Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) took his first victory in almost three years when he outsprinted David de la Cruz (Astana Qazaqstan) on the uphill finale in Lienz on the final stage of the Tour of the Alps.
It was a double celebration for French cycling as Romain Bardet (DSM) distanced Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) on the late climb of Stronach to claim final overall victory.
On a day of driving rain in Austria, there were two races in one, as Pinot and De la Cruz emerged as the strongmen from the day’s early break, while Bardet managed to rid himself of Bilbao in the finale to overhaul his two-second overnight deficit in the overall standings.
Bilbao’s Bahrain Victorious squad had been content to grant the early break considerable leeway, reasoning that they would hoover up the time bonuses, but in the end, the race was decided on sheer strength.
Bilbao was placed in difficulty when Richie Porte (Ineos) set a blistering pace on the lower slopes of short and steep climb of Stronach, and he was distanced irretrievably when Bardet took up the reins midway up the climb.
Bardet had teammate Thymen Arensman and former colleague Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ) for company as he crested the summit with a lead of 15 seconds over Bilbao. That trio combined smoothly on the final 8km to extend that advantage and share the top three places in the overall standings among them.
Bardet underscored his pre-Giro d’Italia for with overall victory, 14 seconds clear of Storer and 16 ahead of Arensman, while Bilbao had to settle for fourth overall at 37 seconds.
“It was super hard today, and the last climb was also the hardest of the race,” said Bardet. “I’m really happy to be able to win this one. I think we showed that we are a pretty strong team and we enjoy racing together.”
It was the first time Bardet had won the general classification of a race since he won the Tour de l’Ain nine years ago, but his relief was perhaps nothing compared to that felt by his compatriot Pinot, who hadn’t won since his victory atop the Col du Tourmalet on the 2019 Tour de France, with injury the keynote to his career ever since.
Ten minutes or so before Bardet began to take command of the Tour of the Alps, Pinot had distanced De la Cruz on the climb of Stronach, but the Spaniard fought his way back up to him on the descent.
It looked at that point as though Pinot might endure heartbreak at the hands of an Astana rider for the second successive day, but he showed considerable resolve to outkick De la Cruz in the final 200 metres.
“It’s a big relief for me to win. The Tour of the Alps is my favourite race and winning here is great for me,” said Pinot. “I had just one thought in my head today: to win. I knew that the break had a chance of going all the way to the finish, and it was tough course, very cold, conditions I liked.”
How it unfolded
The hilly final stage of the Tour of Alps started and finished in Lienz, where Michele Bartoli won the 1994 Giro d’Italia, and the 115km distance lent itself to attacking racing. At the start, race leader Pello Bilbao outlined that his Bahrain Victorious team was content to allow an early break go the distance, reasoning that his race would be based on trying to follow Bardet. “We will wait and see how DSM react,” he said.
Once the early break of fifteen riders went clear after 25km, that statis in the main field allowed them to establish a hefty advantage. At one point in the finale, Pinot, who began the day over 13 minutes off Bilbao, was suddenly back in contention for overall victory.
The Frenchman was joined in that initial move by David De La Cruz (Astana Qazaqstan), Andrey Amador (Ineos Grenadiers), Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe), James Piccoli (Israel-Premier Tech), Abner Gonzalez (Movistar), Marco Brenner (Team DSM), Jonathan Cañaveral, Luca Covili (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè), Jefferson Cepeda (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Edoardo Zardini (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli), Davide Bais (Eolo-Kometa), Igor Arrieta (Equipo Kern Pharma), Mikel Iturria (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Torstein Traaen (Uno-X), though it soon split on the first ascent of the Bannberg.
Pinot, De la Cruz, Kämna, Arrieta and Traaen went clear there, and they were joined over the other side by Amador. Come the short but steep Oberassling, however, Pinot and De la Cruz’s quality began to tell, and they pressed clear with 66k remaining.
They collaborated well on the second time up the Bannberg, though there was a scare for Pinot when he was distanced by his breakaway companion on the descent. He bridged back on, but he realised that he would need to drop the Spaniard on the final ascent of the Stronach rather than risk a similar setback on the descent.
At the base of the final Stronach, Pinot endured a further anxious moment when his derailleur appeared to jam, but he put the issue to rights and was able to parry De la Cruz’s initial attack before launching one of his own as the gradient stiffened to double digits.
At the summit with 7km to go, Pinot had 15 seconds in hand, but when De la Cruz inched back up to him with 4km remaining, it looked as though he would again be denied by an Astana rider. Instead, Pinot held his nerve when De la Cruz accelerated with 200m to go, coming around him to win comfortably.
“I had quite a few little things go wrong during the stage too, so it was a special win,” said Pinot.
The GC battle, meanwhile, was essentially decided within the three wickedly steep kilometres of Stronach. Richie Porte’s impressive early onslaught splintered the group of contenders and put Bilbao in difficulty, but it also distanced Pavel Sivakov.
When Porte hesitated about continuing his effort, Bardet took over, climbing out the saddle and bringing Arensman and Storer with him. They crested the summit with 15 seconds or so in hand on Bilbao, and their smooth collaboration on the run-in ensured that Bardet would carry off the green jersey of race winner.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.