Tour de France 2019
It should have been so simple. A downhill stage with four small climbs the day before a rest day. Sadly for some whose general classification hopes now lie in tatters, it didn’t play out to the script on the road to Albi.
A sweltering, sedate and sometimes soporific stage through the volcanic landscapes of Occitanie erupted into life with 40km to go, after the route turned into a heavy cross-headwind. EF Education First were the team to take up arms earliest, putting on the pressure through their former Dutch national champion, Sebastian Langeveld. With the first cracks in the peloton beginning to show, the men in pink were joined in the aggressive pace-setting by Bora Hansgrohe and Deceuninck – Quick-Step.
At some point in the ensuing smash the EF game plan fell apart, as their general classification leader Rigoberto Uran ended up on the wrong side of a split. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ),Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo) were the other key men to be caught out. Sprinter and favourite for the stage, Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo Visma) was also in the second group. They eventually crossed the line with a time loss of 1’40”.
Further back, Mikel Landa (Movistar) was caught in a minor crash, which separated him from the second group and led to an eventual time loss of 2’09”. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) stuck with the front group and was a key protagonist in the forcing of the gap. He stays in yellow and now enjoys a 1’12” advantage over next-placed rider, Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos).
The biggest loser on GC today was George Bennett who tumbles down the leader board after shipping more than ten minutes. The Kiwi rider, fourth overall this morning, was fetching water bottles for his teammates when EF, Bora and Ineos unleashed hell and was never able to regain contact with the front of the race.
Speaking after the stage, Thomas said:” I couldn’t think of anything better. It was a really good day in the end. We had a little go earlier on but the wind wasn’t really high enough. EF had a little go, then QuickStep, and we were always attentive and ready for anything. It was a really good day in the end. From our point of view, we had everyone bar two guys, so we all just committed. There were plenty of guys turning. Behind, you could tell they went full to close it, especially on the climb, and because they didn’t do it then, the elastic then snapped and we went and got a big gap. It’s especially good on a day like today when you never expect it. I think it was just a positioning error from them and they lose a minute and a half. That’s how it goes.”
Van Aert showed yet more of his prodigious talent as he defied the best sprinters in the world to grab victory out from under their noses. His team mate Dylan Groenewegen was among the bookie’s favourites at the start of the day but found himself languishing in the group behind. This left Van Aert, a canny classic rider who does well in crosswinds, with a free role to ride for himself. And he made sure he took it.
Speaking afterwards, the 24-year-old said: “I can’t believe it, beating all those fast guys in the sprint. Ah… Sorry, I can’t believe it.It’s above anything else. I felt it in the last 10 days, how big this race is. Winning in my first attempt…wow. It became quite nervous in the finale. I managed to stay in front and kept our leader Stevie in position. Unfortunately, Dylan was not in the first group and I was allowed to go for the sprint. From the last one, I learned I had to go early, so I went 250m from the line. It was close with Viviani, but one centimetre is enough.”
Elia Viviani (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and Peter Sagan (Bora Hansgrohe) had to settle for the minor placings after successfully staying with the front group on the frenetic run-in to the finish line in Albi. There were only minor changes in the green jersey competition, Viviani leapfrogging Sonny Colbrelli.
Of all of them, Matthews will have the most reason to be disappointed after butchering another superb leadout from his team. Matthews trails Sagan in green by 62 points.
Riding in the breakaway, Natnael Berhane (Cofidis) was able to scoop up maximum points on all four of the day’s climbs. He leapfrogs Dylan Teuns into fourth, still some 23 points behind Tim Wellens. The polka dot jersey looked a little off the pace in the finale today, dropped as soon as the leaders put the hammer down.
Tomorrow is the Tour’s first rest day and on Wednesday we have another flattish stage on the menu from Albi to Toulouse.