This Tour de France is making a habit of taking a liberal approach to the letter of the law. After the shenanigans on Mont Ventoux last Thursday, there was another deviation from the rulebook in Berne on stage 16 as the combativity prize was awarded to two riders rather than one. Unlike the fall-out on the 'Giant of Provence', however, this latest confected decision had nothing but a feel-good factor about it.
There was a precedent in this case, too, with Jonny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha having been jointly honoured in 2011 for finishing a stage after that wincingly brutal barbed-wire crash.
That was seen as a fitting tribute and few would argue that wasn't the case again here in Berne as the Etixx-QuickStep duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Tony Martin were jointly recognised for their long two-up breakaway over the Franco-Swiss border.
The pair insisted they hadn't planned their day as such but, with the race still together after 10km, they clipped off and settled in for a 175km expedition, with only each other for company. A group of four riders set off in pursuit but they would never make it across and the duo would only be seen again 25 kilometres from the finish line in Berne, as Alaphilippe dropped back and left Martin to delay the inevitable for a further few kilometres.
Indeed, as you might expect – even without considering Alaphilippe's efforts in the break yesterday – it was the Martin doing the lion's share of the work, the experienced German setting an example for the precocious 24-year-old Frenchman.
"In my eyes Tony deserves the award much more than me because I was just clinging on behind him," joked Alaphilippe as the in-demand duo fulfilled their media duties.
"In the end, it was a big 'leçon de vélo' for me, to work with a guy like Tony. Honestly, he really impressed me today. I suffered a lot after yesterday's stage, and I suffered a lot in his wheel today. I don't know how he's that strong but these kind of days are enriching for me, and chapeau to him."
Martin himself was more than happy to share the prize with his teammate – a perfect consolation that ensured they had something memorable to show for their adventure.
"It's like a happy ending," he said. "We were without victory but it was an honour to stay with Julian and to have the prize together is a big honour for us. We can be proud of what we did. We didn't get the victory but we had a good time."
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As Alaphilippe finished second at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year it was easy to forget it was a first-year pro before our eyes, and he has been similarly impressive here at his debut Tour de France. He was second behind Peter Sagan on stage 2, had a spell in the white jersey, and now has been on two bold breakaways in as many days.
There was disappointment yesterday as hopes of victory in the Jura mountains were derailed by a mechanical – though he did spend the remainder of the stage frantically trying to get back out front – but today Alaphilippe insisted he had no regrets.
"It's the Tour – you have to try. He who doesn't have a go leaves with nothing," he said philosophically.
"You never know what's going to happen. It wasn't the plan to go away just us two – and so early – but that's how it is. We can't have any regrets. We can be pleased to have the combativity prize between us – it's historic."
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