Five of the best… Stages from 2015

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2015 delivered some cracking stage racing and credit should go to riders for their approach to competition. The Tour de France did a reasonable job at living up to its hype, though we were a good way into the race before Team Sky’s defence cracked under the efforts of Movistar. Fans’ expectations were instead left in the reliable hands of Peter Sagan who entertained throughout with his stage hunting efforts.

An honourable mention should go to the Tour’s Alpe d’Huez stage where a struggling Chris Froome was distanced by Nairo Quintana. The Colombian’s magnificent move went unrewarded as he was unsuccessful at both stealing yellow from Froome and catching escapee leader Thibaut Pinot. Cast your mind back to May and you’ll recall a Giro d’Italia of three distinct and exciting parts. The blistering opening week saw a crazy stage belonging to Davide Formolo and a handful of mini-battles between Richie Porte, Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru. The mid-race saw Contador put his foot down to seize the Maglia Rosa, before Astana and Aru dominated the final summits of the race. The Vuelta a Espana refused to pass quietly with frenetic racing from day one and a whole host of stages genuinely good enough to be considered best of the year.

We saw many other great stages too; Rohan Dennis kicking away for victory into Stirling; Chris Froome and Contador exchanging blows in Andalucia; Quintana topping a snowy peak in Tirreno-Adriatico; Pinot conquering Switzerland’s climb into Solden and Johan Le Bon surviving a day-long escape at the Eneco Tour. Looking beyond these, here’s five of the best.

Giro d’Italia Stage 15

In terms of astonishment, the way the race broke up on Stage 4 of the Giro cannot be bettered but for a genuinely exciting summit battle it was Stage 15 in Italy that gets the nod. By the fifteenth stage of the Giro we had already seen our fair share of action but Astana were prepared to take the fight to Contador once more on the Madonna di Campiglio. With a break splintering apart up the road, Astana put their foot down and reduced the pack leaving Contador outnumbered six to one. The Spaniard seemed unfazed by his Tinkoff team’s absence and happily nestled into the light blue train, even springing a surprise attack to take intermediate bonus seconds. Mikel Landa started off proceedings, lifting the tempo sharply and forcing Contador into a chase. Fabio Aru steadily rode across the gap and it was difficult to know who the underdog was; the young Sardinian with vastly superior support or the six time Grand Tour winner left to fight alone for most of the day?

The real man to get behind was in fact Katusha’s Yuri Trofimov who had clawed his way back to the front alongside Aru and was fighting tooth and nail to stay in touch. The four all exchanged moves on the ramped finish with a watchful Contador switching from attack to defence to keep Astana at bay. In what was a fantastic move, Trofimov jumped off the back and rounded the group for what looked like victory. We had all, however, underestimated what Landa had left and the Spaniard made chase, passing the dogged Russian with 400m to go. Behind, Aru and Contador sprinted for third place with El Pistolero pinching another few seconds. Following a tactical day of climbing, the final kilometers of Stage 15 were superb and set the tone for the equally as exciting Stage 16.

Tour of California Stage 7

Along with fellow 2.HC races the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Oman, the Amgen Tour of California is capable of packing a serious punch with its Queen Stage. What often makes these stages even better is the distinctly non-European landscape. Mt.Baldy is to California what Green Mountain is to Oman and both climbs have their own mystique making each edition a thrilling return. California often attracts a hungry field of non-Giro riders and the summits are fiercely contested. This year’s Stage 7 was no different but the riders who animated the short, hard 129km stage were not the on-paper favourites. The last 30km were nearly all up-hill, though the real fun began on the final 8km and the true Mt.Baldy ascent, finishing with 14% gradients. The winner, Julian Alaphillippe, boasts a competitive sprint and twinned with his fledging climbing ability looks a future Liege winner. He was a shock star of the stage toppling Sky’s attempts to set up Sergio Henao.

The likes of Robert Gesink were dropped under Sky’s rhythm but race leader Peter Sagan remained despite expectation that he would lose the lead to a recognised climber. With around 5.5km left Henao made his move but a lively Alaphilippe countered. Whilst not quite Contador/Schleck, the pair’s accelerations made for some great racing and Alaphillipe, in the middle of his revelatory spring, eventually rode away for a fantastic victory. Behind, and every bit as impressive, Peter Sagan soldiered on to the amazement of the commentators. It was a remarkable defensive performance and the future World Champion finished sixth on the day. In the final few kilometres everybody looked pained on the cracked slopes of Mt.Baldy and Sagan’s heroics saw him finish 47 seconds behind Alaphilippe, losing the jersey by two seconds and setting up an exciting final stage.

