Tour de France 2018
LottoNL-Jumbo’s Groenewegen – who had struggled to reach the heights of last year’s victory on the Champs-Elysees in Paris – reminded the world of his class with a convincing win in the longest stage of the race, denying both Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on a slight uphill finish.
The 25-year-old Groenewegen put a finger to his lips to silence his critics after triumphing in the 231km stage through northern France by well over a bike length. In doing so, he became the first Dutchman to win on two different Tours since Erik Dekker in 2000 and 2001.
Frenchmen Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) completed the top five as veteran sprinters Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) could only finish in eighth and tenth respectively.
Three bonus seconds in the bonus sprint 30km from the finish saw BMC’s van Avermaet strengthen his grip on the yellow jersey and double his lead over Welshman Geraint Thomas(Team Sky) to six seconds as Sunday’s all-important stage over the cobbles to Roubaix looms large.
A bizarre and largely uneventful stage saw three riders – Thomas Degand and Yoann Offredo of Wanty-Groupe Gobert, and Laurent Pichon (Fortuneo-Samsic) – thwarted in doomed solo breaks, with a dangerous-looking but short-lived 10-man break, along with some momentary crosswind splits, rare moments of interest amid the resplendent chateaux of the agricultural regions of Mayenne and Sarthe.
With Slovakia’s Sagan and Colombia’s Gaviria each missing out on a third stage win, their battle for the green jersey nevertheless intensified as the charismatic world champion saw his lead slashed to 31 points.
Latvia’s Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) retained the polka dot jersey and Denmark’s Soren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) held onto his lead in the white jersey standings.
After two tough stages in Brittany and with the cobbles of Sunday’s “mini-Roubaix” looming, there was little interest from any riders to get into a breakaway on a day that was always destined for a sprint.
Offredo put in an early dig but sat up as soon as he realised that no one was prepared to keep him company, leading to some collective soft-pedalling until his Wanty team-mate Degand seemingly attacked out of boredom.
The 32-year-old Belgian opened up a small gap but never committed to making it work. Then, just as he was swept up by the peloton after a farcical opening 15km, a break of 10 riders formed after the classics specialist Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale) put in an unexpected dig.
With Naesen’s team-mate Tony Gallopin involved – along with the likes of Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert (Quick Step) – the break certainly had some menace.
But some hefty chasing from Groenewegen’s LottoNL-Jumbo team saw this promising move neutralised and paved the way for another stint from the peloton which resembled a Sunday club run more than the world’s biggest bike race.
Offredo drew the short straw and rode off to build up the biggest gap so far in this year’s Tour – topping out above nine minutes en route to scaling the summit of the only categorised climb of the day.
But when crosswinds on an exposed section of roads provoked a sudden acceleration from Trek-Segafredo, the pack was blown apart and Offredo’s advantage came tumbling down.
Shortly after the peloton reformed, the Frenchman was caught with still 90km remaining – sparking a plucky counter attack from Pichon. He was never given much leeway and although he won the intermediate sprint he was swept up inside the last 40km.
Very little then happened until van Avermaet won the bonus sprint and the teams of the fast men came to the front as the silhouette of the cathedral of Chartres loomed on the horizon.
The Dimension Data, Lotto Soudal and Codifis teams of Cavendish, Greipel and Laporte were active in the lead in to Chartres as news filtered through of a mechanical issue for Gaviria.
But the Colombian managed to fight back on ahead of the final kilometre which he attacked with the green jersey of Sagan in his back wheel – both riders gunning for an opening-week hat-trick.
Groenewegen enjoyed a strong lead-out from his LottoNL-Jumbo team, however, and when Gaviria was launched towards the line it was the Dutchman who darted into his slipstream and then passed him on the slight ramp to the line.
“I’ve been going better every day,” Groenewegen said after ending a poor run of results in the 105th edition of the Tour.
“I said I needed some time, and I didn’t feel good in the first stages. Today we did it and it’s amazing. I’m really grateful. I was behind [Alexander] Kristoff and he was going, I stated in is wheel and thought now is the moment. I went with 200m and it was good enough. I hope there’s more. I have the legs to win now, so we celebrate tonight and maybe the same tomorrow.”
It’s been a while since we’ve had a sprint stage on Bastille Day – six years, in fact, with Andre Greipel winning in Cap d’Agde in 2012 – but a combination of the World Cup and the later start to the Tour means the mountains are still a few days away. Last year, Warren Barguil ended the host nation’s long wait for a winner on 14th July. The likelihood of Christophe Laporte following suit near the battlefields of the Somme is highly unlikely.