Aussie Michael Rogers grabbed a hard-fought win at the end of stage 6 from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon on Tuesday. It was the first Tour de France win for the Tinkoff-Saxo rider, who after grabbing a spot in an early breakaway of 21 riders, pushed away from a much smaller group of survivors at 4km to go, then soloed to the line.
Fellow escapees Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Vasili Kiryienka (Sky) rounded out the day's top 3, trailing across just nine seconds later to conclude the first of three days in the Pyrenees.
In the chase for the yellow jersey, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) continued his stellar defense of his race lead, maintaining his 4:37 advantage over Alejandro Valverde. But there was a major shake-up just below the Italian. Hard efforts by Valverde and then Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) dislodged American Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and then former third placed rider and white jersey holder Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) during the stage's final ascent, up the hors categorie Port de Bales, a 11.7km gut-punch with an average grade of 7.7%.
Van Garderen suffered the worst, losing more than four minutes on the yellow jersey group, and falling to sixth in the GC, 9:25 behind Nibali, and more importantly more than four minutes out of third place. It would appear the BMC rider's chances for a spot on the final podium have been washed away, though he would beg to differ.
"Movistar just made an insane tempo and it was just too hard," Van Garderen said. "I just kind of didn't have the legs and felt a bit empty. I am really hoping I can bounce tomorrow and recover the legs I had in the Alps. It is not finished. There are still three hard GC days to come, so I am hoping to bounce back."
Meanwhile, Bardet dropped from third to fifth and is now 1:34 behind Pinot in both the chase for third place on the final podium and the white jersey best young rider competition. In between the two young Frenchman is an old one, 36-year-old Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2R-La Mondiale), who's now fourth, 6:08 back of Nibali, but just 1:02 behind Pinot. It will be interesting to see which rider - Bardet or Peraud - gets full team support going forward.
Tuesday's monster 237.5km stage (longest of this year's Tour) started in earnest when a group of 21 escaped around the 100km mark, then hit the low slopes of the final climb together. Soon, though, the lead group disintegrated, with first Rogers and then Voeckler putting in hard digs on the way up the crushing ascent.
That whittled the front group to four with Cyril Gautier (Europcar) and José Serpa (Col) Lampre-Merida joining Rogers and Voeckler for the final showdown. Initially the Europcar teammates ganged up on the other two, launching attacks on several occasions. But Rogers looked to be the strongest rider in the group, each time pulling the quartet back together.
Gautier was first to crack, coming unhitched about 3km from the summit. That left just three going over the top for the final run to Bagneres-de-Luchon. Behind it was a similar story, with the yellow jersey group dwindling under relentless pressure from Valverde and Pinot.
Once past the summit it was a battle of descending skills and nerve for both groups, with speeds nearing 60mph. Up front Kiryienka (Sky) caught Gautier, then pulled the pair back to the leading group. Behind Pinot and a teammate did their best to drive the pace, trying to put as much time as possible into Bardet and Van Garderen.
Soon after Gautier and Kiryienka reintegrated the front group, Rogers countered an attack from Europcar that would eventually net the win. Meanwhile, Nibali and the rest of the lead GC group stayed on the gas all the way to the finish, doing major damage to those behind. See stage 16 results here.
STAGE 16 PHOTOS
Stage 16's ride from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon included a quick trip through the Grotto of the Maz d'Azil. Photo by Graham Watson
A 21-rider break escaped early in the stage and built a lead that helped propel Aussie Michael Rogers to his first career Tour de France stage victory. Fifteen of the 21 escapees finished ahead of the yellow jersey group. Photo by Graham Watson
Just days after Jack Bauer's near miss at the end of stage 15, Garmin-Sharp was once again playing an aggressive role, placing riders in the breakaway. Photo by Graham Watson
The sun - and the sunflowers - shown brightly during stage 16 at the 2014 Tour de France. Photo by Graham Watson
After initially being dropped out of the front group, Team Sky's Vasili Kiryienka clawed back to the leaders and ended up third on the stage. Photo by Graham Watson
Trek Factory Racing's Frank Schleck has spent most of this year's Tour de France aboard the Wisconsin-based bike maker's new race rig, the ultra light Emonda. Too bad the UCI still has a silly minimum weight rule, which negates any real advantage the new bike might offer. Photo by Graham Watson
Cool, calm and always in the right place, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) maintained his commanding lead in the hunt for the yellow jersey. Barring a crash or sickness, Nibali will win this year's Tour de France going away. Photo by Graham Watson
Some tranquil spinning early in the stage gave way to a hellish hors categorie climb closer to the finish. Photo by Graham Watson
BMC's Tejay van Garderen had his worst day of the Tour, getting sawed off the lead group on the final climb, and watching his slim final podium hopes likely disappear up the road. Photo by Graham Watson
Aussie Michael Rogers timed his final attack to perfection, overcoming a pair of Europcar riders to slip away for his first career Tour de France stage win. Photo by Graham Watson
STAGE 16 GALLERY