Which stage of the Tour de France to pick? As the dominant event on the calendar it attracts the best riders at the top of their game but this alone doesn’t ensure good racing. What helped was the second weekend of racing as the race reached the Jura mountains where one day of superb racing set up the next.
The first day in the Jura was a medium mountain stage and one of the rare chances for a breakaway to stick given the repeated sprint finishes; dominated by Marcel Kittel who had taken three stages already. Stage 8 went to Les Rousses via a series of unheralded but rewardingly scenic climbs lost in the Jura – off all the stages ridden in recon this was a delight – and started off with a fierce pace. It took 90 minutes of relentless racing before the day’s breakaway formed, some 50 riders barged clear and then split again. The scenario was constantly changing with groups forming and reforming as if the peloton was a giant lava lamp. Later on Warren Barguil was instrumental in pulling a group clear that included Greg Van Avermaet, Robert Gesink, Serge Pauwels and Lilian Calmejane. For Calmejane the fear was that he’d show too early, a chicklet surrounded by old foxes. But it was Barguil who was using up energy and only later did Calmejane make his move and he stayed away, just, despite cramp and the best efforts of Gesink.
If much of the peloton raced Stage 8 like there was no tomorrow Stage 9 came the next day. This was the stage many had been anticipating, the Jura trilogy of the Biche, Grand Colombier and the Mont du Chat. Another lively start, so frenetic that riders were crashing up the first climb of the day including Gesink who’d done so much the previous day and was out with a broken back.
Ag2r La Mondiale cranked up the pace mid-stage. Their race HQ was just near the finish so this was almost home soil for team manager Vincent Lavenu. It looked brave, plucky even for this small team to threaten Team Sky but they had a homogenous team around Bardet and would set the pace at other times too. Part of this included attacking the descent of the Col de la Biche where the pace was too high for the TV motos as well as the likes of Geraint Thomas and Rafał Majka.
Thibaut Pinot was among those showing early but he could not sustain it. Instead Warren Barguil would be the French hero of the day, going in the breakaway and then being the only rider to stay clear of the yellow jersey contenders as they closed in.
Their speed had been increased by early attaching by Fabio Aru who surged after Froome had a mechanical. Aru said he didn’t notice Froome; Froome said he didn’t notice Aru. Neither sounded credible but this was a matter for them to resolve rather than television or Twitter. Social media was erupting like Krakatoa but is irrelevant to the race, a point proven moments later when Aru, Fuglsang and Froome shared the work to bring back Bardet.
Bardet tried a late attack but the road to Chambéry was too flat and too long and was caught. A sprint and Barguil thought he had won only for the photo-finish to show Urán had it.
Why the highlight?A great weeke of racing. Stage 9 went feral from start to finish and on several levels too, whether Michael Matthews infilitrating the breakaway in order to win the intermediate sprint or the travails of Arnaud Démare and others trying to make the time cut. Meanwhile there was plenty of action and excitement among the top contenders and it was one of those days where you pitied the video producers trying to make edited highlights as they’d be up to shoulders in cuttings. It was draining just watching on the sofa.
There was hesitation picking this over the stage to Foix because Richie Porte crashed out. This was a lowlight, both in the moment for the fear it evoked as he hurtled into a rocky mountainside at speed and for the duration as it deprived us of a genuine contender. Similarly Dan Martin was hobbled by Porte’s fall.
With hindsight: There was the podium over the Mont du Chat with Froome, Urán and Bardet accompanied by future yellow jersey wearer Aru and polka dot winner Warren Barguil. Looking back the stage was that selective.
Aru’s attack was premature. The Mont du Chat is so steep that even a small acceleration costs beaucoup energy. He’d have been better served by getting Fuglsang to up the pace a notch while Froome put himself in the red to work back…and then to attack later. Hindsight of course.
Was the stage too risky? These were no boulevards but the risk comes from the racers pushing themselves and each other. The descent down the Signal du Chat had been used without incident in the Dauphiné and resurfaced since to help too.
Ag2r are not Team Sky, their budget is less than half that of Sky. But they tried to ride like them at times, setting tempo in the mountains and this was something few other teams could match, even stalwarts like Astana and Movistar didn’t look so convincing. This time Bardet ground out that podium place, more power than panache but probably more satisfying as it suggests the performance is repeatable, especially if gains can be made in the time trials. This is possible give he was sick in Marseille and can work on simple things like trajectories to save seconds here and there.
We saw Warren Barguil delivering on the promise he’d shown earlier as neo-pro winning stages of the Vuelta. Injuries had gotten in the way – he’d fractured his hip in May – but things aligned in the Tour and he’d go on to take two stages and the polka dot jersey. This then saw him out of Sunweb and moving to Fortuneo for 2018, an unusual but explainable career move which was all engineered on the back of his riding in July.
Finally we saw Chris Froome pushed closer for once. He lost the yellow jersey to Aru and if Astana never looked convincing, Froome could have lost more time on the road to Peyragudes although he may well have still had a comfortable margin after the final time trial. If the end result was the same with four for Froome now and the Tour had too many (consecutive) sprint finishes there were plenty of other good stages and the short stage format bodes well for the 2018 route.