Tour de France 2020
Caleb Ewan won Stage 11 in a photo finish after a feisty bunch sprint in Poitiers saw Peter Sagan relegated after barging Wout van Aert near the barriers.
Boxed out on the slight uphill drag to the line, Australian pocket-rocket Ewan (Lotto Soudal) kept his cool before timing his sprint to perfection to power past Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the middle of the road while Sagan and van Aert clashed to his right.
The four riders came home in a line separated by less than half a wheel, with Ewan’s superior lunge the difference as the 26-year-old notched his second win of the race.
But as he and Ireland’s Bennett pumped fists after a thrilling finale, Jumbo-Visma’s van Aert and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan were busy trading insults after an apparent shoulder barge by the Slovakian helped him to second place.
After consulting the footage, the race jury announced that Sagan was relegated to the back of the group for his dangerous manoeuvre – elevating Bennett to second place and van Aert to third. The decision was a massive blow for Sagan’s chances of winning an eighth green jersey in nine years, with Ireland’s Bennett now opening up a huge 68-point lead at the top of the standings.
In the battle for yellow, van Aert’s teammate Primoz Roglic retained race lead on a day of inaction for the GC hopefuls. The Slovenian leads Colombia’s Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) by 21 seconds and Frenchman Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) by 28 seconds as the race heads towards the hills of the Massif Central.
“It was very, very hectic,” Ewan said after the fifth Tour win of his career. “I had a real desire to win today after the disappointment of yesterday, and I wanted to repay my teammates for all the effort they had put in. I didn’t know I’d won but I saluted just in case – I was looking down as I lunged with the bike so I wasn’t sure. I hope to get through the mountains alright and have another go in Paris.”
As the race bade farewell to the Atlantic coast and headed inland through the Poitou-Charentes region of western France, Matthieu Ladagnous (Groupama-FDJ) put in an attack from the gun of the 167.5km flat transitional stage.
With no one keen to join the French veteran, Ladagnous quickly built up a lead of five minutes over the bunch, spurring Deceuninck-QuickStep’s renowned “breakaway killer” Tim Declercq to come to the front to set tempo.
Out of nowhere, a strong six-man counter suddenly formed featuring Ladagnous’ teammate Stefan Kung as well as Belgians Oliver Naesen (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Tom Van Asbroeck (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), and the Austrian duo Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Gögl (NTT Pro Cycling).
This move changed the dynamic of the stage as Deceuninck-QuickStep combined with Lotto Soudal on the front of the pack to snuff out the danger and bring the six riders to heel. By the time they were reabsorbed by the pack, Ladagnous’ advantage had dropped below the two-minute mark.
The danger over, Ladagnous was given a bit more rope, the 35-year-old seeing his lead stretched back over three minutes as he ploughed a lonely furrow through non-descript farmland and past an array of plush chateaux. Ladagnous picked up the only king of the mountains point on the Cat.4 Cote de Cherveux before passing through the intermediate sprint at Les Grands Ajoncs with 1’45” to play with.
Bennett beat Sagan in the sprint to extend his virtual lead by another five points in the battle for green after an expert lead-out by teammate Michael Morkov, and perhaps contributing to Sagan’s desperate actions later on in Poitiers.
Ladagnous’ foray off the front came to an end with 45km remaining and not long before Austria’s Gregor Muhlberger, who had been struggling with illness throughout the stage, clambered off his bike and into his Bora-Hansgrohe team car.
Muhlberger wouldn’t be the only one not to make it to the finish in Poitiers: a crash at a pinch-point in a village when the pace was high saw a handful of riders hit the deck with 30km remaining, the bloodied and seemingly concussed Spaniard Ion Izagirre (Astana) unable to get back on his bike.
The fast approach into Poitiers went off script when Austria’s Lukas Postlberger zipped clear in a bid to upset Bennett’s QuickStep lead-out train. The Bora rider was joined by QuickStep duo Kasper Asgreen and Remi Cavagna before the pack came back together on an uphill drag into the centre of town.
The B&B Hotels-Vital Concept team of French sprinter Bryan Coquard led out the sprint after the flamme rouge, but it was van Aert – given permission by his Jumbo-Visma team to complete his stage hat-trick – who powered clear of the field.
Sagan was forced to sprint close to the barriers and his barge from behind was a last-ditch attempt by a rider without a win for fourteen months to open up a clear gap to the line. The contact was enough to put van Aert off his stride and let Sagan surge clear – but it was not enough to hold off Ewan.
Badly positioned earlier in the sprint, the Australian sniffed out the gaps as he came past Stage 10 winner Bennett and lunged ahead of Sagan at the finish.
Sagan’s controversial move earned him a strong rebuke from double stage winner van Aert, who not only flicked him the finger but had strong words with the former triple world champion over the line. The pair were still exchanging words when the commissaires announced their verdict.
The initial result had seen Sagan close the gap to Bennett to just 15 points in the battle for green. But as the 30-year-old was relegated to 85th position, he lost all his points for the finish and now trails his rival by 68 points. Sagan will now have to rely on the intermediate sprints in the hilly stages to recoup lost ground, with the next flat sprinters’ stage not expected until the race enters Paris.
Thursday’s 218km Stage 12 is the longest of the race and features four lower-category climbs in the lumpy run into Sarran.