L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France (VN) — There are bad days, and then there are days like Mitchelton-Scott endured on Wednesday’s 11th stage of the Tour de France.
As the peloton roared up the lower slopes of the summit finish at La Rosiére, the team’s GC rider, Adam Yates, rode near the back of the group. Just inside 10km remaining, Chris Froome’s Team Sky teammates upped the tempo on a steep ramp. The tempo was too much for Yates, who nearly came to a standstill on the steep road.
Up ahead, Mitchelton’s climbing domestique Mikel Nieve pedaled along the final kilometers at the head of the race, the last survivor of a day-long breakaway in the mountains. Nieve, 34, appeared to have the stage in his grasp, until a sudden attack from former Sky teammate Geraint Thomas reeled him in within 300m of the line.
Nieve’s head bobbed in disappointment as Froome and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) roared past in the final meters.
In the span of 15 minutes, the team’s two best opportunities for a result went up in smoke.
Matt White, the team’s sport director, maintained a diplomatic perspective on the two disasters.
“We need to asses how things go tomorrow to see if we can still chase GC with Adam,” White said. “If he bounces back, then GC is still in the cards. If he can’t bounce back we’ll have to reset and think about the Pyrenees.”
The double setbacks will certainly fuel debate about the team’s decision to leave Aussie sprinter Caleb Ewan at home, and bring a team built around Yates’ podium bid.
The team’s two-pronged attack for the day was hatched prior to the stage, White said. The short 106km stage looked perfect for a breakaway, and thus the team had Nieve, who raced on Team Sky for four seasons, and Damian Howson attack into the early move. Behind, Yates rode alongside the main group of contenders. He sat in 7th place overall, tied on time with Chris Froome.
The break built a sizable lead on the group of contenders across the two opening climbs. Midway through the stage the team called Howson back from the breakaway to ride alongside Yates.
White said he had no indication that Yates was suffering in the group of contenders until midway up the steep final climb. Yates dropped back from the group as Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski hammered on the front, and White assumed Yates had decided to ride his own tempo. After a few minutes, however, Yates nearly ground to a halt. He dropped back to the team car to ask for water.
White said Yates was suffering from the heat. Yates eventually ceded 4:42 to Thomas by the finish.
“There was no indication anything was going bad with Adam until he was dropped. He was sitting nice and pretty on the wheels,’ White said. “He lost contact and we realized that he had blown quite hard. He couldn’t hold the wheel of anybody.”
White said the team did not consider pulling Nieve back from his breakaway attack to help Yates on the final climb. The stage win was within Nieve’s grasp, and the speed at which Yates popped simply caught everyone by surprise. Up ahead, Nieve powered to the finish. But inside the final kilometer he lost speed and began to rock back and forth on his bicycle. When Thomas attacked up to him, Nieve simply could not hold the Englishman’s wheel.
White said the team plans to “remain positive” despite the setback. While the team’s ambitious goals for the day fell short, there are still 10 stages remaining for Mitchelton-Scott to earn a result.
“We knew it would be an aggressive day,” White said. “It was a risk we had to take for the stage win and it came really close.”