The tumultuous day in the Jura nearly resulted in a fantastic day for AG2R La Mondiale. The French team has its offices in Chambéry, the finish town of stage 9 of the 2017 Tour de France, and the team impressed during one of the hardest stages of the Tour.
AG2R La Mondiale team had men in the long breakaway and outnumbered most other teams in the small peloton with GC riders. Jan Bakelants led the race on the final climb, the Mont du Chat, but faded back as the pure climbers surged forward, setting up team GC rider Romain Bardet to attack late in the stage. The young Frenchman came close to victory but "missed five more seconds" and the favourites reeled him back in shortly before the finish. The fourth place from Bardet in Chambéry doesn't quite reflect the great ride from the French outfit.
The team impressed most when the race was at the halfway point. In the descent of the HC-category climb Col de la Biche, the AG2R team moved to the front of the peloton. The pace picked up, and at the same moment the AG2R riders in the breakaway moved forward too. It was a daring move, as rain started to make the roads slippery.
The 'coupe' from AG2R caused a bit of a scare in the peloton. First, an AG2R-rider overhit a corner and spun a 180 in the gravel. His teammate in front probably didn't see it and gestured to his other teammates to pick up the pace. Further back, it was carnage. In less than 10 minutes, two serious crashes occurred. First, there was a crash with Jesus Herrada (Movistar) and Astana teammates Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev and Alexey Lutsenko. A few moments later, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) crashed, knocking Thomas out of the race.
After the stage, AG2R La Mondiale team manager Vincent Lavenu explained the tactical move to Cyclingnews.
"We knew that the Col de la Biche was tricky," he said. "The roads there aren't good and it's a technical descent. That's why I told my riders to do the descent in front. Not to annoy the peloton but to stay ahead of trouble. Naturally, gaps were created and crashes happened. That was the tactic. In front, it allowed my riders to be in the right move and in the peloton, they would stay out of trouble. I think it turned out well for us.
"For us, it was nearly a perfect day," Lavenu said. "The team rode very strong and Romain attacked in the final. We came very close to a stage win on home soil in Chambéry. For the spectators it was a great scenario but for AG2R La Mondiale, we lacked five extra seconds at Bourget-du-Lac to hold onto the lead until the finish. We will continue to try and get on the podium with Romain in Paris."
In front, the efforts from the AG2R team seemed to be in vain. Warren Barguil (Sunweb) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) rode away from AG2R riders Alexis Vuillermoz and Jan Bakelants on the next HC-category climb, the Grand Colombier. The situation turned around in favour of AG2R in the descent and the following long passage through the valley, where multiple small groups got back together and the co-operation was gone.
After the intermediate sprint, Bakelants and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) profited from the lack of co-operation to sneak away once Michael Matthews (Sunweb) picked up the points. On the final climb, the Mont du Chat, Bakelants faded back and Vuillermoz was unable to keep up with Barguil. Afterwards, Bakelants said the tactics weren't clear.
"I heard through the radio that we shouldn't ride anymore. I asked if they were already pulling in the peloton or planning to do it. I couldn't sit back in a group where the co-operation already wasn't good while they weren't pulling in the peloton," Bakelants said. "It was hard to understand what they were doing. Apparently, they were pulling in the peloton eventually. As it turns out, they were also pulling while I was leading the race with Gallopin, but they weren't coming much closer."
Bakelants had to laugh about the confusing situation. When asked about the dangerous descents, Bakelants - never shy of an opinion - said the Mont du Chat was OK.
"The previous descents were much more over the top," he said. "They were much more dangerous, poorly asphalted and much more inequalities. In warm weather, the asphalt on the first two big climbs would certainly have melted."
On the Mont du Chat, the GC riders passed all the escapees except for Barguil. At the top, Barguil was 25 seconds ahead of Bardet, Christopher Froome (Team Sky), Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team), Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Fabio Aru and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
"Everybody was on the limit on the summit," he said. "The best 4-5 riders were still together. Froome didn't succeed in making the difference. Nobody was able to do it."
Bardet crested the summit at the back of the group and in the descent, he narrowly escaped the terrifying crash from Porte and Martin. At the finish, Bardet wasn't aware that Porte had been forced to abandon the race.
"It was really scary and I was lucky. I braked and tried to anticipate their trajectory," he said. "Porte didn't get back on his bike? I'm sad for him. He didn't deserve this. It's never good news to learn that a rival left the race due to a crash. He was a serious candidate for the yellow jersey. He did a good race today. Sadly enough, it's part of the game but it's not fun to see a rival crash away."
Shortly after the crash, Bardet passed the other riders and dropped them, storming towards Barguil.
"From there, it was about descending skills and taking risks. It was a risk to be in the last position," he said. "Descending is a discipline that I'm mastering, so once I recovered, I moved to the front to put my rivals under pressure."
Barguil only briefly managed to keep up with Bardet. On a short climb, Bardet dropped his compatriot and collected nearly half a minute on the group with Froome, Uran, Barguil, Aru and Fuglsang. The chase group worked well together and closed the gap. Bardet was asked if it wouldn't have been better for him to wait for Barguil.
"It's easy to say that in hindsight. Warren was tired of his earlier efforts. There was no time to wait for him on the short climb. I gave everything. The wind wasn't in my favour so I had to create the gap there. I came very close. There was a little bit too much headwind in the final. It's a pity. I'm disappointed because the race unfolded like we wanted. It's too bad that I end up racing against two Astana riders and Froome who didn't want to let me go I was really hoping to obtain the yellow jersey. It's my dream to wear it one day. If I can't capture it by surprise I need to hunt it down with the pedals."
At two kilometres from the finish in Chambéry, Bardet was caught back. In the sprint, Bardet was on the wheel of eventual winner Uran but he finished fourth.
"In the sprint my chain jumped at the moment I accelerate. I thought I recovered well for the sprint but that's the way it is," he said.
"It's encouraging to see that we came close to the victory. The sensations were good, the team was good. I'm virtually on the podium now. We're moving our pawns. There's still a lot to be done in the Pyrenees and the Alps. I want to confirm last year's podium result. There's still a long way to go but the sensations are good. The team is ready. We'll be fighting again in the next stages. It was a nice weekend that honoured cycling. I think it was an enjoyable stage to watch. I'm pleased to have been one of the actors."
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