After 18 stages of magnificent racing, everything unraveled in a few kilometers for Trek-Segafredo and Bauke Mollema at the end of stage 19.
It all began with an unfortunate mishap at the worst possible moment when Mollema, sitting in second position, slid out in a wet, slick corner in the descent ahead of the finish climb. As the rest of the GC rivals sailed by, Haimar Zubeldia and Pete Stetina waited and then led the chase.
However, a few corners later another crash had three riders splayed on the tarmac, delaying them further. The rain had made the roads ice-like. There was carnage everywhere.
Stetina, Zubeldia, and Mollema picked their way through the fallen riders and continued the pursuit until three corners later Zubeldia overshot a turn, leaving Stetina the only man to pull Mollema back to the yellow jersey group.
Stetina chased furiously with Mollema on his wheel and closed the deficit to around 20 seconds at the base of the 9.8-kilometer climb, but there was no easing into the uphill. The first two kilometers were brutally steep.
I felt good in the descent, and I followed Chérel of AG2R and then my front wheel slid away, and I was on the ground.
"I was in second position of the peloton as there was a really tricky part coming up," explained Mollema. "I felt good in the descent, and I followed Chérel of AG2R and then my front wheel slid away, and I was on the ground. I was quite fast back on my bike, and then this tricky part was coming up – the same as we did in the TT yesterday – with a lot of corners and there was another crash in front of me…
"At the bottom, it had split into groups, and we were behind with a gap. Pete pulled on the flat before the climb, but I started with 20 seconds behind the first group, and so I tried to come back quickly. I knew I had to come back there or otherwise it will be more difficult, so I tried to close it as fast as possible. I couldn't close it, and then I just exploded. I think the GC is gone. Yeah, I am still 10th, but that was not the goal for these last days."
Mollema was one of many victims of the treacherous roads, a result of rain that began to fall in the late stages of the 146-kilometer stage. Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac) crashed earlier in the descent while leading the race, ending his attempt for a stage win, and later the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky) also slid out.
While Stetina did his best to lead Mollema back to the GC contenders, he could do little against the Astana team, who were feverishly pulling the group ahead. It was a dire situation that quickly went from bad to worse.
Stetina: "I came around a bend and saw Mollema just getting up from the crash. There were guys panicking all over. It was a slick descent from the paint on the roads from the time trial yesterday; it was pretty bad. We were slipping and sliding in every corner.
"So we tried to limit our losses, and I made sure Bauke stayed with me, but he seemed a little bit nervous after his fall. We got to the bottom and we had a gap and Astana was still drilling it. It was code red. We pulled the emergency cord.
"I went full gas for the two kilometers from the descent to the start of the climb with him on my wheel and swung off. It looked like I almost got him back, but I think he started the climb a little bit in the red already. It was just the worst time to crash, and we got caught out."
Mollema never saw the yellow jersey group again. By the finish, he had lost four minutes and slipped from second to tenth, the dream of a podium gone.