Another highlight of the year, and another stage of the Tour de France, this time Stage 14 from Saint-Etienne to Mende where Michael Matthews put on a masterpiece on a stage set buzzing by an early attack from Tadej Pogačar that had Jumbo-Visma scrambling to respond.
An incendiary stage. A big breakaway got away before the first climb of the day but only had a few seconds. Then when the road started climbing Tadej Pogačar attacked. It looked like he’d seen Jonas Vingegaard didn’t have team mates around and wanted to put the yellow jersey under pressure as his team mates scrambled to get back. Pogačar was unlikely to keep this up until the end but his move mowed down the breakaway and had the effect of poking an already buzzing wasps’ nest. Vingegaard was never on the ropes but if other teams had joined things could have got hectic.
Finally a maxi-breakaway of 23 riders got away. A group this big lacks cohesion, riders can tag on the back and miss turns. Because of this, others get frustrated and so the attacks started. Simon Geschke and Quinn Simmons were sprinting for mountains points only for Simmons to keep going and this prompted the others to chase, a first attack. When the group got back, more were sitting on and soon after Michael Matthews attacked with 53km to go, a bold move given he was notionally the sprinter but with so many climbers in the move, better to get ahead. He was away solo for 10km when a trio of Andreas Kron, L-L Sanchez and Felix Großschartner countered and rode across.
Amid the chasers behind Louis Meintjes was part of the breakaway and at one point close to becoming the virtual yellow jersey but Jumbo-Visma started chasing, but probably less to limit Meintjes and more to ensure a hard finish to soften Pogačar for the final climb.
Onto the final climb out of Mende and Sanchez and Großschartner were the climbers. But Sanchez is 38 years old and in his peak never a punchy climber, Großschartner a diesel. Their only chance was to push Matthews hard from the start. But Matthews hit them and rode off.
Alberto Bettiol winched his way across to Matthews from the breakaway chasers and the two were locked in a duel, a leg-press version of an arm-wrestling contest. Bettiol was gaining ground, but only by centimetres. His work to reach Matthews and overhaul him put him into oxygen debt and towards the top Bettiol had to start making repayments and defaulted. Matthews has long been a big trophy hunter, a collection of quality wins but his has to be his best win, he took on the field and won.
Behind Pogačar attacked but Vingegaard had him covered, as the Slovenian rocked his shoulders, the Dane was all dainty cadence and matched him. Behind the GC contenders were left to themselves on the climb where David Gaudu fared best, dropped at first but recovering to overhaul Geraint Thomas. But the only change in GC positions was Meintjes up to seventh.
Why the highlight?
The stage started so fast and then Pogačar was joining in the attacks and Jumbo-Visma were scrambling, this stage had a scrap for the stage win that lasted for hours and GC action at the start and then again at the finish, all with sunshine and scenery too. That said the only change overall was Meintjes climbing up to seventh, this didn’t turn out to be one of those mythical massif central ambush stages.
It’s harder to find much wider significance in this stage but once again the breakaway made it and this helped reinforce a positive spiral where riders were going up the road believing in a stage win rather than praying it might just happen one day if they were lucky. Michael Matthews was being linked to other teams so the win helped him and it was also a boost for BikeExchange-Jayco, a Tour win from an Aussie rider must be very satisfying for their patron Gerry Ryan.
The real benefit of hindsight here is rewatch the stage with an eye on Matthews. Watching the stage live you could make a case that Matthews was getting it all wrong, the sprinter going solo with over 50km to go on a hilly route was just blunting his legs when he just needed to snipe the win, only to then get joined by better climbers before a notoriously tough summit finish… only he got it all right. Of course he’s not really a sprinter and his moves reduced the number of rivals to mark and meant he wasn’t caught out wave after wave of attacks from an unwieldy group. It was a masterpiece of a win.