It’s tempting to pick the whole Tour de France as a highlight because plenty of the great moments threaded together to make something even better. Still, let’s focus on one day and here is Stage 8 from Mâcon to Saint-Etienne.
Before recounting the day, let’s remember two days before Julian Alaphilippe had lost the yellow jersey at the top of the Planche des Belles Filles to Guilio Ciccone and he was itching to get it back, he was six seconds down on GC and there was a climb with an eight second time bonus and ten seconds on offer at the finish line.
This was one of those stages where having the whole stage live was worth it. Only three riders got away, Niki Terpstra, Thomas De Gendt and Ben King. Many tried to get across but couldn’t get away from the peloton, the world’s best riders giving it everything. For a long time the break had a lead of only a few seconds on the bunch. Mads Würtz – no slouch – got within ten metres of the trio but they were moving so fast he just couldn’t close the gap, cracked and fell back to the bunch. Alessandro De Marchi was more patient, trying a little later and did bridge the gap once the bunch declared a ceasefire. The collective pause behind was surprising given how many teams crave a stage win and the hilly route made it neither a GC day nor a sprinters stage but that was their loss and easier said than done, the effort at the start was huge.
The gap never got much above five minutes and was brought down to three with 100km to go and soon after Astana and EF Education First picked up the pace. De Gendt and De Marchi had shed King and Terpstra to form a noble duo and the tension began to ratchet up. On the approach to the final categorised climb with its bonus sprint Geraint Thomas was brought down by a crash but was able to get back on the climb. De Gendt took off leaving De Marchi looking immobile on the climb and the Belgian rider had a slender lead over the top of the climb. Here Julian Alaphilippe sprung like a jack-in-the-box and Thibaut Pinot followed, Alaphilippe banked the five second time bonus at the top of the climb but this meant he was still one second behind Ciccone and had to ride on. The French duo worked well together, sharing the tasks and Pinot testing his nerves on the descent. Ahead De Gendt was surprisingly resilient and only lost about 15 seconds in the final 10km to take a memorable stage win, surely the match of his Giro Stelvio win: what the finish lacked in grandeur, it made up for in the way he rode it. Pinot won the sprint for second and six second time bonus for second place, with Alaphilippe reclaiming the yellow jersey.
Why the highlight?
A great day’s racing. A five hour stage can’t be non-stop attacks, just as no action film can be non-stop chases, explosions and fights, but this came close. The start was tense, the middle of the stage saw teams working to pull the gap down and there was a lot going in the finish with De Gendt, the GC riders, Thomas and suspense to the end. It’s an a advert for more mid-mountain stages in the Tour de France.
Look closely at Pinot’s legs and you can see the goosebumps on a hot summer’s day, He got a thrill out of the race that day and it showed what form he was in. Geraint Thomas had a crash but the way he closed the gap on the final climb showed his form was there, extrapolations of his tiny time loss in Epernay got cancelled but for all his form he was reacting to events rather than shaping them.
Alaphilippe threw everything at reclaiming the yellow jersey and got his rewards. We could apply hindsight to say he should have ridden more economically but this probably wouldn’t have worked and it’s just not his style either.
De Gendt won in typical style but the manner must be satisfying and if the venue of Saint-Etienne wasn’t as glamorous, it was arguably more of a masterpiece than his Stelvio and Mont Ventoux wins. Lotto-Soudal had a great Tour with De Gendt here and Caleb Ewan winning three stages.