AUSSIE star closes the gap in the battle for the green jersey but comeback king Mark Cavendish looks uncatchable now, writes JOHN TREVORROW:
SEPP Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) won the first Tour de France mountain stage in the Pyrenees, riding clear from the large breakaway group to become the first American stage winner in 10 years.
Heading into the final week, stage 15 was 191 km from Ceret to Andorra and would take in four mountain peaks including the Portv d’Envalira, the highest point of the tour at more than 2400 metres.
With 18 km of climbing from the start, this was the stage that looked to be one of the most challenging for Points leader Mark Cavendish. If he was distanced early it would be very difficult to make the time cut. But the Manx Missile managed to withstand the constant attacks and with the help of his Deceuninck Quickstep team managed to stay in contact with the main peloton well into the stage.
His main challenger in the battle for the green points, Aussie Michael Matthews made it into the 32 man break and managed to snaffle the intermediate sprint and claw back 20 points but is still 72 points behind Cavendish.
The breakaway contained plenty of firepower but no one who was threatening the overall so they were given plenty of rope. Once the lead got out to ten minutes the stage winner was going to come from this group. It was packed with climbers but it was Kuss who attacked on the steep final climb of the Col de Beixalis and then dived down to Andorra la Vielle to win alone.
The young American managed to hold off a chase by the oldest man in the field, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who finished 23 seconds back. Dutchman Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) won the sprint for third place at 1:15, ahead of the remains of the breakaway and has taken the polka-dot climbers jersey from Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation).
Back in the peloton and the race for yellow jersey, race leader Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) found himself isolated after Aussie Richie Porte piled on the pressure on the penultimate climb. On the final steep climb there were plenty of attacks from most of the main challengers. But Pogacar looked to be well in control and there were no signs of any weakness on this day.
Aussie Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroen) who is based in Andorra, knows these roads very well and rode a smart race. On the final climb he managed to attack on occasions that the pace slackened but was distanced when the big hitters attacked nearing the summit. But the young Aussie managed it well, not going too far into the dreaded red zone and clawed his way back to the GC leaders over the top of the final climb. He has moved back up to fifth after Frenchman G Marin (Cofidis) dropped back to ninth. O’Connor is still only 30 seconds from second place overall.