After yesterday's grind around the same 18 kilometre finishing circuit, we knew it would be no picnic for the riders, and indeed, the first images shown were those of Diego Ulissi grinding up the final climb, grimacing. The organisers are truly cruel. 28% ramps in a time trial!?
The early benchmark was set by Rinaldo Nocentini, but the first rider to go sub thirty minutes was Movistar rider Gorka Izagirre, setting a 29:37. Soon after though, German champion, and former World champion Tony Martin set out, as his usurper sat in Compiègne, awaiting the cobbles which will surely pummel him tomorrow.
The intermediate times changed rapidly. First Felline, in form after his TT win in the Criterium International, first beat Izagirre's time on the flat, and then he was edged out by Intxausti. Martin then arrived and beat Intxausti by only a further two seconds. Was he riding as well as we had expected? Or was he saving himself for the climb? Soon after the split, of course, the climb was exactly what he hit, and he didn't change bike, just stayed in the saddle of his Specialized, grinding a gear, a grimace on his face.
Up front, Rein Taaramae found the strength to take the lead, beating Izagirre by 15 seconds, setting a 29:22. Then Fabio Felline, a "sprinter," went fastest, with a 29:09 as his team mate, Bob Jungels attempted to make 329 people happy, going 1 second faster at the intermediate.
Intxausti went fastest by two seconds as Tony Martin hit the steepest part of the final climb, going out of the saddle for the first time since history began, pain all over his face as he crested the hill and...was beaten by a Movistar domestique. Just a scenario of granite legs not being good at climbing up gradients higher than the average age of the riders in this race. The same was true for Jungels. The first person actually known for TTing to beat Intxausti was none other than Dutch champ Tom Dumoulin, the first to break 29 minutes with a 28:46.
The first GC guy to start was Polish champion and another stage favourite Michal Kwiatkowski, who with a 42 second deficit, had a mountain to climb if he intended to take the fluorescent yellow leader's jersey. Soon after, another established time-triallist in Tejay van Garderen took the start. Could he overturn his 36 second disadvantage to Henao?
Ion Izagirre, brother of Gorka and outsider for today Ion Izagirre started, followed soon by Ilnur Zakarin and Katusha team mate Simon Spilak. But disaster! Right after getting off the ramp, his bike seemed to malfunction somehow, the gears slipping, the pedals not clicking in before he'd even raced for a minute. He called for a spare, but the car was not in position and he'd lost more time than he was ever going to regain.
Then began the top 4. Nairo Quintana, then Simon Yates, followed by Joaquim Rodríguez and leader Sergio Henao. There were no catastrophes this time, as the battle would be fought on the road. Kwiatkowski went 4 seconds behind at the check, Izagirre was 6 seconds behind. Nairo Quintana had a poor split, 30 seconds down, but then played his trump card. He started on a low-profile machine, but changed to a road bike for the forthcoming climbing. Henao, one second faster there, also changed to a standard road bike, as did Rodríguez, one second faster than Henao. However, faster than them all by a distance, young Briton Simon Yates was shining, 12 seconds behind Jungels at the split, 16 better than Henao, provisional winner.
Kwiatkowski finished in a somewhat disappointing 29:23, struggling on the climb, just slightly out of sorts, as he has been all week. Ion Izagirre went 2nd, 5 seconds behind Dumoulin.
Yates and Henao were descending now, flying, taking every inch of the road. Quintana began the final climb. The tension was hardly bearable. He hit the last kilometre. Michele Scarponi finished, all that was left were the top 4. Quintana, out of the saddle, grinding as Rodríguez danced. The Colombian came up to the final corner, grimaced as he crested the hill, but was slower than both his team mates, with a 29:16.
Yates was next. He needed just seven seconds on Henao and Rodríguez. In the drops, shoulders rolling, shoulders moving from side to side. Dumoulin's time passed. They were all in the same kilometre of road, but Yates, despite his fantastic first 10 kilometres, had faded, finishing behind Quintana.
Now came Rodríguez. Amazingly, he had flown under the radar, and came in second, 4 seconds behind Dumoulin in a 28:50.
Henao was the final rider to finish. Head bobbing, weaving from side to side, crowds screaming, could he do it? He crested the climb, but just wasn't quick enough, finishing with a 29:03.
This meant that Rodríguez had won the GC, by 13 seconds from Henao. The perhaps most surprising result was that Ion Izagirre's great TT sent him into third place, ahead of his team leader Quintana.
Rodríguez's is a popular win, or so my twitter timeline seems to say, and I doubt anyone would begrudge him it. He has been consistently great this week, winning stage 3 in a three-up sprint, and stage 4 thanks to a tactically astute late attack. His TT, though usually a weakness, was very strong today. I think we can agree that the best rider won, but performances from the likes of Yates and Zakarin show us that the future is bright for cycling. All in all, a good week. There's no cycling tomorrow, is there?