditions offered hope to change that and there was also the caveat of a small category four climb close to the finish with which to hurt the already exhausted big sprinters.

That’s where the pressure went on and quickly Marcel Kittel, the favorite to win had things all stayed together, lost contact. Peter Sagan immediately came to mind, but no matter what he has tried to do in this tour he’s always fallen a little short. Today that happened again…though this time it was a literal fall about 3km from the finish that ended his hopes and now leaves the Slovak looking to a guaranteed pure sprinters day in Paris to come away with that illustrious stage win of this Tour to go with his green jersey.

The run-in to the finish and Navardauskas made his move, jumping off the front. He never gained a serious gap but his time-trialing ability was enough to throw the peloton into a panic and it didn’t help them that many of the pure sprinters were no longer there. Leadout men had suddenly become the days stage contenders and the hesitation may have proven enough for Navardauskas to hold them off. One kilometre to go it remained touch and go but who wasn’t willing him to hold on? And hold on he did…by seven good seconds.

Garmin, Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky all lost their main GC rider early in this Tour and all three eventually found themselves looking for stage wins to salvage something from it. Tinkoff came through in style in the mountains with three victories and today Garmin have got one for themselves. It’s hard to see now, with just a time-trial and the sprint into Paris to come, where Sky are going to get that result.

1. Navardauskas (GRS) in 4h43’41”
2. Degenklob (GIA) +7″
3. Kristoff (KAT)
4. Renshaw (OPQ)
5. Bennati (TIN)
6. Petacchi (OPQ) all s.t.

Overall: No change.