There's an excitement in the peloton when the Tour de France heads towards the big mountains, especially when it's the Pyrenees that begin the action. The promise is of a proper sort-out between the team leaders, where some will flourish whilst others whither. However, to get to there, quite often you need to survive a windy stage or two before you find typical Pyrenean weather, which can vary from hot, humid and threatening one day, followed by misty, cold and wet the next.
It's essential to arrive in the mythic terrain with most of your faculties, and then you have to adapt from pulling the big ring round to pedalling the inner one with suppleness – or, as the French say, en souplesse. It seems a much more elegant expression of the pedalling technique required, although it disguises the effort involved somewhat by its hint of femininity.
There's nothing soft about the climbs and the road surfaces, though. Friday's stage was so typical of the surprises that Peter Sagan can produce, and although in the end Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert took another stage win, the Bora-Hansgrohe leader showed just why he's the favourite for another green jersey.
Amongst the GC contenders, it was all going swimmingly until a split in the front group captured Tadej Pogačar, Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema and Mikel Landa. It wouldn't be a Grand Tour if Mikel Landa didn't begin the mountains chasing the other guys; he said it wasn't his fault, but then it never is. The Pogačar situation we'll come back to later.
In the French quarter, all was looking good for Thibaut Pinot et al – present and correct, paying attention and ready for the coming days. That was the press release after stage 7, at least. Sigh.
Then the Port de Balès happened, and Monsieur Pinot rediscovered his difficult relationship with the Tour. Eight starts, four abandons and lots of tears for his FDJ team along the way. Now the papers are full of the deception of Thibault Pinot, but who's surprised? Not the team management, as Marc Madiot had a statement out straight away. He who fails to prepare prepares to fail. Of course, it could be the case they had another statement ready to go, which said how delighted they were to be leading this race, as that was as likely as well.
I could ask that question when things stabilise around the subject of whether Pinot will continue or not, but then as a regular visitor to my nearest donkey sanctuary, I quite like someone who has them at home. It's sad because this Tour has developed into a very interesting race, and it's looking likely there'll be no home-grown rider on the podium. There'll be stage wins for sure, but anything GC-related is going to be more complicated.
Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) are just below the level of the podium people, and they won't be given any freedom until they do what previous race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) has and lose 20 minutes. Maybe they shouldn't lose that much, though, as that would be properly disappointing.
Roglic, Bernal and Pogacar
At the very front, it's still Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) versus Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), with added interest from UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar: two Slovenians against one Columbian. Pogačar is the least quantifiable in terms of how he's going to deal with the rest of the race, as after the pair of mountain stages, he's certainly going to attack again when the road climbs. Yet there's the confirmation from Bernal that he's getting better each day, and the suspicion that the new yellow jersey has learned from previous experiences, and is riding a more conservative race. Roglič won the Vuelta a España last year with an aggressive strategy throughout, but the Tour is another level of stress altogether, and he can't afford to show any weakness, else Bernal will pounce.
The defending champion needs a decent gap before the time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles on the penultimate stage if he's to hold off Roglič, though, and that's where an alliance of sorts with Pogačar could develop. For the moment, that's not likely, but stranger things have happened in a bike race.
I don't think we can discount Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) having some influence in how proceedings develop in the Alps. The biggest climbs are still to come, and those are the natural terrain for the South Americans. The climb of the Col de Marie Blanque on Sunday may have caused the selection that changed the race lead, but it's quite a peculiar ascent to negotiate, and it doesn't necessarily suit the smaller climbers. The way it really steepens for the last few kilometres needs a quite powerful rider, which isn't Quintana. He was at ease on the Peyresourde the day before when it was Bernal who appeared to be struggling, but that was more due to coping with the brutal accelerations than strength.
That Bahrain McLaren leader Landa was in the mix on Sunday and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) was not far from doing the same just shows how their loses in the wind on Friday were unnecessary.
Now that we have confirmation that Jumbo-Visma are willing to sacrifice Tom Dumoulin to put Roglič in the best position, we can assume that the Dutch team will be controlling the race from the rest day onwards. They have been doing that anyway, but now that Adam Yates and Mitchelton-Scott have relinquished the lead, Jumbo-Visma can stop pretending it's a safety or positioning thing.
Over at Ineos, the Grenadiers will be watching and waiting for the opportunity to turn the race on its head. Sunday's stage was an indication that the grinding-down tactics have changed. When they put riders in the break, it's with an afterthought that if Bernal is on the attack, then there are troops available to help.
Talking of using riders appropriately, the case of Robert Gesink springs to mind. He's killing his own teammates before they get to the crucial last climb. His Jumbo squad ought to reconsider the pecking order for looking after Roglič in the final hour of racing, as Gesink clearly has the form to do that, and for a long time, too.
Ride of the Tour so far? Marc Hirschi on Sunday's stage. Nans Peters the day before was impressive, but the 2018 under-23 road race world champion was magical.
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