BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, France (AP) — The Pyrenees on Tuesday lived up to their reputation for causing ups and downs at the Tour de France: A French rider climbed in the standings, an American went down, and an Australian rebounding from an ordeal of doping suspicions won Stage 16 in a downhill breakaway.
Riding in his 10th Tour, three-time world champion Michael Rogers of Australia won his first Tour stage behind savvy racing, well-paced riding and the absence of his Tinkoff-Saxo Bank leader Alberto Contador. The Spaniard crashed out in Stage 10, inadvertently freeing up Rogers to go after the stage win.
Race leader Vincenzo Nibali was still descending from the day’s biggest climb, the Porte de Bales, as Rogers crossed and finished 8-1/2 minutes later. But the Italian looks even more likely to win the three-week race on Sunday after keeping pace with possible contenders for the yellow jersey, and gaining time on two others.
One of the laggards was Tejay van Garderen. Unable to keep pace on the Port de Bales, the 25-year-old American was more than 3-1/2 minutes after Nibali. Van Garderen only slipped a spot in the standings, to sixth, but the gap to the rider ahead of him grew.
The other laggard was France’s Romain Bardet, who finished nearly two minutes back of Nibali.
Thibaut Pinot, however, kept pace with Nibali and replaced Bardet as France’s top podium hopeful: He rose to third.
For the second straight year, the race’s entree to the Pyrenees has dented Van Garderen’s podium ambitions.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” the American said outside his BMC team bus. “I had high hopes for a podium and now it looks like it’s taken a big hit ... I just didn’t have the legs, I felt a bit empty.”
“I’m just hoping I can bounce back and have a better day tomorrow.”
A year ago, the Montana native lost more than 10 minutes to the main contenders, including Chris Froome who went on to win that Tour, as they rode up to the Ax 3 Domaines ski station on Stage 8. The year before, in his Tour debut, he lost seconds in the title quest during two Pyrenean stages, but still finished fifth overall and took home the white jersey given to the race’s best young rider.
For Rogers, the 237.5-kilometer (147-mile) leg from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon — the longest stage this year — was one of vindication and overdue Tour glory. He took a bow as he crossed the line.
“Every cyclist’s dream is to win a stage at the Tour de France,” said Rogers, who also won two stages on Italy’s Giro this year. “I can’t describe the joy I felt in the last 500 meters ... I hope I don’t have to wait another 10 years to experience it again.”
Rogers came close not to riding in the Giro or the Tour at all.
In a ruling in April, the International Cycling Union accepted that meat Rogers ate in China last year probably caused his positive doping test at the Japan Cup shortly afterward. He convinced the UCI that he had not intended to cheat, and said the episode was “a very difficult time” for his family.
Rogers was suspended after that positive test. Underscoring the pressure, Cycling Australia said at the time that it would seek a maximum two-year ban if he had been found guilty of doping.
He knew the effects of clenbuterol, which helps to build muscle and burn fat, on riders’ careers. Contador lost his 2010 Tour title and served a two-year ban after testing positive for it in the final week of that race. The Spaniard also argued that ingested it through food, but lost his case.
After the UCI ruling in his own case, Rogers said Tuesday he returned with “a different outlook on life ... Sometimes you need a lesson in life to see the silver lining in the cloud.”
Rogers might not have had a chance to win a Tour stage if Contador were still racing this year, because his job would have been more of a support rider. Once the Spaniard crashed out, the team’s Plan B was to aim for stage victories.
“I can be grateful, but I’m also very heartbroken that Alberto’s not here,” Rogers said.
As the day began, a breakaway group of 21 riders came together over the first two hours and stuck together for much of the day, chiseling out a lead of more than 12 minutes. Their unity disintegrated on the 12-kilometer Port de Bales, which is considered so hard that it’s beyond classification in cycling’s ranking system.
In its steepest patch, the gradient reached 11 percent. Rogers was in a bunch of five riders that came together in the final descent, and he stepped on the accelerator with less than 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) left.
After Tuesday, Nibali leads second-place Alejandro Valverde of Spain by 4 minutes, 37 seconds, and Pinot is 5:06 back. French veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud is fourth, at 6:08, and Bardet is 6:40 behind. Van Garderen is 9:25 adrift.
It was just an appetizer for the Pyrenees, with uphill finishes to follow on Wednesday and Thursday. Aside from the time trial to come, Stage 17 starting in Saint-Gaudens will be the shortest stage of this year’s race, at 124.5 kilometers (77 miles). It features three hard Category 1 climbs, and an ascent to the Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet ski station.
The final big test will come in the 54-kilometer (33.6-mile) time trial on Saturday, which is expected to determine the final result for a largely ceremonial ride for the yellow jersey a day later on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.