Bauke Mollema won the 15th stage of the Tour de France on Sunday in a solo breakaway to Le Puy en Velay as Chris Froome retained the leader’s yellow jersey after an ill-time mechanical. Diego Ulissi was second at the end of the mountainous 189.5-kilometer stage from Laissac-Severac l’Eglise to Le Puy-en-Velay.

Words: AFP | Images: James Startt

Reigning champion Froome had to survive a worrying moment when he suffered a mechanical problem in the last 50 kilometers that saw him drop 50 seconds behind his main rivals as he had to take team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski’s bike to continue.

A mad chase ensued as Mikel Nieve, Vasil Kiryienka and Sergio Henao helped pace Froome back to the group, the three-time champion making contact three kilometers before the summit of the first category Col de Peyra Taillade, just over 30 kilometers from the finish. “I’m just grateful to have survived today,” Froome said after suspensful stage through the heart of the Massif Central. Speaking of ill-timed rear-wheel change he added. “It was almost as if I had to attack just to get back to the front. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

The 32-year-old Briton crossed the line alongside most of his main rivals to maintain his 18 second lead over Italian Fabio Aru, with Romain Bardet of France third at 23 seconds. But the big loser of the day was Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, who was dropped on the Peyra Taillade and lost several minutes by the finish. Visibly feeling the fatigue of his Tour of Italy efforts in May, he is now no longer in the top 10 as he faded to 11th overall.

Froome was more than relieved to step back on the podium and pull on another yellow jersey after such a chaotic stage.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s Dan Martin was typically aggressive and launched an attack inside the last 12km to gain a few seconds on the other challengers. The 30-year-old even snatched a place in the standings, moving above Froome’s Sky teammate Mikel Landa into fifth, now one minute 12 seconds behind Froome. Martin lost one minute 15 seconds a week earlier when he was taken out in a crash by Richie Porte on a
hazardous descent of the Mont du Chat. He has even been suffering from back pain ever since.

Up front, Mollema was part of a 28-man breakaway that split on the Peyra Taillade. A nine-man group formed on the descent when he went on a lone attack, increasing his lead to 50 seconds at one point as the chase struggled to organize. Finally four men emerged as Mollema’s pursuers but they couldn’t bridge the gap, with Italian Ulissi settling for second 19 seconds behind the winner, with Gallopin third and his French compatriot Warren Barguil, the winner of Friday’s Bastille Day 13th stage, fourth, 23 seconds behind.

The Massif Central is known for its picturesque villages and its sinuous roads.

“It’s really amazing. I’m so happy to win a stage at the Tour de France,” said 30-year-old Mollema, who has finished in the top 10 of the Tour three times, but had never before won a stage. “I’ve worked for it so hard in the last few years. That was a big goal for me.”

The Tour has its second rest day on Monday before moving towards the Alps in its final week. But there are still four riders within 30 seconds of the lead. “It’s such a close race,” Froome said. “It’s going to be every second all the way to Paris.”