It may have only been 5 days of racing, but this week felt every bit as long as the first one. As the stage count increases, so does the proportion of the stage spent suffering, and we did plenty of it in the last two days.
My big goal for the week was the time trial, and I saved as much energy as I could in the days leading up to it. Unfortunately for me, so did all of the GC riders. With the time trial coming after only two weeks of racing and being preceded by a rest day, a sprint day, and a GC "detente" day, the circumstances were far from those that led to my success in the Giro d'Italia.
I faced other challenges, as well: all of my energy savings had placed me near the bottom of the GC standings, which meant I would be one of the first starters. That would normally not be a problem, but the La Course by Tour de France women's race was on the course in the window that we would normally do our recon ride, so my options were to ride the course or start the race fresh, but not both. My team adapted well, though, and I jumped in the women's team car for a lap in the morning to see it in person. Then I spent the next couple of hours studying the video I took and committing to memory the line I wanted to take through every corner.
When it came time to race, I pushed aside all thoughts about what my result might be and focused on my effort: just get to the finish line as fast as possible and see what the result is at the end of the day. I started in a sandwich of race favorites, chasing Tony Martin and being chased by Kasper Asgreen, so if I saw either of them during the race I would either be doing very well or very poorly.
My race started just as I hoped, and I was pleased to discover that the corners looked the same on the bike as they did in my visualizations. When I popped out onto the big road after three kilometers and saw Tony Martin just ahead, it took a moment to process how it could be possible so soon, then I immediately disregarded him as another rider out to make the time cut.
When I crossed the finish line with the fastest time, I had no regrets. I didn't feel that my lack of a pre-ride had made a difference, and I had paced my effort exactly as intended. My time in the hot-seat lasted only 30 seconds, though, broken almost immediately by the Danish machine. As the day wore on, I slowly retreated down the standings, finishing the day just inside the top-20. It was a good ride, to be sure, but not what I had envisioned at the start of the day. After further analysis, my power was on par with my winning ride in Verona, but everybody else simply wasn't tired enough yet, and the level at the Tour de France is unlike any other race. In the end, I'm happy that I did my best race possible.
With my target stage in the rearview mirror, it was time to find new goals and refocus. The race hit the mountains with a vengeance, and the crowds on the Tourmalet were the only thing that distracted us from the pain. Everyone groans about the extremely long stages, but nothing brings more dread than a short mountain stage. The time cut is tighter here than at the other Grand Tours, so everyone has to go reasonably hard the whole day just to be safe. Add in some sweltering, muggy heat and you have a recipe for very exhausted riders at the end of the day.
We are also at the point in the Tour where there are more riders in the gruppetto than at the front of the race. On the Tourmalet, there were only a few dozen riders who finished within 15 minutes of Thibaut Pinot, and the time cut was only 30 minutes. Many grupetto riders try for the breakaway just so they can have a head start on the climbs, which only sometimes works.
The GC race has been fascinating, and Alaphilippe's performances to stay in yellow have been amazing. The peloton is also really curious to see how things will go this next week, as Ineos have not yet shown the dominance for which they are known. The fight for the breakaway yesterday before the rest day was a real bonanza, as it always is when a break is on the horizon. The rest of the stage was also gruelling, but the first rain of the race was actually a refreshing relief from the soggy heat. Outside of the race, the rest of the day wasn't much easier: we had nearly 2 hours on the bus on the way to the start, and the transfer to Nimes after the stage was 3 hours. It was a long day all around!
Today's rest was definitely needed, and hopefully, tomorrow is a straightforward sprint stage with the brutal stages in the Alps to come. Team Sunweb is still hunting for that elusive stage win, a task made more difficult after Wilco Kelderman's departure today following a week of back pain, but the rest of us will keep fighting. With the heatwave working its way across Europe, we are sure to endure plenty of suffering as we work our way towards Paris. Hopefully, the crowds will distract us from the pain!
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