Cycling is a team sport in a strange way. Unlike football, a casual observer cannot necessarily immediately discern the tactics on show. One cannot look at a team sheet and work out a formation, like one could by seeing Italy playing a 4-3-3 with their full-backs pushing forwards. In cycling, only one rider can cross the line in first position, or wear the leader’s jersey, but it takes a whole organisation to ensure that victory happens, to pull the whole affair off. Races need to be controlled in order for there not to be total chaos on the road, and so plans can be put into action.
On some days, the role of a team is less important, such as when Tadej Pogačar has been able to fly away whenever the Tour de France has entered the mountains in this year’s race. This has allowed the Slovenian to cleverly disguise a few weaknesses in his UAE Emirates team. But a lot of the time, the team is central, and stage 10 was the perfect opportunity for Deceuninck-Quick Step to prove that they are the best squad at this year’s race, with the most coherent plans and clear objectives.
Out of the 10 stages so far in this year’s race, Deceuninck have managed to win four, and they have been at their most impressive in the three sprint stages that they have delivered for Mark Cavendish. In his post-race interview, Cavendish made clear just how much effort the team have been putting into these victories, emphasising that they had repeatedly studied the finish, and that it was a “textbook leadout… like you read in a cycling magazine”. Michael Mørkøv, his team-mate, echoed this, telling reporters that the final went exactly how Deceuninck had planned.
Every member of the team had a part to play. Julian Alaphilippe, in the world champion’s bands, pulled at the front for kilometres, before the real lead-out train began. First, Kasper Asgreen, the Tour of Flanders winner, took a turn; Omloop Het Nieuwsblad champion Davide Ballerini followed; finally, Mørkøv proved why he is regarded as one of the best lead-out men in the world, depositing Cavendish in the perfect position with just 150m to go. It was an armchair ride.
Positioning was key in this sprint, particularly with the right-hand bend in the final kilometre. DQS knew that, and it showed in the fact they weren’t off the front at all for almost the whole final 5km. They are consistently the best lead-out in the Tour and it is tactics like this that show why. Everyone else was scrambling to get on Cavendish’s wheel.
As the crosswinds briefly threatened to rip the race apart earlier, other teams were conspicuous by their absence at the front. Most prominently not there were UAE Emirates, who left Pogačar very isolated. Mikkel Bjerg was there with him, and the Slovenian survived this test, but had the wind blown any harder, if there had been more decisive splits, then his indomitable-looking general classification lead might have looked more fragile.
Perhaps UAE underestimated today’s stage, which had a harmless looking profile. However, it took an innocuous day like this to highlight the team’s clear flaws, not for the first time this Tour, and this might be something that is targeted by Pogačar’s rivals in the coming stages - it will not be the last time that the wind makes the peloton nervous in this race.
As Sonny Colbrelli found out to his cost, all it takes is a badly timed puncture to jeopardise one’s position in a fast-moving peloton. Considering that Pogačar lost time on stage 7 of last year’s Tour when he suffered a similar fate while the wind blew on the road to Lavaur, one would think that UAE would have considered this in selecting their team. Not in this case, and their team looks light on men who can do a job of protecting their leader on the flatter stages.
The other squad whose whole race can be defined by their performance on stage 10 is Ineos Grenadiers. In past Tours, they have been the first to try and take advantage of any splits in the bunch or at the very least be there in numbers to support their GC option. Just last year, Luke Rowe and Egan Bernal rode like they were on a tandem together to ensure the latter lost no time on that Lavaur stage where Pogačar suffered. The year before, Rowe had been instrumental as Ineos caused splits on stage 10 of the 2019 Tour, which saw other GC hopes shattered in the wind. They are usually spot on, on days like this.
This time around, half of the team seemed to disappear as soon as the wind picked up. While Richard Carapaz battled up front, Rowe, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte all were in the rearmost split. There is losing time to go for stage wins, and there is being disorganised once your whole race has fallen apart. Porte and Thomas were involved in yet another crash earlier in the stage, which has been the story of their race so far. Carapaz is still in fifth overall, and only 15 seconds from the podium, and he was involved at the front of the bunch with Michał Kwiatkowski, but he doesn’t have the team support that he might have in previous years.
Returning to Deceuninck, they are the only team left in the race with an organised lead-out, and therefore have delivered with the pressure on. It will be interesting to see whether in the next 11 days other teams can organise themselves and act on coherent plans, or whether the absence of strength at UAE just causes more chaos. Deceuninck, for their part, are thriving in that chaos.
Adam Becket is Procycling magazine's staff writer
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