After almost three weeks of racing at the Tour de France, only seven teams have come away with stage wins – and with just one remaining stage almost certain to end in breakaway success, the importance of stage 17 to Gap on Wednesday cannot be underestimated.
The following three days will be contested by the GC riders and the pure climbers, while the final stage into Paris is destined to end in a bunch sprint, so for the teams out of the race for the GC, without a sprinter and with nothing to show for their efforts, the 208km run between the Pont du Gard and Gap will either bring joy and redemption or further misery.
So far in this year's Tour de France, the only teams to have won stages are Jumbo-Visma (four), Deceuninck-QuickStep (three), Mitchelton-Scott (three), Lotto Soudal (three), Bora-Hansgrohe (one), Bahrain-Merida (one) and Groupama-FDJ (one) have won stages in the race. The 15 teams without victories include major squads like Team Ineos and Movistar, but the rolling terrain towards Gap will not only be targeted by riders with one-day pedigree but also squads with little chance of success in the final batch of stages.
From those other teams that haven't won so far, CCC will pin their hopes on Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, while Sunweb will back Australian Michael Matthews. The French teams without wins will throw everything they have into making the break, while Astana, EF Education First, UAE Team Emirates, Trek-Segafredo, Katusha-Alpecin, Wanty-Gobert and Dimension Data will follow the same pattern. The number of riders in the break will also be important. The stage is long, and the temperatures are set to remain high. Therefore, having a leader in the break and teammates to help and then drop back for bidons will be influential.
Even the teams with wins so far in this race will look at stage 17 as an opportunity. Unlikley candidates for the breakaway, however, include Groupama-FDJ and Team Ineos. The latter hasn't yet featured in a break this year, and both teams are likely to protect their legs in the mountains, with their GC riders – Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal at Ineos and Thibaut Pinot at Groupama – hoping to win the Tour overall in the Alps this week.
Jumbo-Visma, meanwhile, already have four wins, so they may follow suit as they look towards the Alps, but there's a question mark over Julian Alaphilippe's Deceuninck-QuickStep team. They already know that the Frenchman will be heavily isolated in the mountains, no matter what, so they could choose to sacrifice a rider going up the road in order to count themselves out from chasing.
Making the break
The first race of the day is going to involve making the break.
"I have the stage in mind, but I've been surprised by the hard level here," Bahrain-Merida's Matej Mohoric told Cyclingnews after stage 16, as an illustration of how difficult forming a break can be at times.
It's really hard to get into the breakaway, and it's even harder to think about winning the stage, but I'm not going to give up before we even start," he said.
One squad that shouldn't struggle in that regard is Mitchelton-Scott. They have targeted every single stage since Adam Yates dropped out of the GC race, and they're unlikely to let up on Wednesday, either.
"It's 100 per cent going to be a break," head sports director Matt White told Cyclingnews at the end of stage 16 in Nîmes.
"There's no way that's going to be a sprint or a reduced-bunch sprint. It's the last-chance saloon and the attacks are going to go on for a long time. It's really the last stage for the opportunist. We've used this stage before, and one year the break took 100 years to go. I think 150 blokes could win tomorrow and only five can win in Paris. Then only the world-class climbers can win in the mountains. On top of that, it's going to be just as hard to get in the break as it is to win it. Because it's flat for so long before the climbs start, it's going to go on and on and on," he said.
Sunweb are obvious candidates to try to push for a break. They have no pure climbers left in the race but Michael Matthews – despite his relatively low morale – remains their best opportunity on stage 17. The Australian is versatile and can potentially win from a break or a reduced-bunch sprint, but it's unlikely that Subweb will be keen on riding to chase down a huge break. They may even wonder if they have the firepower given that they've lost two riders in the last 24 hours.
"Tomorrow is going to be a difficult one, whether teams want to control things or it's a breakaway. I think 200km in this heat is going to be a long day," Matthews told Cyclingnews as he warmed down in Nîmes. "The stages after that are just for the climbers, so this is going to be last stage for the guys who have a fast finish but can still get up a hill."
Sunweb have endured a difficult Tour after losing Tom Dumoulin on the eve of the race, and then seeing Matthews fall short in the sprints after questioning his preparation coming into the race.
"I guess we're not super happy, but it is what it is," said Matthews. "The form isn't where I want it to be for this position in the team, and the results have also followed that up. It was all for one, but now it's the complete opposite. The team is still working well together, but it's a totally different focus from what we had at the start of the year. We'll keep trying, like we have throughout this Tour."
Another team in a similar situation is Dimension Data. Since Giacomo Nizzolo's fourth place on the first stage, they've struggled, but they still posses riders like Ben King, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings and Roman Kreuziger, who have all won Grand Tour stages. Kreuziger is trying to ride for a top-15 place on the GC, so is unlikely to go in the break, but the other three riders will be underlining stage 17 in the Tour road books.
"We're targeting tomorrow," Ben King told Cyclingnews. "The form has been up and down. I'm healthy and happy, and that's very important at this point in the race. I'm taking it one day at a time. The mood in the team is really positive. There are so many guys with so much experience like Lars Bak, Roman and Steve, and it's a really positive environment around the dinner table. That's really important.
"We're not the only team to want to win in Gap tomorrow [Wednesday], but it's probably a good day for the breakaway," he continued. "A win in the Tour de France can turn around your entire season. Obviously we're in the last week, but the atmosphere in the team is still really upbeat and confident."
The points-competition leader Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is also a likely candidate to try to go up the road. He has a stage win to his name already, having won stage 5 into Colmar, but after being consistently beaten in bunch sprints, he may see Gap as his last chance to try to grab another.
Mohoric gave Cyclingnews his assessment of how he thought things were likely to play out.
"I'm not sure if Sunweb and Bora-Hansgrohe will look to control the stage," he said. "It's the last chance for Matthews to try to win a stage. Sagan, I'm not sure what he has in mind. He might go for the break because he's being beaten by Dylan Groenwegen [Jumbo-Visma] and Caleb Ewan [Lotto Soudal]. Bora and Sunweb have only controlled one or two stages, so they have it in their legs. It all depends on how many riders go up the road. That's key."
Whoever wins, stage 17 to Gap on Wednesday will make or break many a team's Tour de France.