Like Wordsworth leaving the Alps, there’s always a moment of melancholy when the Tour de France turns its back on the mountains, even if Saturday’s Vosges stage holds out a last hurrah on the way to Paris.
Winners and Loze-rs: a big battle to get into a breakaway and all sorts of tactics and plans at work on multiple levels. No sooner could you spot what cards were being played the move had been caught and another surged clear. Tadej Pogačar crashed early on the Col des Saisies but he and Jonas Vingegaard both bridged across to the breakaway later on the same climb suggesting the injuries were to pride.
A move of 33 riders got away on the lower parts of the Cormet de Roselend. Giulio Ciccone was there to collect points for the mountains competition, UAE and Jumbo-Visma placed riders up front, there were stage-hunters galore and also 7th-10th overall in Pello Bilbao, Simon Yates, David Gaudu and Felix Gall. Jumbo-Visma chased, even if they had riders up ahead they were applying the pressure again like a scrap yard car compactor. Starting the Col de la Loze at Saint-Bon-Tarentaise the break had got three minutes thanks to several riders toiling on the front like Nans Peters for Ag2r Citroën, no cushion at all for such a fearsome climb. But Jack Haig, Chris Harper and Ben O’Connor were pulling hard to help keep the move clear, the latter doing a big job to shred the breakaway down to a handful of contenders, among which his de facto leader Felix Gall. Gall attacked relatively early on the Col de la Loze’s cycle path section and Simon Yates, Harper and Rafał Majka were left chasing.
Behind Pogačar cracked in Méribel, the easy streets before the wild parts of the climb to come and it meant he was in for a tortuous 15km. L’Equipe’s Alex Roos has described Pogačar as boyish face of a Kinder chocolate surprise. Now he looked older and worn out, as if he’d discovered Santa Claus didn’t exist by finding maths textbook under the Christmas tree instead of a Playstation. One of the small innovations for TV coverage has been the use of team race radios and it’s probably done plenty to counter the perception of riders as radio-controlled pawns given most of the output is “great job guys, conserve energy, eat and drink“, but this time we could hear Pogačar announcing the sporting obituary of this summer.
In no time the yellow jersey group was down to Vingegaard alone, he’d ditched everyone else and from the helicopter shots looked he like a Pacman gobbling up riders ahead of him on the cycle path. Could he ride down everyone for the stage win, you’d think not but after his TT in Combloux? But no, he wasn’t going that fast.
Instead the tension was up front as Felix Gall lead Simon Yates by 20s, the Briton’s a crafty rider and it looked likely he would pick his moment to close the gap on the rider he could see just in front of him. But he couldn’t, Gall resisted, weaving his way up the final slopes of the runaway in Courchevel for a stage win much to the delight of his team who now have four years of at least a stage win. Gall was due to ride the Giro after a decent Tour of the Alps but was held back for the Tour in support of O’Connor, then the roles reversed and now wins the Queen Stage. Still 25 and improving throughout this Tour, he’s making a name for himself.
Further back Vingegaard was clear but ended up weaving on the final ramps to the line. He looked rinsed but if that was bad, Pogačar was almost six minutes further back. Two stages ago only ten seconds separated Vingegaard and Pogačar, now they’re more than seven minutes apart but this feels like a gap measured in more than time, it’ll send UAE back to the drawing board for this year and next before we’ve reached Paris.
The Route: 184.9km and 1,200m of vertical gain, this is a route out of the mountains and passing by many tempting detours and sidetracks but sticks to the flattest route possible, a pity as another baroudeur stage could provide a bit more sport than a sprint stage… but with so many teams in the hunt for an elusive stage win we might see things stirred up a bit today. It’s not totally flat today but the course has few obstacles, and if there’s a bump on the profile for Ceyzériat towards the finish it’s gradual.
The Finish: flat and around the ring roads of Bourg-en-Bresse, big wide roads and wide radius roundabouts.
The Contenders: Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) is the easy pick, four stage wins so far, several riders have left the race and as he can climb marginally better than other sprinters he might be fresher after the Alps too. So far so obvious but a win is far from guaranteed. Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco-Al Ula) is probably the second fastest on paper, Biniam Girmay is lacking a bit of top end speed, Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) would like a hillier route and a rise to the line, ditto Bryan Coquard (Cofidis), Alexander Kristoff (Uno-X) would like a hurricane to shred the peloton. Sam Welsford (DSM) is good but struggling to break into the top-10 so far. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has gone home
can have a go and if he’s there, could Mathieu van der Poel sprint as well or is he still reserved for lead out duties? Intrigue for the final five minutes.
There’s the chance more can happen. Only ten teams have a stage win so far so that means 12 are left hunting a win and it’s not going to fall from the sky, they have to provoke a move. Easier said than done but this can work on a flat stage late into a grand tour when most are tired and those with anything left can barge away. But the other ingredient is a more tiring course, tomorrow’s stage might be better. A cancelling factor is several teams will still back their house sprinter, it might look like they’re sacrificing offerings on the altar of Jasper Philipsen but percentage wise a sprint can still work out better for many teams.
Weather: a sunny day, 25°C and a light NW breeze of 10km/h, a headwind but thing more cooling breeze than anything more opposing.
TV: KM0 is at 1.35pm and the finish is forecast for 5.40pm CEST.
Tastes like chicken: Bourg-en-Bresse is famous among gourmets as the home of poulet de Bresse, “Bresse chicken”. A particular breed of chicken is raised free range outdoors in this area, and within strictly defined confines. These birds get a strict diet among which various types of cereal which must to be grown locally within a stipulated radius, it’s all part of the AOC regime. All this means that poulet de Bresse sells for a hefty premium. Whether diners can taste the difference is subjective but if you do visit and want to try the taste test, you’re at least supporting high food standards.