Despite a heart-stopping crash, MTN-Qhubeka’s Louis Meintjes put in a magnificent ride on Thursday’s final stage in the Pyrenees, claiming fifth place at the top of the Plateau de Beille as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) would be the rider to cross the line first, winning the 195-kilometre stage.
It was after the intermediate sprint at kilometre 20 that a big group of 22 riders jumped clear of the peloton. Meintjes was one of the first riders to force the pace as the young South African was motivated for the day’s tough stage.
The 22 riders gradually built their lead up to 12 minutes over the yellow jersey group, ensuring the break would decide the stage win. The day’s route included four major climbs and Meintjes was looking at ease on the uphill gradients, always riding in the front positions.
Two of the riders in the break, Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quickstep) and Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-Jumbo) set off together just before the race hit the Port de Lers, prying open a 1min 50sec advantage on the chasers before the climb. The Meintjes group brought the two leaders to within 10sec by the summit before the duo attacked on the downhill again. The weather had taken a turn for the worse on the back side of the climb and wet roads awaited the riders.
It was on these wet roads that South African hearts jumped to our throats as Louis would crash heavily on his right side while in the chase group that now only consisted of seven riders. Thankfully he was able to get up and started chasing back straight away. The young South African had ripped his MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung kit to shreds with a bloody shoulder, ribs, elbow and hip exposed, but was able to regain contact with the chase group.
The climb to the line would be over the course of the tough 15.8km Plateau de Beille. Rodriguez, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) would prove to be the strongest climbers in the break as they began attacking from the chase as soon the road tilted upwards. Meintjes would match them, toe for toe until Rodriguez put in the telling move with 10km to go. Vanmarcke and Kwiatkowski were caught and passed by the chasers with around 8km still to go. There was no stopping Rodriguez as Fuglsang had to settle for 2nd place with Bardet in third.
In the end, after spending over 160km in the breakaway, crashing and then chasing back, Meintjes would cross the line in fifth place. Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) just pipped Louis for four on the line, an amazing ride by the young African champion.
‘I really wanted to get into the breakaway today, it was the plan for the team,’ reflected Meintjes post stage. ‘Edvald really helped me to get into the breakaway. We were pushing it all race and the pressure was on, on the descents and unfortunately I took a bit too much of a risk and came down but got back to the group pretty quickly. On the final climb I just didn’t have the legs to go with the front guys.
The team’s Sport Director, Jens Zemke added: ‘It was a fantastic performance by Louis, to finish fifth on such a super tough stage – 195km with four really hard climbs. It was the plan to have either Louis or Merhawi in the break today and Louis made it in the big group that came together after the first sprint.
‘There were 22 riders but this group became smaller and smaller after each climb. On the second last climb the rain started and Louis crashed on the descent but he was up quickly. He looked a bit damaged with a cut up jersey and some bleeding on his sides with some serious wounds but he was fighting on the last climb.
‘The big names made it, Rodriguez, Fuglsang and Bardet with Louis sprinting it out for fourth with Izagirre.
This is a huge result for him and the team are very happy with his performance. So once again we were in the move and again we were fighting for a top five. We were even going for the win but if you see the names ahead of him we must also accept that there were three riders stronger than him.’
Meintjes’ great day helped MTN-Qhubeka to eighth spot in the team standings, 17:08 behind stage winners Movistar and they continue to hold their own in the General Classification, maintaing seventh spot, 45:27 behind Movistar who have dislodged Team Sky from top spot.
Friday’s 13th stage (hopefully not unlucky for any of the riders!) is an 189.5 transition ride as the Pyrenees are left behind and the Alps welcomed. Start is Muret and finish in Rodez. First half is relatively flat the second stage features some stiff climbs the final one coming just 10km before the finish.
More statistical data on Thursday’s stage, as supplied by Dimension Data
1877.2 km – the distance Le Tour riders have travelled from the start in Utrecht; passing the halfway mark to Paris on Thursday.
1 780 m – the height of the epic mountain finish on the summit of Plateau de Beille. A difficult 15.8 km HC climb where double KOM points are available for the first rider across the finish line – Rodriguez (KAT).
5 – the number of Tour de France finishes at Plateau de Beille in 13 years.
6 000 m – approximate total elevation the riders climbed on the stage.
23 – the number of riders (to date) who have withdrawn since the start in Utrecht… leaving 175 riders who are still in the race.
9.7% – steepest gradient on Plateau de Beille.
05hr 40min 14sec – time of stage winner, Rodriguez (KAT), at an average speed of 34.39 km/h.
16.9 km/h – average speed of Rodriguez (KAT), up the Plateau de Beille, the toughest climb of the day.
25.99 km/h – Rodriguez (KAT) speed when he crossed the finish line.
31.92 km/h – the average speed on the stage.
22.43 km/h – average speed on last kilometre.
37:33 – the time gap between the first and last rider.
Recorded speed in the km leading up to the intermediate sprint checkpoint: Greipel (LTS) hit top speed of 70.85 km/h