Tour de France 2017
The in-form Australian edged Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and Germany’s John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) in a reduced sprint from a group of 28 riders who broke clear when the peloton split with around 10km remaining.
Added to a maximum return from the day’s intermediate sprint, Matthews’ victory sees the 26-year-old move within 29 points of Kittel in the fierce battle for the green jersey after the German never made it back into contention after being dropped on the first of two categorised climbs.
A bad day for Kittel’s Quick-Step Floors team also saw Ireland’s Dan Martin caught in the decisive crosswinds split at the business end of the race. Martin came home 50 seconds in arrears to drop to seventh place in the general classification at the expense of Spaniard Mikel Landa of Team Sky.
Race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) kept out of trouble and finished in the lead group alongside rivals Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) to retain his yellow jersey.
Froome leads Aru by 18 seconds, Bardet by 23 seconds and Uran by 29 seconds ahead of back-to-back days in the high Alps.
Winner in Rodez in Stage 14, Matthews was ecstatic with the third Tour stage win of his career.
“I can normally win one stage but the second is always the hardest to get so, wow, to get my second one in three days is… I don’t know. I think it won’t sink in until tomorrow morning,” he said.
“I was trying to go in the breakaway but Quick-Step was covering me because they didn’t want me to get the points. But when I heard that Kittel was getting dropped, I really started to put the pressure on. When the gap was one minute over the climb, we decided to pull because if Kittel is out of the race, it gives me a better opportunity for the sprint.”
A frantic start to the rolling 165km ride from Le Puy-en-Velay to Romans-sur-Isere saw the attacks come thick and fast before French duo Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) and Belgian pair Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Thomas Degand (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) opened up a small gap on the Cote de Boussoulet.
But the news that Kittel had been dropped on the opening climb was welcomed with open arms by Sunweb, who flocked to the front of the pack to pull hard. The acceleration ended the chances of the break, with last-man standing Chavanel caught with 120km remaining after the veteran of 17 Tours went for broke with a last-ditch attack.
As the gap stretched to two minutes on the Col de Rouvey, Sunweb’s Warren Barguil edged ahead to pick up the solitary point over the top of the Cat.4 ascent to consolidate his lead in the polka dot jersey standings.
While Kittel and fellow sprinter Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) were enduring a bad day at the office, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) showed grit and determination to chase back into the peloton – the Frenchman finally making contact as the race entered the picturesque vineyards of Hermitage with around 55km remaining.
But the big drama was still to happen when the expected crosswinds finally did their damage in the final 15km of the stage. With Quick-Step Floors having committed most of their bodies in the doomed attempt to chase Kittel back on, Martin found himself on the wrong side of the split when Froome’s Sky accelerated in the blustery conditions.
Aru and Bardet looked to have been caught out but both riders managed to close the gap. Martin, Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) were less lucky – all three riders finding themselves at the wrong side of the split.
Sunweb’s excellence continued as Barguil and Nikias Arndt both made the split to help position Matthews in the approach to Romans-sur-Isere and chase down a late attack from Spanish veteran Daniele Bennati (Movistar) in the final 2km.
With a jaded Bouhanni distanced alongside the other pure sprinters in Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), the scene was set for a showdown between Matthews, Degenkolb and Boasson Hagen, with the likes of Greg van Avermaet (BMC), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) as plucky outsiders.
But Matthews kept to script to win his second stage in four days – despite a slight deviation off line that saw third-place Degenkolb raise his arm in protest. Denied by a second time in the race by an agonising photo finish, Boasson Hagen missed out thanks to half a wheel – despite a late surge to zip past Degenkolb.
Martin and Meintjes came home 50 seconds down with the Irishman dropping to seventh on GC, 2:03 down on Froome. Contador, who crossed the line in a third group 1:30 down, fell out of the top ten at the expense of Colombia’s Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
The Tour continues on Wednesday with the first of two challenging stages in the Alps. In a day of destiny for the GC favourites, the 183km Stage 17 features the HC climbs of the Croix de Fer and Col du Galibier ahead of a fast downhill run to Serre Chevalier.
With the intermediate sprint coming inside the first 50km and after the Cat.2 Col d’Ornon, expect Team Sunweb to pile the pressure on Quick-Step and Kittel as they continue their thrilling bid to put Matthews within a possible nine points of the green jersey summit.
Stage 16 results: 1) Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) 3hr38m15s. 2) Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Dimension Data) same time. 3) John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) ST. 4) Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) ST. 5) Christophe Laporte (Cofidis, Solutions Credits) ST. 6) Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) ST. 7) Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) ST. 8) Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) ST. 9) Maciej Bodnar (BORA-hansgrohe) ST. 10) Romain Hardy (Fortuneo-Oscaro) ST.
General classification: 1) Chris Froome (Team Sky) 68hr18m36s. 2) Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) +18”. 3) Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) +23”. 4) Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) +29”. 5) Mikel Landa (Team Sky) +1:17”. 6) Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) +2:02”. 7) Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) +2:03”. 8) Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates) +6:00”. 9) Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing Team) +6:05”. 10) Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) +6:16”.