Simon Yates’ hunt for breakaway wins in the Tour de France is not just about taking prestigious victories in cycling’s top stage race but also to get a head start on the opposition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, Team BikeExchange management said.
Yates was in the day-long, 29-rider break on Friday, the first move in which he has participated in this year’s Tour. Then he was one of the few riders to dig deep again on Saturday to get in another move, which ended with Yates finishing sixth at Le Grand Bornand.
Head sport director Matt White told Cyclingnews on Monday’s rest day, “he’s really starting to ride in the race now.” But there is more to Yates' strategy, he added, than ‘just’ the Tour.
After Yates took third in the Giro d’Italia, “the plan was to recover from Italy and then use the Tour de France as a building block for the Olympics," White explained.
“Out of all the favourites, he’s going to have one of the best preparations for that race. He’s picking and choosing when he goes after stages, and in my opinion, rather than going deep every day that is certainly the best way to prepare for the Games.”
While Yates’ first breakaway move was last Friday, Team BikeExchange’s other top performer for the Tour, Michael Matthews, has been in the thick of the action since day one of the Tour de France.
Matthews took second on stage one, fourth on another day and is currently sitting second in the green jersey competition, behind Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and ahead of Italian national champ Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious).
However, White is a little pessimistic about Matthews chances of capturing the Tour’s points classification for a second time in his career. But he does see one possible path forward.
“One problem is Sonny’s certainly showing he’s in the form of his life after that ride yesterday [where he placed third] and Mark Cavendish is in a rich vein of form too. I think realistically the only way for us to win the green jersey is for Mark to get eliminated [on a mountain stage by not making the time cut - Ed.]”
While recognising that the Briton is back in top sprinting form, as is clearly the case, White predicts that Cavendish may have limitations on his climbing in this year’s Tour given the special circumstances surrounding his appearance in the race.
“Mark’s going to be up for a few more stage wins in the second week. But where he could struggle is when we get into the Pyrenees because Mark wasn’t preparing for the Tour. He’s only gotten selected because Sam Bennett’s injured. He hasn’t done a GT for a couple of years and he’s clearly got his sprint mojo back. But I think the back end of this race is going to hurt Mark more than most.”
Back in the Team BikeExchange camp with Matthews currently well placed in the green jersey competition, White warns that the Australian faces an uphill struggle getting into breakaway moves and winning small group sprints too.
“I think QuickStep will mark him out of race-win breakaways and Colbrelli will follow him round. So we just have to pick and choose our moments where we go for intermediate sprints and pick up points here and there."
If Yates is on the up and Matthews faces a tough scenario right now looking for another win, Team BikeExchange have come through a crash-ridden first week relatively unscathed. Only one rider, Norwegian Amund Jansen has been in trouble. He crashed hard on stage 1 and then crashed again three days ago.
“He got through yesterday by the hairs on his chin,” White said about Jansen. “He was just five seconds inside the time limit, and a rest day was definitely what the doctor ordered.”
'There's still a lot to fight for at the Tour'
As for the GC battle, with Team BikeExchange not a protagonist White is a privileged observer. While race leader Tadej Pogačar’s strength is as evident to him as anyone else, he argues that the idea that the Slovenian has taken yellow too early could risk burning out his UAE Team Emirates squad.
“Two weeks might seem a long time to control a race. But at the end of the day Pogačar has shown he’s the strongest. So the longer we go on in the race, the more we’ll see teams working to defend the minor placings.
“You can throw a blanket over the nine guys on GC behind him and that’s when you start seeing weird things happen," White said.
"Like teams chasing a break because ninth place is up the road. Or teams start riding because they are going for teams classification. Or a team like ours that will control the race for 30 kilometres like we did yesterday [Sunday] because we wanted an intermediate sprint without sprinters.
“So it is a long time to hold the yellow. But I think his team is doing OK and he’s on another level above everybody else. They don’t have to ride to bring breaks back. All they need to do is keep things at a safe distance.”
For examples of that unusual style of racing that happens with a very dominant Tour leader and how it is already beginning to emerge, White cites the case of Ineos Grenadiers working on the front of the favourites’ group on Sunday. That happened, he argued, because it was too risky to give Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroen) a six minute advantage in the battle for the podium.
“So there’s a lot to fight for in this year’s Tour,” he added. “Just maybe not for the win.”
As for O’Connor and whether the Australian can now hold on to second, White said the key question is how his compatriot recovers from Sunday’s epically long breakaway. He also recalls that three years ago, O’Connor was lying well-placed in the Giro d’Italia in his Grand Tour debut until three days to go, when he crashed out. That augers well.
However, as White said, “guys in the top 10 will all have good days and bad days. But it’s how they manage the bad days that decides who’s on the podium in Paris.”
And that is as true for O’Connor as it is for Pogačar and the rest, all the way to the Champs Élyseés on July 18.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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