Breaking away: De Gendt's 1,000 kilometres off the front at the Tour de France
'If I stay in the bunch, I cannot win'
Lotto Soudal has yet to score a stage victory on this Tour de France, but regardless of how André Greipel fares on the Champs-Élysées, at least one of their number should be mounting the podium as shadows lengthen beneath the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday evening.
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Thomas De Gendt has been in the break on no fewer than eleven stages of this Tour, picking up more than €10,000 in prize money from climbs and intermediate sprints, and amassing over a thousand kilometres – 1,047, according to L'Équipe's tally – off the front of the race. It seems nigh-on unthinkable that the Belgian will not be rewarded with the red dossard of the Tour's most combative rider in Paris on Sunday, even if he warned that Warren Barguil (Sunweb) might pip him to the prize.
"I just like to race like this. I hope I get the award," De Gendt said on wheeling to a halt in Salon-de-Provence on Friday after yet another day in the break. "I just try to race like this in every race that I start. I like to go on the attack and try to win from the attack. If I stay in the bunch, I cannot win, and that's my only goal in the race, to go on the attack and try to win."
De Gendt's total of kilometres off the front beats the previous record (at least since such statistics were tabulated) of 841 kilometres, established by Michael Mørkøv in 2012, and his willingness to go on the offensive on all terrains puts one in mind of Jacky Durand's all-action Tours of the 1990s or the earlier work of Thomas Voeckler.
The Belgian's first spell off the front was a relatively modest 40 kilometres on stage 3 through Luxembourg, and he then spent 110 kilometres in the break on stage 5. He was on the attack in the Jura on the second weekend and in the Pyrenees in week two, and he spent over 150 kilometres in the break on successive days in the Massif Central on the third weekend. He has continued in the same vein in week three, making the break on every stage.
In 2012, De Gendt's aggression famously carried him to third overall at the Giro d'Italia, and a year ago in the Tour, it netted him a prestigious victory on Mont Ventoux and six days in the polka dot jersey. The king of the mountains classification was a target of sorts for the Belgian this time out, but Warren Barguil's remarkable run of form meant that his hopes were always faint and he will finish in third place in the classification.
On Thursday, when De Gendt was caught by the yellow jersey group on the Col d'Izoard - the final mountain pass of the Tour - he made a point of extending a hand in congratulations to Barguil as he rode past. De Gendt had spent 160 kilometres off the front on the stage, and he was back in the thick of the action when the early move sallied clear on Friday – his sixth successive day in the break. This time around, he explained, his initial concern was to protect the interests of his leader Greipel.
"I don't like the bunch, but today it was necessary to be in the break to try to control if the guys were able to pull from behind," said De Gendt, who was joined by his teammate Tony Gallopin in the escape. "There were 20 riders in the break, and when we got a lead of eight minutes, we were told we could go for our own result. But it was not planned to go in the breakaway to try to win the stage today."
No matter, De Gendt was in the mix for stage victory in Salon-de-Provence at the end of the longest stage of the Tour and after 190 kilometres off the front. He was among the attackers as the leading group fragmented on the run-in, but he had to settle for fifth place, 17 seconds behind Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data). It was his first finish inside the top 20 on a stage of this Tour and, with only the Marseille time trial and the Champs-Élysées finale to come, almost certainly his last chance to win a stage in 2017.
"If I go full in the time trial I can maybe get in the top 10, who knows," De Gendt said. He nodded when asked if Lotto Soudal was feeling under pressure to secure a stage win to salvage its Tour. Greipel, after all, has won a stage in every Grand Tour he has ridden since 2008.
"These are the last chances to get a stage win," De Gendt acknowledged. "André has already won two times on the Champs-Élysées, so we know he's capable of winning there, but today was also a day when it was possible."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.