The fifth and final pick, not easy as to pick one means to exclude all the others but let’s go with John Degenkolb’s Tour de France win, a satisfying result on many levels.
The opening week of the Tour de France suffered from too many sprint finishes, the daily plat du jour was getting repetitive and the stages that could have been different in Brittany still saw the bunch huddling. It takes a lot to split the field up these days. One way to achieve this is the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, both directly because of their brute force but also indirectly because of the fear factor as riders jostle for position in the approach to each sector. Indeed the fear factor was something that was playing on minds for days, weeks and even months ahead of the race and most teams with ambitions for the overall classification made sure to select at least one “bodyguard” for their team leader, a classics contender tasked with shepherding a climber across the pavé.
The Tour de France has borrowed the cobbles before but the 2018 incursion borrowed heavily with over 20km of cobbled sectors including some tough ones. It was as close to a summer remake of Paris-Roubaix as you could get within reason during the Tour de France, at least over 156km.
The stage started and Richie Porte crashed early and was out of the race. He’d just won the Tour de Suisse and once again we were left wondering what could have been. Some say he simply can’t do a grand tour but at best this is speculation because we can never see and after all people said that about Geraint Thomas too. As soon as the race hit the pavé Romain Bardet was among those suffering a puncture and this was to be the first of several times when he was playing catch up, L’Equipe later reported a team mix-up over the tyres and wheels meant they didn’t have enough puncture protection on the day.
Sky picked up the pace and forced a selection despite Egan Bernal having crashed hard. There was talk of a cracked wrist but he’d prove to be ok – one story of his season, something we’ll touch on next week – but for all the team tactics and two races in one, for the stage and for the GC contenders, the day didn’t change the standings too much. Porte was out because of his fall, only Rigoberto Urán lost time among the GC contenders but with hindsight he wasn’t going to feature anyway.
Late in the stage and Yves Lampaert (Quick Step) accelerated, taking John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) with him. A perfect trio for the moment, no threat to the GC so the teams with numbers didn’t have to chase. Perfect for their symbolism too, as all three would have made satisfying winners. Van Avermaet in the yellow jersey could cap off a dream week. Lampaert the Quickstepper in his Belgian champion’s jersey as the Flandrien icon. Degenkolb as the former Paris-Roubaix winner on the comeback. Having finished third the day before Degenkolb was the fastest on paper but on the road with all the racing it was another matter, there was suspense to the end. But sure enough Degenkolb got his sprint going, his head banging as if at an imaginary Rammstein gig, and he won. Of the three he surely brought more cheer because of where he’d come from.
Why the highlight? a great day’s racing with moves flying for hours on end and one of those days where the TV production crew must have been shattered after trying to work out which video to show from all the different choices, with attacks here, crashes there, mechanicals and more. It brought the Tour de France back to life especially on the back of the previous stage which was so dull it saw a breakaway form only for riders to sit up from it and retreat for the bunch so futile was the move. The Roubaix stage didn’t so much as awaken the race but was like placing a defibrillator on the peloton. Then it was enhanced by the story of Degenkolb’s win, perhaps not Lazarus but all the same a comeback and the sheer emotion of it all showed. There’s also the secret hope that the millions who watched this stage will be interested to see what Paris-Roubaix is all about and tune in for the classics next time.
With hindsight: It’s not a comeback from zero, Degenkolb has had wins since the horrific training accident in 2016 and was third in the sprint the day before, but all the same a return to the highest level. So to take the Roubaix stage win was a prestigious return. It showed too, an outpouring of tears and joy.
Once again for the Tour the cobbles provided more fear than selection, several bantamweight climbers were supposed to get bounced out of contention but in the end most were fine, just. Nairo Quintana for example lost more time after slamming into a traffic island on the opening stage and breaking his wheels. In some sense this was the ideal result, to have the excitement but not to lose the contenders before the mountains arrived. The pavé will be back but we’ll see if they’re still used sparingly, if the race can visit France’s north without them, or if the route almost bends towards the north because of them, because of the need for constant action.