The Tour de France clattered onto the cobbles on stage 5 on a day of high drama that saw Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) land a blow on all his rivals, while Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech) landed the stage win from the breakaway.
Jumbo-Visma had dominated the previous stage but they endured a nightmare afternoon on the pavé of north-east France, with Primož Roglič suffering a huge blow to his title hopes after a late crash.
It could have been much worse for the Dutch team, as co-leader Jonas Vingegaard had already suffered a mechanical before that, but he had Wout van Aert - who also crashed early in the stage - to thank for saving his day.
Van Aert ended up saving his own yellow jersey with a ride that was almost just as remarkable as his victory 24 hours previously, even if he spent most of his day off the back rather than the front. In the end, it wasn't just his teammates thanking him. "I think we owe Wout a beer," said Ineos Grenadiers' road captain Luke Rowe, after all three of the British team's leaders found themselves in that same chasing group that remarkably only ended up conceding 13 seconds to Pogačar.
The winner of the past two Tours looked set for even greater gains as he floated over the cobbles and forced the issue throughout. Sensing blood after Vingegaard's and Roglič's mishaps, he attacked on the ninth of 11 sectors with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and carried the move to the line.
However, they were unable to catch the breakaway and they were unable to drive home an advantage that had once stood at nearly a minute. Van Aert and Christophe Laporte were instrumental in dragging Vingegaard - and the Ineos leaders - first of all back to the first main bunch that contained Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) and other danger men, and then limiting the losses to Pogačar to 13 seconds on the line.
Roglič, however, was left behind. He sailed smoothly all day until he crashed through a roundabout ahead of the seventh sector and reportedly dislocated his shoulder. As he popped it back in, the Vingegaard group sailed by, the leadership hierarchy crystallising in an instant. Jumbo-Visma did send Tiesj Benoot and Nathan van Hooydonck back but they lacked the firepower of Van Aert and Laporte, and the Slovenian ended up crossing the line more than two minutes down on Pogačar.
Roglič wasn't the biggest GC loser, however. Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) punctured on the second sector and never got back in, losing more than three minutes as he came home alongside Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux). Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), meanwhile, crashed out of the race altogether.
Amid all the GC chaos, the stage win came down to the day's six-man breakaway, and Clarke prevailed thanks to a brilliant bike throw. Neilson Powless, whose EF Education-EasyPost teammate Magnus Cort had sacrificed himself on yet another day up the road, looked to spring a surprise attack in the final kilometre but was chased down by Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies).
The pair, however, burned their matches in the process, leaving the door open for Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux). The big Dutchman's head bobbed furiously all the way to the line but Clarke never gave up and drew alongside with just enough time to thrust his bike out in front and nudge his wheel over the line for a first Tour de France victory in a career that seemed to be over last winter.
"After the winter I had when I had no team, to then have Israel ring me up and say we'll give you that chance, it just gives you the reality check to make the most of every opportunity," Clarke said.
"I still can't believe I got it on the line. Taco was well ahead of me with less than 50m to go, both legs were camping and I just lined up the biggest throw I could possibly do and prayed it was enough. I need to watch the replay - I still don't quite believe it."
How it unfolded
The peloton rolled out of Lille under grey skies for a lengthy neutralised zone before the proper start of one of the most eagerly-anticipated stages of the whole Tour. The first breakaway move came from Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), who took Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies) with him, along with polka-dot jersey Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), despite no mountains points being on offer.
They were not allowed fully off the leash and there was an intriguing moment when Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-EasyPost) went clear in a counter-attack with teammate Neilson Powless. At that point, Cort stopped working but the peloton sped up behind and the move came to nothing. However, Powless went again soon after without Urán, going clear in a move with Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech) and Alexis Gougeard (B&B Hotels KTM).
The two trios joined with 135km to go to make a sextet at the head of the race, with the gap rising to three minutes. At the intermediate sprint 15km later Van der Hoorn took maximum points amid a no-contest from the break, while Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) pipped Van Aert from the peloton.
