Riding in his 10th Tour de France, three-time world champion Michael Rogers of Australia finally got his first stage victory in cycling's greatest race on Tuesday by leading a breakaway group to a downhill finish as the pack entered the Pyrenees.
Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, finishing about 8 ½ minutes back, reined in his top challengers and retained the yellow jersey after Stage 16, the longest stage of this year's race and the first of three days in the mountains on France's border with Spain.
Behind the Italian, the contest for podium places was shaken up: Thibaut Pinot of France rose to third in the standings, while compatriot Romain Bardet dropped to fifth. Tejay van Garderen of the United States lost more than 3 1/2 minutes, slipping from fifth to sixth and seeing his podium hopes dealt a serious blow.
Rogers took a bow as he crossed the line alone after the 237.5-kilometre (147-mile) leg from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon, which featured a tough climb up the mountain pass of Port de Bales.
"Every cyclist's dream is to win a stage at the Tour de France," said Rogers, who finished nine seconds ahead of France's Thomas Voeckler — who had won two previous Tour stages at Bagneres-de-Luchon in 2010 and 2012. "I can't describe the joy I felt in the last 500 metres ... I hope I don't have to wait another 10 years to experience it again."
Rogers came close not to riding on this Tour for the Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team.
In a ruling announced in April, the International Cycling Union accepted that meat Rogers ate in China last year probably caused his positive doping test at the Japan Cup shortly afterward. Rogers, a crucial teammate of two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, convinced the UCI that he hadn't intended to cheat, and said the episode was "a very difficult time" for his family.
Following the UCI ruling, Rogers said he came back with "a different outlook on life."
"It was certainly a lesson in life for me," he added. "Sometimes you need a lesson in life to see the silver lining in the cloud."
Rogers said he might not have had the opportunity to win a stage if Contador — his team leader, who crashed out in Stage 10 — were still racing because his job would have been more of a support rider. Now that the Spaniard is out, the team came up with a Plan B: To try for stage wins.
"I can be grateful, but I'm also very heartbroken that Alberto's not here," Rogers said.
As the day began, a breakaway group of 21 riders came together over the first two hours and stuck together for much of the day, chiseling out a lead of more than 12 minutes.
But their unity began to disintegrate along the 12-kilometre Port de Bales climb, which is ranked 'Hors Categorie' because the ascent is so tough that it's considered beyond classification.
In its steepest patch, the gradient reached 11 per cent. Rogers was in a bunch of five riders that came together in the final descent, and he stepped on the accelerator with less than 5 kilometres (3.2 miles) left.
Before the stage, the Lampre-Merida team said world champion Rui Costa of Portugal would not start due to pneumonia. The Portuguese rider had been in 13th place, about 13 minutes behind Nibali.
After Tuesday's ride, Nibali leads second-place Alejandro Valverde of Spain by 4 minutes, 37 seconds, and Pinot is 5:06 back. French veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud is fourth, at 6:08, and Bardet is 6:40 behind. Van Garderen, while only losing a notch in the standings, is 9:25 behind the race leader.
Stage 16 was just an appetizer for the Pyrenees, with uphill finishes to follow on Wednesday and Thursday.
Aside from a penultimate stage time trial, Stage 17 starting in Saint-Gaudens will be the shortest this year at 124.5 kilometres (77 miles). It features three hard Category 1 climbs, and an ascent to the Saint-Lary Pla d'Adet ski station. The three-week race ends Sunday on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.