Tour de France 2014: Jack Bauer and Martin Elmiger’s day-long break ends in despair on the line

 

It is a cliché that sport can be cruel, but just 30 metres – or seven pedal strokes – was all that separated New Zealander Jack Bauer and Swiss national champion Martin Elmiger from success after a heroic 220km breakaway in Saturday’s stage of the Tour de France.

The stage  seemed designed for a bunch sprint, with no classified climbs, just kilometre after kilometre of riding across the flatlands of southern France. So of the Tour’s 171 remaining riders after two harsh days in the Alps, Bauer and Elmiger were the only two  strong enough (and, you might add, rash enough) to chance their arm with a long-distance breakaway as soon as the stage got under way.

As the race left the Alpine foothills behind and moved westwards towards Nîmes, the advantage reached six minutes before the sprinters’ teams began to up the pace behind. Their aim, as ever, was to keep the duo’s advantage to a margin that, on paper, meant reeling them in before the finish was a formality.

Several elements combined to ensure that was not the case. The occasionally ferocious rainstorms that bucketed down on the course from time to time were one factor; an attempt by two of the top contenders’ teams, Tejay van Garderen’s BMC and Jean-Christophe Péraud’s Ag2r, to split the peloton with a mass attack mid-stage was another; last but not least, Bauer and Elmiger proved far tougher nuts to crack than the sprinters’ squads had estimated.

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Martin Elmiger celebrates his victory

On an endless series of roundabouts and straights leading into the suburbs of Nîmes, the peloton squeezed the pair’s lead to less than a minute. But with a strong tailwind helping the break’s speed stay at over 50kph, for Lotto-Belisol and Giant-Shimano – riding for their sprint leaders André Greipel and Marcel Kittel – the gap closed painfully slowly.

As it remained at 13 seconds with a kilometre to go, it seemed as if either Elmiger or Bauer would be rewarded for their herculean effort. Yet a moment’s hesitation as the two came within sight of the finishing line and one last-ditch increase in speed from the bunch as Russian squad Katusha finally flung their troops into the front line to try to bring back the break made a critical difference.

 

IAM Cycling’s Elmiger was first to give up. Bauer, of Garmin-Sharp, continued a few more yards, weaving slightly across the road and glancing backwards as the front tip of the peloton advanced inexorably closer. Then, some 30 metres from the line, Bauer was caught and what had felt like the stage’s pre-written script of a bunch sprint finale was re-adopted, just a handful of seconds before it was too late.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, seemingly blocked in on the right-hand side of the road, darted forward to claim his second stage win of this year’s Tour by a more than a bike length.

“I do feel sorry for them,” the Norwegian Kristoff, a bronze medallist in London’s Olympic road race and winner of the Milan-San Remo Classic this spring, said later. “Of course I wanted to win, but that must have been a really hard thing for them to accept. Who’d have thought it could be so close?”

Had Bauer managed to hold on just that little bit longer, he would have become the first New Zealander to win a Tour de France stage. “We hesitated for a little too long in the last part, we started watching each other for the sprint and that was a mistake,” Elmiger said afterwards.

“Bauer was on a great day, I wasn’t feeling so good, but it was a very close thing all the same. I never expected, to be honest, that we would get so far.” Or, he might have added, so near to providing one of the most impressive upsets of this year’s cycling season.

“It’s a bitter disappointment. Winning was a childhood dream and for a domestique like myself, chances like this come very rarely,” Bauer added. “I tried to play him in the finale; I faked I wasn’t going so good, and then gave it one last shot. With 400 metres to go, I thought I had the win in the bag. And with 50 metres [left], I knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

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