If the first nine days of the 2019 Tour de France were going to plan for Team Ineos – and they were, barring Geraint Thomas' crash on stage 8 – then the events of a crosswind-hit stage 10 to Albi saw them head into the first rest day flying high.
As other general classification contenders, notably Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), floundered when the peloton split 30 kilometres from the line, it was the British squad who predictably turned the situation to their advantage.
"It feels like we've just scored a goal," said a buoyant Dave Brailsford after the stage. "[The time gap] is significant. It's quite rare to get that block of time on a whole bunch of GC guys, unless it's a hilltop finish or team time trial. I can't remember getting that kind of time before, so that's cool."
Both reigning champion Thomas and Team Ineos co-leader Egan Bernal were positioned towards the front of the peloton when it split with 30 kilometres to go under pressure from the team and Deceuninck-QuickStep.
The peloton quickly split into three distinct groups, with Pinot, Porte, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) all on the wrong side of the situation. Each man would lose 1:40 on the day, with Landa crashing and ending up 2:09 down.
Bernal took an added bonus – the white jersey – as previous holder Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) finished with Landa. Brailsford praised the young Colombian, who now lies one spot behind Thomas in third overall, as well as his team, half-filled with classics specialists.
"Egan had never ridden in the crosswinds before [Paris-Nice], so I think that's a great experience," Brailsford said. "That sort of skill he's learnt there, he had to use today.
"Geraint can ride in the crosswinds as well as anybody in the world, and of course then you've got Luke [Rowe], Dylan [Van Baarle], Michał [Kwiatkowski], Gianni [Moscon] – once you've got those guys in front, it's hard to bring them back."
Favourable terrain and forward planning
After the stage, Portal spoke of how the team had planned for the past several stages – potential banana skins of the Massif Central. Hailing from Auch, two hours west of Albi, the Frenchman added that his local knowledge helped with devising a plan of action for the stage.
"We say every day that we've got to understand the roads," he said. "It's not too complicated for me because I'm from this area, but it's not a proper region for the winds. It's not totally flat; it's more the effect of surprise here sometimes.
"We had – like every morning – a chance to identify a few sections, and then we looked at how the wind is evolving, the direction, how the bunch goes. We kind of hoped what would happen happened, but we really didn't believe it. But just in case [it does], we're ready every day. The last few days were like this, and it was just a perfect moment."
EF Education First were the team initially driving the peloton, 10 kilometres before the split. Their pace-setting saw a number of riders caught out going the long way around a roundabout, but it wasn't until Team Ineos and Deceuninck-QuickStep came to the fore that the real split occurred.
"Once EF started pulling, the guys saw this and started to go to the front," said Portal. "Then, at the same time they stopped a little bit, the guys kept going. QuickStep started, we went with them, and then 'boom, full gas.'
"We knew there was an eight- to nine-kilometre section, sheltered on and off. But I think it was because we went really hard – there was a proper kick, proper commitment, and all the guys behind weren't really focussed or not well-positioned. It was like 30 kilometres of more or less a team time trial."
Brailsford added that the team was one of the few to go "all-in" when the crosswind hit, adding that the narrow roads and technical descent all contributed to the circumstances of the split.
"It shows again that this race is different from the others, because you can never relax for a minute," he said. "It's hard mentally, and you can't switch off. If you do, you get caught out, and I think quite a few guys got caught out today."
Team Ineos on top
While Tour debutant Wout Van Aert continued Jumbo-Visma's fantastic opening half of the race with their fourth stage win, Team Ineos were more than happy with their gains – three places on GC for both Thomas and Bernal. Thomas, in second, still lies 1:12 down on race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), but the pair are right where they want to be right now.
But it's not just about the time gains; Portal was pleased with the psychological advantage the team now has, heading into the first rest day.
"It's a massive present, just before the rest day," he said. "If you don't just think about the time on GC – which is already incredible – if you think about the impact on the mind, this is a massive impact.
"When you start the rest day and you lost almost two minutes, that's pretty bad. It's been a big, big battle for [the riders] over the 10 days, and it was a nice battle, a really hard one, and now losing 1:40 is a huge blow for them, for sure."
While it seems inevitable at this point, the yellow jersey is not yet on the back of a Team Ineos rider. Portal wasn't thinking that far ahead just yet, keeping his mind on the near future of the race rather than the bigger picture.
"I'm not really thinking about [taking yellow]," he said. "This morning we were in a great position. The TT is a possibility for Geraint to take yellow – why not? – but we'll see. Whenever we have the jersey, it's something that's going to give us much more, for sure. [The situation] is much better. We just have to stay with our feet on the ground, and just do like we do every day – just take it day by day."
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