Another day, another tricky route. On paper this route looked like 60-40 for the breakaway vs. the sprint but given the tough racing so far and the struggles of several sprinters it suits the breakaway more, which in turn will encourage more to try their luck, and so increasing the chance of a strong move staying away.
Matthews’ Masterpiece: an incendiary stage. A big breakaway got away even before the first climb of the day but only had a few seconds. Then Tadej Pogačar attacked on the climb, it looked like he’d seen Jonas Vingegaard didn’t have team mates around and wanted to put the yellow jersey under pressure as his team mates scrambled to get back. Pogačar was unlikely to keep this up until the end but his move rode down the breakaway and provoked the race even more. Vingegaard was never on the ropes but if other teams had joined things could have got hectic and his team managers must have been sweating, even with the aircon on max.
Finally a maxi-breakaway of 23 riders got away. A group this big lacks cohesion, riders can tag on the back and miss turns. Because of this, others get frustrated and so the attacks started. Simon Geschke and Quinn Simmons were sprinting for mountains points only for Simmons to keep sprinting and this prompted the others to chase, a first attack. When the group got back, more were sitting on and soon after Michael Matthews attacked with 53km to go, a bold move given he was notionally the sprinter but with so many climbers in the move, better to get ahead. He was away solo for 10km when a trio of Andreas Kron, L-L Sanchez and Felix Großschartner countered and rode across. Behind Küng was giving chase but he must have been fried from his breakaway the previous day and it wasn’t closing the gap. Kron had a puncture and all this bad luck’s not exactly the image that Lotto must want.
Louis Meintjes was part of the breakaway and at one point close to becoming the virtual yellow jersey but Jumbo-Visma started chasing, but probably less to limit Meintjes and more to ensure a hard finish to soften Pogačar for the final climb.
Onto the final climb and Sanchez and Großschartner were the climbers. But Sanchez is 38 years old and in his peak never a punchy climber, Großschartner a diesel. Their only chance was to hit Matthews hard from the start. But Matthews hit them and rode off.
Alberto Bettiol winched his way across to Matthews from the breakaway and the two were locked in a duel, the leg-press version of an arm-wrestling contest. Bettiol was gaining ground but only by centimetres but his work to reach Matthews and overhaul him put him into oxygen debt and towards the top the bailiffs came to seize possession of his legs leaving Matthews to attack, go clear and take a masterpiece of a stage win. Matthews has long been a big trophy hunter, a collection of quality wins but his has to be his best win, he took on the field and won.
Behind Pogačar attacked but Vingegaard had him covered, as the Slovenian rocked his shoulders, the Dane was all dainty cadence and matched him. Behind the GC contenders were left to themselves on the climb where David Gaudu fared best, dropped at first but recovering to overhaul Geraint Thomas. But the only change in GC positions was Meintjes up to seventh.
The Route: uphill from the start out of Rodez, it’s not steep but it drags on to Flavin. After here the race takes a small road and dips down into the Viaur valley and back out, all on small, twisting roads and over to Ambialet to cross the Tarn river, another descent and then straight back up, this time for a categorised climb.
The climb at the end crosses the Montagne Noire and it isn’t easy, it goes on and on and while listed as 5km… it’s double that. Sneakily the hardest part of is out of Revel to the intermediate sprint in St. Ferréol, a 2.5km section with some 8-9% sections. It’s only after the sprint point the official climb begins and it’s 5km at 4% but with some 5-6% early. The descent isn’t a cakewalk, there’s another climb of 2.5km on the way down. Then it’s a regular road into town.
The Finish: the habitual route into Carcassonne, the same finish as last year. It’s a flat approach on big boulevards alongside the Canal du Midi. There’s a sweeping right hand bend under the flamme rouge and then a gentle left hand bend with 600m to go and the road rises a few metres to the line.
The Contenders: breakaway or sprint? The sprinters teams chased hard two days ago into Saint-Etienne and they’ll have their work cut out again today, more so given Caleb Ewan’s struggling so Lotto-Soudal’s first objective is to get him to the finish. BikeExchange have just won with Michael Matthews and might prefer to send someone up the road today so they can play the Dylan Groenewegen card if needed but have an option on the finish elsewhere too. It’s hard finish for Fabio Jakobsen who is suffering in the heat on the climbs. Which leaves Alpecin-Deceuninck as the main sprint team left to chase.
For the breakaway, some reductive and deductive choices. Strip away riders with GC or helper roles. Find someone who can get over the climbs in the heat. Then who’s capable of a Tour de France stage win… we’re still spinning the wheel of fortune….
Magnus Cort (EF Education-Easypost) is
an obvious pick, he’s got a fast finish and has won in Carcassonne before, as you’ve probably heard already and will be reminded again today a DNS. Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) is a strong rider for a tough course but lacks a sprint so it’s a harder pick. Ineos are going in the breakaways and they’re leading the teams competition. Perhaps today is for Dylan van Baarle? Quick-Step haven’t had terrain to suit of late but Florian Sénéchal might be their best be. Bahrain’s Fred Wright is persistent but might prefer a hillier sprint than a dragstrip arrival. Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) can take another but will obviously be very heavily marked, but can also go for the sprint, team mate Jasper Stuyven is another to wach. Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty). The local rider is Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis) who is a crafty rider due a big win and middle part of the stage is on his training roads. Lastly for old times’ sake what about Peter Sagan or maybe even Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies)?
If not then Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is a safe pick to sweep up, while Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) is the other sprint pick.
|Wright, Sagan, WvA, Dillier, Sénéchal, Philipsen, Mohorič, B Thomas|
Weather: the Vent d’Autan is up, the name for the SE wind and it’ll gust to 40km/h, a hairdryer in the 37°C heat. But it’s a local wind and tends to blow in the area after the final climb and not before, and from here on it’ll be a headwind until the outskirts of Carcassonne, then a crosswind in the final.
TV: the start is at 13.05 CEST and the finish is forecast for 5.15pm CEST. Tune in for the start to see the battle for the breakaway. The climbing towards the end of the stage from Revel starts around 4.30pm.
Food and drink: after crossing the river Tarn we’re into real sunflower country, a staple of… photographers at the Tour de France. Tournesol (“turns to the sun”) is grown all over France but is most prevalent in the south-west where the hot, dry summers suit it more than other crops. France has 800,000 hectares of sunflower fields and is the EU’s third biggest producer after Romania and Hungary. Whatever France can produce, it’s not enough and Ukraine has been a big exporter, only the Russian invasion has blocked trade routes and prevented a lot of farming so today’s images of the peloton and sunflowers won’t evoke the same easy living/cotton is high feelings.
Reverting back to something more loca, sunflower oil’s not a local ingredient, it maybe grown but it’s hardly celebrated. Regional dishes instead use duck fat for oil which brings us to cassoulet, the stew of duck, sausages and beans that so hearty it’d be foolish to sample it in summer, it’s much better in autumn or winter. And what better to wash it down than a glass or two of Minervois, where an increasing number of independent winemakers are experimenting to make memorable red wines.