There was still nearly 50km to the first cobbled sector but the tension was already in the air. There was no one team pulling the peloton but several teams had already set up trains across the road, looking to establish and hold their positions way in advance of the pavé.
The first dose of drama came even before the first sector when Van Aert crashed with 95km to go. The yellow jersey came down in a touch of wheels through a right-hand bend with a central reservation, having to disentangle his bike from that of teammate Steven Kruijswijk. The pair then proceeded to chase and try to close a gap of one minute, with Van Aert almost coming down a second time when he brushed the DSM team car while coming back through the convoy.
Helped by Nathan Van Hooydonck calling for a slow-down to let the yellow jersey back in, Van Aert left Kruijswijk to get himself back in with 88km to go.
The early sectors
The first sector, which was sector 11 given their numbering in reverse order, came with 77km to go. It ran 1400 metres from Fressain to Villers-au-Terre and was given a three-star rating out of five.
There was a huge surge on the approach, with Laporte lining out the bunch for Jumbo-Visma. Pogacar was well placed but he was largely positioning himself, with no teammates in the immediate vicinity. There was then another big-name crash, with Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) sliding out on a snaking bend.
The bunch took a minute back on the approach to hit the sector just over three minutes behind the breakaway. Laporte led them on before Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost) took over to drive the pace. Roglič was third wheel until Pogačar came to the fore and came off the sector in second place behind Bettiol.
Back on the tarmac, there was more than 15km to the next sector, so Jack Bauer (BikeExchange-Jayco) used the lull to launch an attack, joined by Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) but they were soon taken back. Ineos co-leader Dani Martínez had to stop for a new wheel after a puncture but a near-full bunch wound up once again for sector 10, a two-star sector running 1600m from Eswars to Paillencourt.
Cort led the break the whole way as they came off with a lead of 3:30. Back in the bunch, QuickStep hit it hard after a calm approach, Michael Mørkøv drilling it on the slightly downhill slope. Kasper Asgreen then took it up with Mikel Honoré in the wheel, and when Mørkøv pulled out and let a gap open, the pair were away. Responses came from Bettiol, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) but the bunch soon reformed on the tarmac. There were, however, some absentees. Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) punctured and set about trying to close a minute's gap with teammates, while Sagan also lost contact, along with key Ineos domestiques Luke Rowe and Filippo Ganna.
Sector 9 followed hot on the heels, a three-star sector running 1400m from Wasnes-au-Bac to Marcq-en-Ostrevent. The breakaway's lead came down to 2:45, while Arkéa-Samsic led an increasingly ragged peloton across. O'Connor was the biggest loser from a GC perspective, making no inroads and hanging still at one minute.
Sector 8 followed equally quickly, a three-star 1600m run from Emerchicourt to Monchecourt. Jumbo-Visma took it up this time through Van Hooydonck and Laporte, with Thomas just behind. There were no decisive splits, though. Back down the road, O'Connor had to leave his teammates behind to lead the chasing group, with Sagan in it, on the cobbles.
It was soon time for sector 7, a three-star 1300m strip from Auberchicourt to Emerchicourt. The breakaway stuck together and came off it with a lead of 2:20 over a peloton where Ineos took control through Dylan Van Baarle. Thomas was in tow, with Pogačar tagging along in third wheel. Van der Poel slipped back and was dropped just after they exited the sector. Meanwhile, the O'Connor group slipped towards two minutes down on the bunch.
As the breakaway took on sector 6 at Abscon, a two-star, 1500m affair, there was a moment of chaos for Jumbo-Visma when Vingegaard had a mechanical on the approach. He quickly swapped bikes with Van Hooydonck but it was far too big, so he had to swap again with Steven Kruijswijk. When the Jumbo-Visma car pulled up, there was a comical moment as the trio all stopped and performed a manic three-way swap that left them all on their own, working, machines.
By the time they got going, they were 45 seconds down on the bunch. Van Aert had already been distanced from the main bunch - led over the cobbles by Bora's Nils Politt and Aleksandr Vlasov - and was called back to chase with Van Hooydonck and Benoot, leaving just Laporte up front with Roglič.