Criterium du Dauphine Stage 5

The Pra Loup stage of the Dauphine was a dress rehearsal for Stage 17 of the Tour de France but my preference goes to the junior race. TV coverage was keen to show the famous Pra Loup stage where Bernard Thevenet attacked Eddy Merckx on route to his 1975 Tour victory and, whilst excitement may not have reached those levels, it was another Frenchman who lit up the slopes forty years on. Romain Bardet has already shown enough to suggest he has the talent to win big races but on the slopes of the Col d’Alos he displayed his nerves of steel in a rampaging descent. A kilometre from cresting the summit he took off- a term that really describes his attack- but the gap really opened up on the swooping corners of the descent. He flew round each one, effortlessly finding the fastest lines, and dealt damage to the tentative chasing pack. His speed at times was breathtaking and he built a lead of 1 minute 20 approaching the bounce up to Pra Loup, holding strong until the final kilometers of the climb.

The odds had swung overwhelmingly in his favour as he continued to edge away from the chasers but there was still time for Chris Froome to play a hand 1500m from the line. His characteristic attack went initially unfollowed but Benat Intxausti and Tejay Van Garderen responded well. Froome was on a mission but it was Van Garderen’s measured approach that proved the more successful. The BMC leader rode his way onto Froome’s wheel before pushing onwards impressively to steal four seconds and take the race lead. Sadly, the day’s events proved to be false dawns for both Bardet and Van Garderen with the Frenchman unable to repeat his Pra Loup heroics the following month and Froome toppling Van Garderen two days later on Mont Blanc.

Romain Bardet Dauphine Stage 5

Tour de France Stage 16

One of many stages contested by that man Peter Sagan, Stage 16 of the Tour de France led to Oleg Tinkoff remarking he was the strongest man in the race. Not far behind Andre Greipel in the sprints, Sagan summoned his inner-climber in the latter half of the race, getting involved in successful escapes to Mende on Stage 14 and Gap on the brilliant Stage 16. The large break included experienced Grand Tour stage winners Adam Hansen, Thomas de Gendt, Tommy Voeckler and Ruben Plaza, but Peter Sagan showed early on he was more than just a passenger. On the slopes of the Col de Manse Sagan worked to limit and chase attacks with his steady, low cadence riding. The group continued to splinter with Sagan untroubled and surviving each cut. With 18km to go Ruben Plaza rode away from the pack in what ultimately proved to be the winning move. The Spanish veteran was the strongest climber on the day, opening up a gap of a minute to his rivals.

The real action began on the descent- already famous for Joseba Beloki’s horrible crash in 2003- when Sagan set off in a furious chase. He crested the climb in second place and began to eat into Plaza’s lead. Living up to his reputation as a phenomenal bike handler, Sagan moved easily away from his companions (save for Jarlinson Pantano) finding fast and aggressive lines. As the gap tumbled down most were hoping Sagan’s string of Tour near-misses was coming to an end. There was something particularly exciting about the high speed chase and it would have made for a brilliant story should Sagan have finally claimed his win. Sadly, cycling did not allow for such a tale as Sagan’s superiority reduced on the flatter final stretch and he rode home dejected, beating his chest in a reference to The Wolf of Wall Street. The Slovakian’s frustration reached its peak during the final week of the Tour de France but it was this that made October’s World Championship victory an even greater tale.

Vuelta a Espana Stage 9

This 168km stage was largely flat until a fierce Spanish ascent 4km from the finish line. There had been much action already in the race, and plenty more to follow, but Stage 9 saw some of the best racing in recent years. The peloton fiercely ate into the breakaway’s gap shortly before the Alto de Puig Llorenca began and we waited in anticipation for the attacks to arrive. The steep opening slopes broke up the pack and a selection of the world’s best appeared at the front.

A succession of attacks started with Movistar pair Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. Their efforts pulled a group clear and the race favourites distanced a struggling Chris Froome. It was remarkable how many riders would play their hand shortly before drifting to the back of the group looking pained and short of energy. With 2.7km to Tom Dumoulin powered on and it was genuinely shocking to see the big Dutchman soar up the climb and put pressure on his lighter, more explosive, rivals. Race leader Esteban Chaves hit the front in pursuit of Dumoulin, the two continuing their battle over the leader’s jersey. Dumoulin’s move was eventually shut down before Fabio Aru suffered the same fate. With 1.7km to go a relentless Dumoulin put in another stinging attack and finally got away. Astonishing to those watching, Froome had pedalled his way back into the mix and his Team Sky headed a newly assembled chasing pack. Dumoulin powered on but plenty had plans to ruin his day. Rafal Majka was the next to try his luck but with 700m to go he was usurped by a resurgent Froome. Dragging a patient Joaquim Rodriguez with him, Froome reached and passed Dumoulin who looked drained for the first time. The final metres of the stage seemed to go on forever and there was still time for an almighty twist. With Froome riding away to glory Dumoulin rose up out of his saddle and stomped his way back to the head of the race. Froome looked beaten for the second time that day and Dumoulin snatched the win. If you were to watch just one of these stages on YouTube, this would be the one.

Tom Dumoulin Vuelta Stage 9

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