The fiercely-contested climb and descent of the Col de Manse on stage 16 heralded the reopening of hostilities after the second rest day of the Tour de France and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) warned that it was merely a taste of what is to come in the final week of the race.
Saxo-Tinkoff pair Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger launched a stinging series of attacks over the second category climb, while best young rider Nairo Quintana (Movistar) came to the fore on the sinuous drop to Gap. Chris Froome's yellow jersey remains the ultimate target, but their efforts were also aimed at dislodging Mollema from second place overall.
After battling to limit his losses on Mont Ventoux on Sunday, Mollema appeared considerably more comfortable here, however, as he joined the rather elite yellow jersey group that formed as a result of the Saxo-Tinkoff onslaught. The Dutchman withstood the accelerations on the Manse – and held his fire on the descent – to roll home safely alongside Froome, Contador and Quintana and maintain his overall position, 4:14 off the lead.
"This week the good climbers like Contador and Quintana will attack every day in the final," Mollema said after rolling to a halt shortly beyond the finish line on Gap's Avenue Maréchal Foch. "The whole day was actually pretty easy except for the start and then the final climb. I was pretty sure they were going to attack but I felt pretty good on the last climb, and I never had any problems.
"The attacks hurt a bit, but today I preferred to face attacks like that than to go at one pace all the time. The climb was not hard enough to drop me or to drop Froome, as you could go up on the big ring most of the time and I was never in big trouble."
The Tour's visits to the Col de Manse are not always decisive but they are almost always controversial, and as per tradition, the real pyrotechnics came on the technical descent into Gap, where Alberto Contador and Chris Froome both briefly went off the road after misjudging a left-hand bend.
The pair quickly bridged back up to their companions, but the usually unflappable Contador could be seen gesticulating at Quintana as he drew level with the Colombian in the finale. As he rolled slowly towards his hotel through throngs of fans – fending off their attempts to snatch his bidon from its cage as he did so – Mollema confirmed to Cyclingnews that Quintana had upped the pace after Contador and Froome's crash.
"Quintana attacked after the crash," Mollema said." I just followed him and Rodriguez, but I didn't attack myself. When the yellow jersey crashes, you shouldn't attack."
Ten Dam loses ground
While Mollema could afford to smile after Tuesday's sharp prelude to the grandstand finale in the Alps, his Belkin stable-mate Laurens ten Dam endured a difficult afternoon on the Manse and slipped a place to 6th overall after losing a minute to the yellow jersey group on the stage.
Ten Dam was unable to follow when Katusha pair Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez kick-started the attacking at the base of the climb, and instead he limited his losses as best he could by giving chase in a solid group featuring Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp).
On wheeling to a halt beyond the finish line, ten Dam draped himself over his handlebars before quietly answering questions from the Dutch television crews who were drifting towards him from the scrum that had already formed around Mollema further down the street.
"I didn't expect this. Maybe I underestimated the last climb a little bit, although I was on my guard," said ten Dam. "The pace was explosive and there was quickly a gap that I couldn't close. It's never fun when you lose time easily like that. It sucks."
Ten Dam will hope to move back into the top five on general classification at least temporarily after Wednesday's time trial to Chorges, but he is mindful that his hopes of maintaining that position to Paris have been dealt a serious blow.
"I have to recover and accept what happened," he said. "Tomorrow will be a beautiful time trial: when you're 6th overall, you don't ride a steady time trial. I'll be going full gas."
So too, of course, will Mollema. His hopes of earning a podium place in Paris are growing with each passing day and as the Tour enters its endgame, he is quietly optimistic about his chances. "Oh, I think I'm ready for the Alps now," he grinned. "I'm looking forward to it."
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