Tour de France: Kristoff storms to Stage 15 win; Nibali leads


NIMES, France — Almost at the line, Jack Bauer and Martin Elmiger were exhausted but could see it coming — their first Tour de France stage victory. Those last 50 or so yards, however, got in the way.

A bunch of sprinters leading the pack came speeding like a runaway train and plowed past the huffing breakaway duo in the final milliseconds. Stage 15 belonged to Norwegian speedster Alexander Kristoff, his second stage victory in this Tour.

The 138-mile stage went smoothly for overall leader Vincenzo Nibali of Italy. He made sure his main rivals couldn’t claw back any time, and he kept his yellow jersey by finishing in the trailing pack.

After two days in the Alps, Sunday’s stage offered some relief over a flat course from Tallard, southeast France’s parachuting capital, toward Nimes, known for its Roman arena and bullfighting. More relief comes Monday — a second rest day.

This ride showed yet again on the Tour how mighty efforts so often go unrewarded.

Bauer is a New Zealander who had a better shot of holding off the sprinters than Swiss champion Elmiger. Bauer dropped his bike after the finish line, sat on the ground and cupped his face in his hands, crying. They had led nearly from the starter’s gun.

“It’s a fantasy for any cyclist to win a stage at the Tour and especially for a Kiwi cyclist, not many of us turn professional and not many of us get a chance to start the Tour de France,” Bauer said.

The 29-year-old rider came to the Tour to help Garmin-Sharp leader Andrew Talansky, who dropped out before Stage 12 because of injuries from an earlier crash.

The pack perfectly timed its move on the breakaway duo and proved too strong. Bauer was pedaling with his last remaining strength, and when he looked back a last time they were already zooming by. He finished in 10th place, with Elmiger 16th.

“I really gave it absolutely everything, and as you can see from my meltdown at the finish I was pretty disappointed to come away empty-handed,” Bauer added, noting he’s usually a support rider. “I thought I had it, but then I realized in the last 50 meters that I had nothing.”

The Swiss rider with IAM Cycling took it more in stride. This, after all, wasn’t the first breakaway to fail in this Tour.

“I am not disappointed because I actually did not have the best legs today,” Elmiger said. “Being caught by the pack is not so bad when you are convinced you have given everything. As I have already said three times this Tour after breaks have failed, one of these days the wheels will turn in my favor.”

Kristoff, a Katusha rider who also won Stage 12, sighed in relief.

“It was a little bit late for comfort. It was very close,” he said. “I thought I would be second. … We turned on the gas.”

“Of course, that’s a pity for them, but I don’t feel sorry for them,” he said. “Normally, the break should never have had a chance, but they did. They were really strong guys. … That must have been really hard.”

With about 12 miles (20 kilometers) left, rain briefly doused the riders, though skies brightened by the end. A series of roundabouts and leg fatigue among the sprinters after the Alpine stages gave an advantage to the breakaway pair until the final seconds.

Nibali kept his main rivals for the Tour title at bay. He leads Spain’s Alejandro Valverde by 4:37 while Romain Bardet of France is third, 4:50 behind. American Tejay van Garderen is fifth, 5:49 back.

Nibali, the leader of Kazakh team Astana, is in good shape to take the yellow jersey when the three-week race ends next Sunday in Paris. Some of his closest rivals have already said the race is now for second place.

The Italian has shown savvy — gaining time on cobblestone patches in Stage 2 — and nearly insurmountable dominance on high climbs. He won Stage 13’s entree into the Alps and was second a day later, also in the snow-capped mountains.

On Sunday, Nibali showed he wasn’t leaving any chances to his rivals. With about 39 miles (65 kilometers) left, he sped out of the pack and briefly took the lead.

“At that moment, there was a lot of side wind,” he said. “I really didn’t want to miss the good opportunity and try to move up into position … because when there’s wind, you have to be at the front.”

More grueling climbs loom in the Pyrenees this week before the only individual time trial of this Tour on Saturday.

Tour de France

NIMES, France — A brief look at the 15th stage:

Stage: A long, flat transition stage that took riders out of the Alps, across the lavender fields of Provence and into the ancient Roman city of Nimes near the Mediterranean coast. Riders began the 138-mile race under sunny skies in Tallard but the stage ended in a stormy downpour.

Winner: Alexander Kristoff of Norway. The 27-year-old Team Katusha sprinter led a rushing pack past the day’s two-man breakaway in the final yards, winning in a time of just under five hours. Australia’s Heinrich Haussler was second and Slovak Peter Sagan was third, in the same time.

Yellow jersey: Vincenzo Nibali finished safely in the pack, leaving his overall lead unchanged at 4:37 over second place Alejandro Valverde of Spain. Frenchman Romain Bardet remains in third place at 4:50.

Quote of the day: "Of course, that’s a pity for them. But I don’t feel sorry for them. Today, normally the break(away) should never have had a chance. But they did. They were really strong guys." — Kristoff, paying tribute to Jack Bauer and Martin Elmiger, the two escapees who spent the entire stage on a breakaway only to be caught in the final meters.

Stat of the day: 0. The number of New Zealanders to win a stage of the Tour de France, much to the chagrin of Garmin-Sharp Kiwi, Jack Bauer.

Next stage: Riders will get a chance to recuperate on Monday, the race’s second and final rest day before the final push through the Pyrenees and on to Paris.

By The Associated Press