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Romain Bardet wins Tour de France Stage 12, Aru takes yellow

Stu Bowers
13 Jul 2017

First real mountain test shakes up the GC as it all goes wrong for Team Sky

Romain Bardet won Stage 12 of the 2017 Tour de France, but Italy's Fabio Aru took third place to take over the race lead from Team Sky's Chris Froome.

In the longest mountain stage of this year's Tour Froome's Sky Team did everything right in the build up but when it came to the final shakedown, in an explosive final 500m Froome found himself distanced by most of his key rivals.

Aru now leads the Tour overall, by just 6 seconds, thanks in part to the time bonus he received for his third place finish, while Bardet's win lifted him to third overall.

Today, the half way point of the race, was always going to be a tough day with a gruelling 214.5km parcours. In seemingly textbook style Sky's Mikel Landa delivered Froome almost to within sight of the line, but it was a case of so close but yet so far, as the final steep slope up to Peyragudes proved a tough test.

Froome found himself unable to match the pace of main rivals Aru and Bardet, coming across the line in 7th place, 22 seconds back. 

Aru became the first rider ever to take the yellow jersey off Chris Froome's back in the mountains, and there's definitely still all to play for, with the top three places now only separated by 25 seconds.

How Stage 12 played out

As it so often has been, Pau was again the race’s gateway to the Pyrenees, and signalled the first true vertiginous test for the GC contenders, with six categorised climbs, and a mountain top finish - the second of three in this year's race - in Peyragudes. 

The race rolled out on wet roads in foggy conditions, but that didn't dampen the spirits of those looking for an early escape, with plenty of attacks coming no sooner had the flag gone in.

Nothing seemed to stick though, as the peloton seemed keener than usual to police these early moves.

Finally, after around 20km, a break went clear, containing amongst several other strong riders, the green jersey, Marcel Kittel. It looked like a strong move with a number of the key teams represented, with the most notable absentee being Team Sky.

Also in the move of 12 were the likes of Dimension Data's Steve Cummings, Quick Step's Jack Bauer, Sunweb's Michael Matthews, BMC's Stefan Küng and Lotto Soudal's Thomas De Gendt - so there was plenty of firepower and the break quickly built up a sizable advantage of over 4 minutes.

There were no real climbers in the group and the best placed rider on GC was AG2R-La Modiale's Cyril Gautier, at 51 mins, so there was little cause for Team Sky to panic, but regardless it was the white jerseys and yellow helmets that were amassed on the front of the peloton, controlling the pace and keeping a close eye on the time gap.

The first climb came at 64km, the Côte de Capvern, a Cat 4 climb (7.7km; 3.1% ave). Thomas de Gendt took the single KOM point on offer but it didn't change the shape of things up front, as the break stayed together. It was, after all, a tiny bump by comparison to what the stage had in store later.

With points jersey leader Marcel Kittel and second placed Michael Matthews both in the break, the first intermediate sprint was something of a formality, Kittel just having to mark his man (dutifully aided by team mate Jack Bauer) to maintain what already looks to be an unassailable lead in the green jersey competition.

The whole of Team Sky bossed the head of the main peloton, kilometre after kilometre, as the break forged an advantage of over 6 minutes. Brit, Luke Rowe, and German, Christian Knees, appeared to do the lion’s share of the work.

It was questionable whether Sky needed to be so militant with so much climbing still to come. With the attacks that would inevitably come, Chris Froome was potentially going to need his faithful lieutenants fresh-legged later in the stage.

The first proper climb was the Cat 1 ascent of the Col de Menté (6.9km; 8.1% ave) with 139.5km gone, and by the time the break away arrived at its base its lead was still over six minutes.

The break maintained its unity on the climb, but unfortunately the gradient was still too much for Kittel who was quickly distanced by the lead pack.
Over the top of the Col de Menté it was Aussie Michael Matthews (Sunweb) that surged successfully ahead to take maximum KOM points, unselfishly looking after the interests of team mate, and current polka dot jersey wearer Warren Barguil, by denying Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) the full 10 points.

The valley road after the descent of the Col de Menté was a chance to recover before things got really serious as the Hors Category climb, the Port De Balès (11.7km; 7.7% ave) loomed large.

Team Sky were still the ones forcing the pace as the peloton finally started to shrink the breakaway’s lead.

As expected the Port De Balès did its damage to the cohesion of both the breakaway and the main field.

Michael Matthews was the first to be shelled from the break, whilst Fortuneo-Oscaro’s Brice Feillu was the first to show he was feeling good, attacking with team mate Maxime Bouet to try and bridge from the main pack to across to the break.

It was a cavalier move especially as Team Sky continued to inject pace behind, and Bouet could not assist his team leader for long, but Feillu appeared strong as he powered on alone.

Steve Cummings proved he was the strongest of the early breakaway by riding Thomas De Gendt off his wheel and summiting the Port De Balès alone.

Polka Dot jersey wearer Warren Barguil (Sunweb) was the next of the front men to show his hand and attack from the yellow jersey group, closely followed by Alberto Contador.

It was futile though as Team Sky’s pace setting meant they didn’t get far, and as the lead group whittled to a selection of less than 20 riders, and with less than 30km to go, Cummings was a lone leader whilst the main favourites were all back together.

One notable casualty today was Astana’s Jacob Fuglslang, who fell heavily in yesterday’s stage, fracturing bones in his wrist and elbow. Fuglsland looked in pain and lost a lot of time to the leaders, seeing his hopes of a top placing slip away.

The remainder of this stage was far from a formality though. There was still a lot of climbing to do, not least the not insignificant lump that is the Cat 1, Col Du Peyresourde (9.7km; 7.8%ave).

Froome and Aru had a lucky escape approaching the Peyresourde as the lead group misjudged its pace on a bend and several riders went straight on, narrowly avoiding disaster by mounting the verge and darting between spectators and camper vans.

Incredibly no one actually crashed and what could have been a very significant turn of events, was quickly neutralised.

It wasn’t long though before Chris Froome and his troops were again back controlling things on the front and as the race hit the steepest slopes of the Col Du Peyresourde the damage they were doing was clear to see.

Riders were continually being spat out the back, including first emphatically dropping Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, and then the KOM Barguil.
Froome’s tactics were textbook, holding back his wingmen Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve to wind up the pace, making it impossible for any of his rivals to attack.

Almost within sight of the summit of the Col Du Peyresourde, Contador was the next to go, as the group dwindled to just 10 riders over the top with a fast descent ahead of them before they hit the final steep climb up to Peyragudes.

Peyragudes is only a short climb, but inside the final kilometre it gets seriopusly steep, and this is where the lead group finally blew apart.

Froome looked to be playing the perfect waiting game, clinging tightly to team mate Mikel Landa’s wheel, but when the chips went down he could only look on as his main rivals distanced him.

He tried valiantly to limit his losses and keep the yellow jersey on his back, but it wasn't to be, as he slipped to 7th place, 22 seconds back, to lose the overall race lead.

This race then is far from a full-gone conclusion, and with a long way still to go, it looks like Team Sky will need to re-think its straetgy over the coming days. What's certain is the excitement has been turned up a few notches and this is turning into a proper race.