Something strange happened when the Tour de France crossed the Rhône this year, the race appeared to change its atmosphere, entering a new phase. We are midway through the second week, but stage 12 was when this shift was actually most noticeable, with the general classification battle temporarily settled until the race reaches the Pyrenees on Sunday.
One of the features of the opening days of this Tour was the terrible weather, which may well have contributed to the chaos and crashes on the road. The two days in the Alps were marked by the cold and the rain as well, which clearly took it out of the peloton; the day to Tignes, which was won by Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën Team), saw seven riders finish outside the time limit and a further three climb off mid-stage. One wonders if it was the weather which made Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) leave the Tour that day, as if he looked out of his hotel window and simply did not fancy riding up to altitude in that grim setting. O’Connor surely paid for his effort in Tignes on the Mont Ventoux stage.
First on Ventoux and then on Thursday’s stage, the weather has gone to another extreme. The Gard, the French department of which Nîmes is the prefecture, recorded France’s record temperature in 2019, 45.9 °C, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the peloton took it easy on the roll in to the finish. The heat came, and in those sweltering temperatures came a different kind of race, as teams that have missed out in the first phase in the race desperately tried to make something happen.
The shape of the Tour is changing, and with it teams are having to restructure their goals as chances change and drop away. The first week of Van der Poel in yellow and the excitement of Brittany seem like so long ago, which is always the nature of La Grande Boucle. The controversy over the crashes has died away, but that’s always the case with the Tour; the circus keeps on rolling, and new stories are written.
The four riders who eventually decided today’s stage were all representatives of teams that had nothing, or at least very little, from this Tour so far: Nils Politt of Bora-Hansgrohe, Stefan Küng of Groupama-FDJ, Imanol Erviti of Movistar, and Harry Sweeny of Lotto Soudal. Three of these teams, Bora, Groupama and Lotto, have all been forced to completely change their objectives after their principle riders, Peter Sagan, Arnaud Démare and Caleb Ewan, have gone home for one reason or another. Part of the reason for the quartet’s enthusiasm for today’s win may have been that their teams have been yet to really prove themselves at this year’s Tour.
In fact, of the whole 13 members of the strong-man’s breakaway, only one rider was of a team who had won a stage previously, and that was Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep. Israel Start-Up Nation, Qhubeka-NextHash, Trek-Segafredo, Team BikeExchange, EF Education-Nippo and Arkéa-Samsic all and remain without a win in this year’s race.
The Tour is always unfair, in that there are only so many prizes to go round, and as the race moves on, those opportunities to win or wear a distinctive jersey get smaller and smaller. Of the 12 stages so far, seven teams have won, and there are just nine stages left. By design, not every team can win, and so the desperation builds to get something out of the race, which is almost always the biggest race of the year for a team.
Following the opening week, where the general classification was given a quite definitive shape, more teams are out of that race and are therefore looking for other objectives. The brutal opening of the race which saw leaders crashing out or missing the time cut has meant that perhaps many more teams than usual are being forced to take chances in order to have an impact on the race. Twenty-nine riders have already left the race, 15.7 per cent, which is the most both numerically and proportionally since 2012.
The Tour now has a real propensity to have a lack of order as there are fewer teams that want to, or are able to, control the peloton and the chase. Once the strong break had gone today, there was very little cohesion in attempting to bring it back, and soon the peloton gave up their chase ending up almost 16 minutes down on Politt at the finish. On sprint days, only Deceuninck-QuickStep realistically have the ability to keep a break in check and when they are confronted with a large group of strong riders who are collaborating well in front, that might mean more wins coming from the break.
On mountainous stages, UAE Team Emirates has already proved brittle, and while that may not affect the challenge of Tadej Pogačar, who has done it on his own so far, it might mean that riders that get away are able to stay away, as with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) winning the Ventoux stage. This has been a Tour marked by a lack of control. We are in for a tumultuous final nine days, as every team believes they can get a result, and the fight to get into the break only intensifies.
Adam Becket is Procycling magazine's staff writer.
Adam Becket is the staff writer for Procycling magazine, which is his first role in cycling journalism. Prior to covering the sport, he wrote about ecclesiastical matters for the Church Times and politics for Business Insider. He has degrees in history and journalism. A keen cyclist himself, Adam’s favourite race is the Tour of Flanders or Strade Bianche, and he is desperate to go to the Piazza del Campo for the end of the race one day.
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