Utter carnage. That was the impact of the echelons on the GC that formed in late on Monday’s stage at the Tour de France. A transitional stage. An ‘easy’ day ahead of the first rest day. It was anything but.
Julian Alaphilippe might still be in yellow, but Team Ineos is hovering much like the vultures that soar in the thermals above the Pyrenees. The British team that has dominated the Tour since 2012 were the big winners out of a tenth stage.
For much of this week, the time gaps between the GC favourites have been minimal. Much emphasis was placed on the bonus seconds that Thibaut Pinot earned with his second placing on the stage to Étienne last week to keep the time gaps to the likes of defending champion Geraint Thomas to a minimum. This is in spite of the fact that we know that minutes can literally be lost in the mountain stages to come in the Pyrenees this week and in the Alps, which will put the full stop on the GC in the Tour’s final week.
Have we been kidding ourselves?
Cast your mind back to the 2013 Tour. It’s stage 13, and Alberto Contador and his Saxo Bank teammates take advantage of a windblown day in the final hour of racing go off like a hand grenade. The peloton splits, and it’s Chris Froome and Team Sky who feel the pain, as Contador kicks over a minute into Froome’s advantage. Alejandro Valverde’s chances really suffered, an ill-timed mechanical saw him lose close to 10 minutes.
Now, we all know how the rest of the Tour played out. Froome increased his slender lead on Ventoux a few days later and went on to win the Centenary Tour by 4min 20sec over Nairo Quintana who had finished with Froome on Stage 13. As for Contador, he finished the Tour in fourth overall, 6min 27 sec behind the yellow jersey.
Days like these are extraordinary. It’s what makes bike racing the compelling proposition that we know it can be, directs eyes to screens and entices us to the roadside. At the same time, it’s days like these that lead Thibaut Pinot to surmise the near-five hours he spent in the saddle as “a shit day.” Pinot is now 1min 11sec behind Thomas, dropping back eight places in the order.
Luck’s a fortune and if you’re ever in doubt consider the experience this week of that other French GC hope, Romain Bardet. The last few days left many thinking that Bardet would be better off sticking to his original plan of riding the Giro after a sub-par performance on La Planche des Belles Filles. Bardet was in the right place at the right time on Monday and finished in the front bunch, moving up eight spots to sit just 2min 08secs behind Thomas.
Team Ineos, regardless of whether it’s led by Thomas or phenom in the wings, Egan Bernal, is always one of the strongest outfits in the race. And to overcome this dominance, the only place to take them on is in the mountains, piece-by-piece.
It is too easy to get caught up in the daily narratives of a grand tour. At the end of the day, the Tour de France came about as an initiative to boost sales of a newspaper but today, the Tour is reality television at its finest.
The days where you can lose a Tour are often earmarked – this wasn’t necessarily one of them, but for some, the damage done when Team Ineos and Deceuninck-Quick Step put the hammer down will prove too much.
A show of force from Ineos’ rivals was always going to be required if their stranglehold on the race was to be broken.
That doesn’t change with stage 10. The race is only just getting started.
‘Cause baby it ain’t over ‘til it’s over…