The Tour de France lasts three weeks, but in an instant the race can turn upside down. As European riders like to say: one minute you're the hammer, the next you're the nail, taking the beating. The EF Education First team were both in the final 40km of stage 10 to Albi. They went on the attack with 43km to go, sparking a split in the peloton, only to then get caught out and distanced in the chaos when Team Ineos and Deceuninck-QuickStep joined in the attack.
EF Education First team leader Rigoberto Urán and several teammates went from the front group to the second group and never saw the head of the race again as the Tour de France became more like Gent-Wevelgem than a transfer stage south towards the Pyrenees for the first rest day.
Urán was with fellow overall contenders Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), but that was of little comfort at the finish when the clock showed they had lost 1:40 to Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal (Team Ineos), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), race leader Julian Alaphilippe and Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale). Uran slipped from eighth to 13th in the general classification and is now 3:18 down on Alaphilippe and 2:06 behind Thomas.
"The split was unfortunate, and we lost some important time. It's an important time loss, but we'll keep going," Urán said, trying to find some context and balance climbing into his team bus.
"The team was working well, and everybody was working up front because there were three GC riders behind. But that's the Tour... The important things is that we didn't fall off."
Canada's Michael Woods tried to help drag Urán and the chase group back up to the Thomas attack, with the likes of Swiss time triallist Stefan Küng riding for Pinot. The gap came down to touching distance, just 10 seconds or so, but then the attackers, under the impulse of multiple Team Inoes and Deceuninck-QuickStep riders, powered away again.
Woods explained what he saw and felt from the saddle as EF Education First went from being the hammer to being the nail.
"We tried to take the front at around kilometre 174. We figured that it was a good spot to go, and we went. Unfortunately, it was a touch too early and we got swarmed," Woods said honestly.
"Then, in the chaos of thing, we ended up in the second group. QuickStep did an amazing job of driving it and so to did Team Ineos. We ended up caught off guard. We went full panic station to try to pull it back. I got it to 10 seconds, and then I blew up. That's the last I saw of it.
"I'm not able to contribute like the big guys. I was taking death pulls every single time those guys came through because I can't put out the same watts as Stefan Küng or even Tom Scully. I did as best I could, but we didn't have enough manpower in the group to bring it back."
Urán lost 1:40 to some of his biggest overall rivals, but EF Education First refused to throw in the towel or lose their cool, at least in public.
"The Tour de France is like a 21-round boxing match. It takes a long time until the winner lands the decisive punch and so it's like death by a thousand cuts or jabs," senior directeur sportif Charly Wegelius told Cyclingnews.
"You can chase seconds, but when you get to the mountains, the time gaps are measured in minutes, rather than seconds."
Woods agreed. The Tour de France has reached the first rest day and covered more than half of the 3,480 total race distance, but the Pyrenees and the Alps are still to come. Of the 10 stages left until the ride into Paris, eight are into thin air.
"Rigo ended up losing more than a minute. That's not what we wanted, but this race will not determined by seconds if you look at last three days in the Alps before Paris. It'll be a race decided by minutes," Woods concluded defiantly.
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