The cobbles intensify
Things got serious with just over 30km to go with the first four-star sector, the longest of the day at 2800m from Erre to Wandignies-Hamage. Jumbo-Visma's hopes were dented yet further before the sector had even begun, as Roglič crashed as the bunch was pinched through a roundabout. The Slovenian soon found himself bypassed by the Vingegaard group, and was left alone to fend for himself. Meanwhile, another key player, Geraint Thomas, found himself distanced and back with the Vingegaard chase group.
Pogačar smelled blood and hit the front as the heavily-reduced bunch hit the sector. They trailed the breakaway by just over a minute but had a lead of 50 seconds over the Vingegaard chase group, with Roglič a further 50 seconds behind. Jumbo-Visma then decided to send riders back for the Slovenian ahead of sector 4. Laporte was sent back to join Van Aert in support of Vingegaard, while Benoot, Van Hooydonck, and Kruijswijk went with Roglič.
Sector 4 was another long one, running 2400m from Warlaing to Brillon. Van Aert took responsibility in the first chase as Bora and Arkéa looked to profit from the demise of Jumbo-Visma and Ben O'Connor, now three minutes back. Pogačar pushed on after the end of the sector to keep the pace high, nudging the advantage over the Vingegaard group to one minute, and the Roglič group to two minutes.
There was a fluid period as the groups established themselves but in the first bunch Jumbo-Visma had no representation, and neither did Ineos, with Yates and Martínez also in the yellow jersey group. In addition to Pogačar, the key players in that first group were Aleksandr Vlasov, David Gaudu, and Nairo Quintana.
There was absolutely no let up, with sector 3 marking the third straight sector of more than 2000m. The run from Tilloy-les-Marchiennes to Sars-et-Rosières was a rough four-star strip of 2400m and it saw the race properly opened up. The five remaining breakaway riders - Powless, Cort, Clarke, Boasson Hagen, Van der Hoorn - led by 45 seconds, but behind them, Pogačar was on the move once again.
Stuyven hit the front on the brutal sector and the two-time Tour champion went after him. No one else could follow, and they were away as a duo with 18km to go, opening up half a minute on the main bunch.
Sector 2 was a 3-star run from Bousignies to Millonfosse measuring 1400 metres. Cort continued to bury himself in the breakaway, and each turn from the quintet was mightily important, as they managed to get a hold of Pogačar and Stuyven. They came off the sector with 10km to go with a lead still of 45 seconds. Behind, the first bunch started to lose impetus and the gap to the Vingegaard/Ineos group came further down when Tom Pidcock dropped back to contribute.
With 7km to go, just ahead of the final sector, that group regained contact with the main bunch of Vlasov, Gaudu, and Quintana, meaning they were back on an equal footing with Vingegaard, Thomas, Yates, and Martinez. Roglič, however, drifted back to 90 seconds down. Up front, Pogacar, still with Stuyven, rode 40 seconds clear but still 55 seconds down on the bunch.
The final sector ran 1400m from Hasnon to Wallers, and it saw Cort quickly dropped after all his work. The remaining quartet hit the tarmac for the run-in with 55 seconds in hand, stage win secure for one of them. Van Aert appeared to have done a final turn on the cobbles but suddenly reappeared on the tarmac in the final 3km. Schachmann and Ineos were also contributing but Van Aert and Laporte set about drilling it to try and claw Pogacar back.
In the end, they remarkably plugged the gap to just 13 seconds, saving the day for Vingegaard as Ineos also breathed a sigh of relief. But Roglic was left to flounder.
Up front, the stage win was still to be decided, and it was Powless, in with a shot at the yellow jersey, who looked to spring a surprise with an attack from the back with 900 metres to go. Boasson Hagen chased him down with 400 metres to go but burned himself out in the process, leaving Van der Hoorn and Clarke to slug it out.
Van der Hoorn, head bobbing all over the place, ground his way to the line but Clarke inched closer and snatched it with a super bike throw.
Results powered by FirstCycling
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1