In Vittel, the controversial ousting of world champ Peter Sagan, winner of the previous five maillots verts, broke this year’s points classification wide open. With so many opportunities for the pure sprinters (up to nine) and a reclassifying of the points structure it was already the anti-Sagan Tour. Now it is even more so.
Naturally, triple stage winner Marcel Kittel of Quick-Step Floors enjoys a handsome lead - “Ya, I feel good!”, he keeps on telling us, a statement of the bleeding obvious.
Behind, things are a little more interesting.
Vittel victor and erstswhile second place, Arnaud Démare (FDJ), has been ill and finished outside the time limit in Chambéry, so is no longer a factor. He has been replaced by Australian Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), who, à la Sagan, has harnessed his powers of versatility to assiduously work his way upwards. On the ninth leg Sunday, he spent 120 kilometres in the EB (early breakaway) and traversed two hors catégorie climbs in the front group just to take the intermediate sprint and the 20 points that came with it. After the seventh stage ended in Nuits-Saint-Georges with a third Kittel victory, Bling was 74 points behind the German in third place; three days on, he now sits second, 52 points in arrears.
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), so far not showing the form required to beat Kittel, lag 82 and 99 points behind, respectively.
Perhaps too early to call, though it’s looking like a two-horse race for green.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 100.5 - Côte de Domme: 3.5 kilometre-long climb at 3.3% - category 4
Km 138.5 - Côte du Buisson-de-Cadouin: 2.1 kilometre-long climb at 5.6% - category 4
The pair of côtes in the last half pose little concern for the peloton but for the hopeful escapees, the 2.1km @ 5.6% Côte du Buisson-de-Cadouin, its summit just under 40 kilometres from Bergerac, may be a determining factor as to whether success is real or imagined. An advantage of at least six to seven minutes at Buisson-de-Cadouin would be nice; any less and you can forget about whether it be two or three kisses on the podium.
So controlled is WorldTour racing nowadays, and particularly at the Tour de France, one wonders why escaping on a day like this would even go beyond a thought bubble. In eight en ligne stages we have only seen one successful breakaway, when Lilian Calmejane of Direct Energie won solo at Station des Rousses and in doing so became the heir apparent to his hero Thomas Voeckler - though the parcours last Saturday is polar opposites with that of today.
Yet the reality is such that, no matter how infinitesimally small the odds, so long as the TV cameras are rolling, there will be willing participants. In fact, Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, who spent his previous six seasons at what is now Quick Step Floors, told The Cycling Podcast that so slim are the chances of his team actually nabbing a stage at Le Tour, the primary objective is not winning but publicity - explaining his not-a-hope-in-hell 200km solo breakaway on the fourth stage to Vittel.
For teams like Van Keirsbulck’s and particularly the local wildcards, chances like these may well be as close to victory as they get.
And so, with a 99.99% chance of failure, it’s time to lay down your bets for le meilleur sprinteur de Bergerac (the best sprinter of Bergerac)...
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“After a rest day in Dordogne, the debates resume in a romantic and peaceful atmosphere. But the challenge of winning a stage will stop the possible inclination to take it easy, notably when the pack moves closer to the Lascaux Grotto, which will have its entire replica drawings available to see as of this December. Whether they're enthusiasts of cave arts or not, the riders will be mainly focused on the sprint to take on (or avoid, depending on the actors) in Bergerac.”
Finish line: Allée Lucien Videau, at the end of a 500m finishing straight (200m by line of sight). Width: 6.50m
Weather: 22°C and partly cloudy at start, 1% precipitation, 52% humidity, wind 9km/h WSW; 26°C and mostly sunny at finish, 0% precipitation, 29% humidity, wind 7km/h WNW.