Movistar's Rui Costa has taken the second Tour de France stage win of his career, the Portuguese rider getting into a big breakaway group of 26 riders that formed early on during today's Stage 16 to Gap and attacking on the final climb, the Col de Manse and keeping away on a fast, 11.5 kilometre descent to take victory. Behind, there was drama among the overall contenders as Alberto Contador misjudged a corner and race leader Chris Froome of Team Sky almost came off his bike, the pair having to chase back on to catch a group containing Belkin's Bauke Mollema, second overall.
Four riders in pursuit of Costa crossed the line 42 seconds behind him, with Christophe Riblon of AG2R-La Mondiale taking second place and FDJ.fr's Arnold Jeannesson finishing third as France continues to wait for a home stage win in this year's race.
By the time the escapees were on that final climb of the 168 kilometre stage from Vaison-la-Romaine, the main group including race leader Froome were more than 10 minutes down the road, and on the ascent of the Col de Manse, Contador attacked repeatedly.
The tactics resulted in a select group of 8 riders forming, with Saxo-Tinkoff's aim likely to have been a combination of aiming to isolate Froome as well as seeking to put Mollema into trouble.
Mollema's team mate Laurens ten Dam, fifth overrall this morning, had already been dropped early on during that final climb, and in further cause for celebration in the Movistar camp, it's Nairo Quintana who moves into that position on the general classification and the Colombian also extends his lead in the best young rider's competition.
Contador’s plans to distance Mollema, who led him by 11 seconds on the General Classification this morning, almost backfired, however, on the quick, snaking descent into Gap.
The Spaniard was forcing the pace on the way down, but encountered a problem on a corner – it’s unclear whether he actually came off the bike – with Froome riding onto the grass verge and having to unclip.
The race leader appeared to hold back and wait for Contador, before the pair, together with Froome’s lieutenant and former Saxo Bank rider Richie Porte, battled to rejoin the five riders on the road ahead.
As they made the bridge with less than 2 kilometres remaining, Contador, who had seemed to be getting some grief from Froome over his apparent lack of desire to help in the chase, gave a thumbs up to the Movistar pair of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana.
Presumably that was in part for Costa’s stage win, but perhaps also for the fact they didn’t look to press home any advantage following that episode on the descent.
Costa had already crossed the finish line by the time Contador and Froome were hitting problems on the descent.
The 26-year-old, winner of Stage 8 of the 2011 race to Super Besse and twice overall victor of the Tour de Suisse, had set off on the Category 2 Col de Manse in pursuit of two French riders who had already attacked from the break, Blel Kadri of AG2R and Sojasun’s Jean Marc Marino.
Any hopes the French public may have had of either of them securing the country’s first stage win of the 100th edition of the Tour – only twice in the previous 99 editions has the race’s home country drawn a blank – were dashed as they fell back.
By the time Costa was heading over the summit of the 9.5 kilometre climb, which has an average gradient of 5.2%, three other Frenchmen were among four riders in pursuit of him.
Those were Riblon, Jeannesson, and Jerome Coppel of Cofidis, with the German rider Andreas Klöden of RadioShack-Leopard completing the quartet.
Costa rode a perfect descent however, and was able to celebrate his victory long before crossing the finish line.
With an individual time trial tomorrow and three big days in the Alps afterwards, including that unprecedented double ascent of the Alpe d’Huez on Thursday, this always looked like being an afternoon when a break would stick.
There was no shortage of riders looking to get into it, including riders from teams yet to make their mark on the race, and no fewer than eight Frenchmen, looking for that elusive win.
There was no shortage of pedigree in that group, which included riders such as Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, work champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Orica-GreenEdge’s Michael Albasini, Nicolas Roche of Saxo-Tinkoff and the Vacansoleil-DCM pair of Thomas De Gendt and Johnny Hoogerland.
The break had started to form on the day’s first climb, the Category 3 Côte de la Montagne de Bluye, its final composition taking shape on the subsequent Category 2 ascent of the Col de Macuègne, the summit of which came with 120 kilometres still to go.
With Costa the best placed rider on General Classification but trailing Froome by more than half an hour, Sky were happy to let the escapees build up a significant advantage, which would receive a boost when the main peloton briefly found itself held up at a level crossing as a train went by.
The move by Costa on that last climb of the day split the group apart, however, and despite the efforts of riders including Voeckler and Roche to try and bring him back, their hopes of glory had ended well before the summit as the Portuguese rider clinched Movistar’s first stage win of this year’s race.
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