After nine straight days of intense competition, including a number of new start and finish points which had never before featured in the Tour de France, the riders were finally given the chance to rest. But with just 24 hours to relax and recuperate in the commune of Pau, there was little time to take stock as to how things had progressed.
Each team was also acutely aware of the fact that the stages which had been completed thus far were across fairly flat landscapes, making them a walk in the park in comparison with the three consecutive mountain stages which were to be faced next.
Back in the Saddle
Stage ten got under way and proved to be one of the most dramatic and divisive days of the tour, if only from a competitive perspective. Chris Froome was eventually able to win the day, having mounted a strategically-timed assault on the front runners with just four miles to go before the finish line. He managed to cross it 60 seconds ahead of key rival Nairo Quintana and also outdid fellow Team Sky rider Richie Porte.
The effort involved in taking on the steep inclines to complete this stage, which concluded at La Pierre Saint-Martin high in the Pyrenees mountain range, meant that significant gaps developed in the field as some teams and riders fared better than others.
The mountaineering efforts of the riders continued in stage eleven, commencing in Pau and covering 117 miles to Cauterets. In the end it was Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo who found the energy within to win, breaking away from the rest of the pack and completing the course a full minute in front of Dan Martin riding for Cannondale-Garmin.
Sometimes it takes enterprising efforts from individual riders to benefit the team as a whole, although there are many instances in which sticking together and keeping to the game plan can be a better strategy than attempting to solo a stage.
Froome went into stage twelve in the lead and did not lose it in this instance, although it was not he but rather Joaquim Rodriguez who managed to claim victory on the route between Lannemezan and Plateau de Beille. This was made possible because Rodriguez latched onto a breakaway group comprised of 21 other riders which separated itself from the rest of the pack early in the stage and maintained its strong lead throughout.
When the riders faced the tough climb at the end of stage 13, it was the members of BMC Racing Team, led by Greg Van Avermaet, who proved to be capable of making the most of their time in the saddle that day. And while this was categorised as a medium-mountain stage, its added length meant that it was in no way a respite for the riders who had been pushed so hard in the previous three days of the Tour de France.
Another climb was set to put riders to the test during the closing section of stage fourteen, with 24 riders pushing ahead together to make this ascent an exciting and potentially race-defining moment. When the riders made it to Brenoux Airport and the finish line, it was British competitor Steve Cummings who managed to snatch victory after overtaking Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot in the final moments.
It was another four minutes before Froome and Quintana completed the stage, with the former managing to outdo the latter in a high octane sprint. This was still enough to give Quintana the edge and push him up into second position, putting more pressure on Froome in the process and showing that there was still plenty of room for changeovers at the top of the ladder.
Keep on Climbing
Another day, another decisive climb as stage fifteen got under way and pitted the riders against the intimidating ascent up Col de l’Escrinet. Although Mark Cavendish was not able to complete this stage with the other sprinters who made up the lead group, his was the only notable absence. Andre Greipel was first across the line, proving that he was still an important figure to look out for in the tour.
With a rest day tantalisingly close, the riders got down to the business of taking on the 125 mile route of stage sixteen between Bourg-de-Peage and Gap, safe in the knowledge that they would soon be able to take a break. Standing in their way was the climb of Col de Manse, with Ruben Plaza taking the initiative, breaking away from the rest of the riders and even managing to stave off the advances of Peter Sagan who gave chase in the closing mile.
With the first two thirds of the Tour de France now completed, a clearer picture of the top contenders was emerging and plenty of media pundits were willing to make firmer predictions as to who would come out on top in the end. But with just a single stage victory to his name at this point, Chris Froome’s eventual tour win was far from a given at this point.