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Analysis: Tour de France contenders racing like they expect to see Paris

Race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) follows defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) during stage 4 of the 2020 Tour de France
Race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) follows defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) during stage 4 of the 2020 Tour de France (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Orcières-Merlette, perhaps the most evocative double-barrelled name in cycling history, is synonymous with an uncompleted masterpiece. Luis Ocaña illustrated how he had the beating of Eddy Merckx there on the 1971 Tour de France, but the paint never dried on his canvas. Ocaña didn’t reach Paris and Merckx’s reign continued.

In the build-up to this rescheduled 2020 Tour de France, much speculation has centred on whether the race will make it to the Champs-Élysées at all. The rising number of new coronavirus cases in France and the ‘two strikes, team out’ testing system mean that the event risks shuddering to a halt at any point along the route.

Philippe Gilbert was among those to suggest that the uncertainty over the length of the Tour could make for an utterly different kind of a race. The final yellow jersey might not be awarded in Paris, but rather wherever the music stopped along the way. Overall contenders, so the thinking went, would thus cast off their inhibitions and throw themselves onto the offensive early and often. In the manner of Ocaña, they would race this Tour like there were no tomorrow, because, well, there might not be.

The first summit finish of the 2020 Tour at Orcières-Merlette on Tuesday seemed to give lie to that assertion. The jury is still out as to whether Thierry Gouvenou’s demanding Tour route is a masterpiece, but the peloton is so far giving the impression that it at least expects to complete it.

The combination of relatively shallow gradients and Wout van Aert’s fearsome pace-making obviously discouraged attacks on the final ascent on stage 4, but even when there were occasional lulls in intensity – most notably when Van Aert finally sat up – it was striking that none of the GC contenders were prepared to launch an effort from distance. It was in keeping with how the top tier contenders had preferred to hold fire when Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates went up the road on the Col des Quatre Chemins on Sunday. Only (Attaque de) Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), as if to play up to a thousand internet memes, was tempted into a speculative attempt here with 4km to go.

Given the nature of the climb and Jumbo-Visma’s controlling influence, there was little surprise to see a peloton of almost thirty riders still together approaching the flamme rouge, and it was only under the impetus of the impressive Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) that the group broke up and a handful of contenders – most notably Emmanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Richard Caparaz (Ineos) – lost some precious seconds.

Up front, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) ripped away to claim stage victory and confirm his recovery from his Critérium du Dauphiné crash. Fifth place was enough for Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) to keep hold of the maillot jaune, 4 seconds up on Adam Yates and 7 ahead of Roglič, even though his laboured response to Martin in the finale suggested that he is not in quite the same state of grace as in 2019.

Elsewhere, Nairo Quintana (4th), Egan Bernal (7th), Thibaut Pinot (8th) and Tom Dumoulin (11th, despite complaints about his sensations on the final climb) will surely have felt reassured. They all came home in the same time as Roglič and they will believe they finished up more or less where they needed to be on a finish such as this, and at such an early juncture in the race.

Like the first leg of a Champions League tie, the grandees of the peloton were generally content to keep things tight and avoid conceding needlessly. In other words, it was precisely the kind of stage we saw at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 6 a year ago, or on (most) of the Giro’s early visits to Mount Etna in recent years. 

The first summit finish at this most unusual September Tour followed a premise familiar from Julys past: one über-team (admittedly in yellow rather than in black) set a blistering tempo and everyone else hung on as best they could. Not a day for taking risks or wasting unnecessary energy, especially with so many arduous days to come (all going well). Or, as Martin put it: “The Tour is still long and there are much harder days ahead of us.”

Déjà vu for Roglič and Bernal

Egan Bernal, like Roglič, had left the Dauphiné early, citing a back injury. And, like the Slovenian, his display at Orcières-Merlette was in the same tenor as the performances that had preceded his Dauphiné abandon. He followed the Jumbo-Visma train without obvious discomfort up the mountainside, but then lacked the punch to follow Roglič’s stage-winning acceleration in the final 300 metres.

As a result, Roglič picked up 10 bonus seconds on Bernal, who evinced déjà vu rather than despondency at the finish. The defending champion conceded that that he expected to accrue similar losses in the days ahead but suggested that, as in 2019, his Tour challenge is centred on the final week.

“The best scenario is to reach that third week in as good a position as possible and then try to recover what's lost on the long climbs of that week,” Bernal said. “We want to be as fresh as we can for that third week. All 21 stages matter.”

It certainly appears that Bernal’s Ineos team are a notch or two below the startling collective level of Jumbo-Visma at this early point in the race, though not all members of the Dutch squad hit their lines either. Michal Kwiatkowski was in second position when Van Aert swung off after his shift on the front with 1500m to go, but it was striking that the Ineos man immediately slackened the pace and looked around rather than taking over himself. 

Instead it was another Jumbo-Visma man, Sepp Kuss, who guided the front group into the final kilometre. Bernal’s lieutenant Carapaz, meanwhile, coughed up 28 seconds when the group broke up nearer the top.

In his role as an analyst for Eurosport, Bernhard Eisel highlighted his former team’s newfound reluctance to take up the reins at the head of the peloton, a break with the philosophy of the previous decade. He couldn’t say if it was the sign of a deeper malaise or simply a strategic choice.

“We saw them mostly in the second line, always there, but not in the first row,” Eisel said. “For me, it looks like probably they’re not 100% in shape yet, or else they’re riding really conservative because they know it’s all about the third week and especially the individual time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles.”

The day after Ocaña put almost nine minutes into Merckx to take yellow at Orcières-Merlette in 1971, Tour director Jacques Goddet published an editorial in L’Équipe under the heading “Things will never the same as before.” With just 10 bonus seconds separating Roglič and Bernal on the general classification after stage 4, it would be rather premature to make a similar pronouncement on leaving Orcières-Merlette in 2020 – at least if the race goes the full three weeks.