Tour de France marked the start of another week of racing in cycling's premiere event, but it was also the calm before the storm as well. After a strange weekend of riding, that included bold breaks, fast sprints and tacks left on the road to flatten tires, the 160km (99.41 mile) Stage 15 was an opportunity for riders muddled in the pack to attempt to steal glory, which is exactly what opportunistic French rider did.
Running across the scenic French countryside from Samatan to Pau, the stage was considered flat although it undulated enough to include a couple of Category 4 and a single Category 3 climb. Those would be merely speed bumps however, particularly with what looms ahead later in the week. An early six-man breakaway took off from the peloton and didn't look back, with the riders working together to stay away. They built a healthy lead and were able to ride it all the way to the finish line, where French rider Fedrigo Pierrick took the victory just ahead of American Christian Vande Velde. The always game Thomas Voeckler took third a full 12 second behind the leaders and the remaining three riders, Nicki Sorensen, Dries Devenyns and Samuel Dumoudlin all trickled in a bit further back.
The main group in the peloton was about 12 minutes behind and included Tour leader Bradley Wiggins who hasn't seen his position atop the leader board jeopardized in any way the past few days. This teammate Chris Froome remains in second and Italian rider Nibali Vincenzo is in third. Vincenzo seems to be the only real threat to Wiggins as we move into the Pyrenees.
Peter Sagan maintained his lead in the Green Jersey competition with a 64 point lead over André Greipel. Sagan is going to be very tough to overtake at this point although there are still points to be gained, particularly if Greipel can manage to win another stage. That seems unlikely considering the road ahead however. Fredrik Kessiakoff is also still in the lead for the Polka Dot Jersey of the King of the Mountains competition. He has an 11 point lead over Pierre Rolland heading into the next mountain stages. This one will be decided in the next few days as well. Finally, Tejay Van Garderen continues to maintain a 1:54" lead over Thibaut Pinot for the White Jersey, which is awarded to the Tour's best rider under the age of 25.
I haven't mentioned the team competition very much this year and I feel that this is a category that often gets overlooked in the Tour as we get so focused on the individual performances. Team Radioshack-Nissan has been the best overall team in the first two weeks of the Tour and they hold a 12:38" lead over Team Sky, who have been more concerned with protecting the Yellow Jersey. Sky has looked absolutely dominating at times, but their tactics and strategies are obviously quite different.
Tomorrow brings the second, and final, rest day of this year's race, giving the riders an opportunity to rest before heading into the high mountains on Wednesday. Stage 16 will be a grueling 197km (122.4 mile) affair that features four big climbs, including two Cat 1 and two Beyond Category monsters. One of those is the legendary Tormalet, a mountain that has broken the spirit of many riders over the years. Unfortunately this year it comes in the middle of the stage and not the end, where it can really do some damage. Still, expect the peloton to be absolutely shredded on the slopes of this epic climb. Stage 16 ends with a downhill finish, which will give the leaders a chance to limit any potential losses and taking away some of the drama. Stage 17, which comes on Thursday, will again feature some big climbs and will include an uphill finish that could potentially have an impact on the standings.
The two days following tomorrow's rest day will likely determine the podium in Paris next weekend. There is still a long individual time trial to come on Saturday, but the mountains offer the biggest threat to Wiggins' title and the biggest opportunity for his challengers. Provided he doesn't crack on the slopes of the Pyrenees however, it is looking like the U.K. will have it's first Tour winner soon. And even if he does falter, Chris Froome seems strong and poised to pick up the mantle and carry the Union Jack and Team Sky to victory.
We'll know in a few days time just who will head to Paris in Yellow.