The Tour de France has a pause in Morzine and the surrounding area, and almost every rider will have gone for a ride today in order to keep the legs turning over. A few thoughts and observations on the race so far…
While it’s still just fresh in the mind, a nod to an exceptional Stage 9. The scenery around the shores of Lac Leman was almost as breathtaking for spectators as the sport as wave after wave of riders tried to get in the day’s breakaway before a move finally got clear. The presence of an Ineos rider in Castroviejo and a UAE rider in McNulty tempted Jumbo-Visma to get Van Aert across and Rigoberto Uràn being close on GC meant UAE chased hard all stage. Bob Jungels made his move with 63km to go and went solo, taking time with a descent of the Col de la Croix that had following vehicles screeching tires to keep up. Jungels kept his solo lead to the Pas de Morgins pass when Thibaut Pinot launched and got very close, adding suspense right to the end. The only thing missing was a GC battle with no movement among the main contenders except for Dani Martinez being dropped and falling 20 places to 30th overall. But the final climbs didn’t lend themselves to big attacks and if rivals want to pressure Tadej Pogačar, they might prefer to leave him and UAE to stew a bit.
The first phase from Denmark to the Alps felt like it was monopolised by QuickStep, Jumbo-Visma and UAE. The Belgian team had a great start with the surprise win by Lampaert and Fabio Jakobsen’s win the next day was long due. Wout van Aert’s been on the rampage, got a stage and is so far ahead in the points competition… that it’s not really a competition any more, rivals might even think twice about the intermediate sprints to save their legs in the hope of salvaging a stage win. Pogačar has two wins already and L’Equipe’s thesaurus must be getting must be getting worn as journalists search for ways to describe his appetite…
… but there have been wins for BikeExchange-Jayco, Israel-PremierTech and Ag2r Citroën of course, plus EF had a long and visible spell in the mountains jersey thanks to Magnus Cort. For a big race where the breakaways are so hard fought but struggle to stay away, these teams have hit the jackpot already and others will be wondering how to get a look-in. Simon Clarke’s stage win marked a fascinating stage and because the pavé always bring entertainment (and hype) they’re bound to be back. It’s a pity Mathieu van der Poel’s had such a discreet start because when he tries to win it’s often spectacular, he doesn’t exactly snipe stage wins.
It’s advantage Pogačar now, but just. He’s 39 seconds ahead of Jonas Vingegaard after the long opening “week” from Denmark to Morzine and 24 seconds of this lead is thanks to time bonuses from two stage wins; Vingegaard has collected 6 seconds. The obstacle course moments of the race weren’t ruinous for too many riders. Ben O’Connor crashed and has left the race but was always up against it to repeat last year’s ride. Aleksandr Vlasov is 12th overall after losing time on the Planche des Belles Filles having had a crash the previous day. Primož Roglič is the biggest GC contender to have had problems thanks to a freak crash on the pavé stage, where like many he didn’t have a mishap on the cobbles but on the tarmac.
Vingegaard is still a contender. He sacked Pogačar on Mont Ventoux last summer and might hope to do the same again the Alps as the thermometer is set to soar, a potential weak point for Pogačar but relative and a hypothesis rather than a bankable certainty. Jumbo-Visma have a glass half-full/half-empty scenario with their Dane in a great position and clearly riding so well. But Roglič was a big loser in the first week although he’s not had his last word and just gives the Dutch team more options.
Team tactics will count. UAE aren’t a weak team, they have hired riders who could lead other teams to work for Pogačar. But there’s something, their riders have been dropped at times, distanced at others and while they’re good they don’t scare other teams. Jumbo-Visma have a clearer plan now with Vingegaard as their kopman but how to deploy their riders? Ineos still have a “trident” and we’ll see what they do with it; they had Castroviejo in the breakaway on Sunday, are they stage-hunting this way for fear of Pogačar and Vingegaard hogging the mountains? For the likes of David Gaudu, Romain Bardet, Enric Mas and Nairo Quintana it’s been a successful arrival in Morzine to make it in the top-10 overall without trouble, but now things go from making your own luck to avoid traps, and using up nervous energy, to straight tests with the Granon and Alpe d’Huez this week.
Covid is an ever-present threat. Other riders have had positive tests last week to prove (obviously) that the virus get inside the bubble, it’s statistically remarkable that there were no positive tests after all riders were tested yesterday. But also equally likely a rider can catch it today and left the race tomorrow.
France is set for a second heatwave this summer after one in June. This will be hotter still with temperatures well into the thirties Celsius and it could touch 40°C in the shade for the race. The Tour’s had heatwaves before but it’s hard on everyone. The UCI has its “Extreme Weather Protocol” but to what extent this is evoked remains to be seen, for starters evoking it just convenes a meeting among various groups at the race and any response will depend on local conditions, if you want more detail see the blog post from the past on the subject.
Finally some praise of L’Equipe. While La Gazzetta Dello Sport alas only sent one reporter to the Giro – they’d have liked to send more of course but the cycling desk feels under-resourced – L’Equipe have too many staff to mention and the paper is full of interesting articles each day. If it’s enjoyable to sit back and watch the stages in the afternoon, starting the day with L’Equipe is great. Now there’s lots of good English coverage too of course, it’s just a pleasure to see the Tour’s house newspaper riding high, hopefully it’s cycling coverage can stay as lavish for long.