La Planche des Belles Filles has been the host of multiple climactic stages in its short Tour de France history. So much so in fact, that I believe that this would be an easier piece to write on any of the other occasions that the race visited the summit but that doesn’t mean there are no lessons to take from it. I simply have to start with Julian Alaphilippe. While not technically wrong in thinking that he wouldn’t be in yellow on today’s podium, I was wrong in my belief that he would fall behind the GC contenders.
While part of that is due to his sterling effort and attacking spirit on the climb, the way that the stage was raced must too have played a role. By the time the peloton got to the old finish line, there were twenty riders in it. When Fabio Aru attacked three and a half kilometres out in 2017, there were barely that many left in the peloton on what was a much easier stage. Never mind 2012, when Sky set so hot a pace that only five riders (one of them Rein Taaramae, oh god we live in the matrix and that was a glitch) remained at the flamme rouge. There are a number of causes for this — Sky looked a little bit weak in terms of domestiques today with Poels dropping off early, Moscon invisible, Castroviejo, Rowe and Van Baarle unsuited to the terrain and Bernal and Thomas with leadership duties. Only Kwiatkowski was really able to help on the final climb and rightly he did not burn himself out too early. In fact, a lot of the pacesetting was undertaken by Groupama but only David Gaudu would be truly capable of making a dent in a GC group. That, allied to the headwind on the climb that discouraged attacks and Alaphilippe’s own brilliance added to by the inspiration of the yellow jersey meant that he could stay in the group and even attack. Mind you, it must be said that the other riders of the twenty would practically all be considered much better mountain climbers than Alaphilippe showing that most of the credit must still go his way.
It wasn’t enough to retain his jersey however; that honour passes to Giulio Ciccone who is having quite a year — winning at the Giro and taking home blue, now he will forever be a maillot jaune. In fact he might gain quite a collection, the jersey could potentially remain on his shoulders for a whole week as he may hold on until the time-trial. He will be thanking the race organisers for adding the bonus seconds atop certain climbs — were it not for the eight seconds he pocketed on the Cote des Chevrères he would be a disappointed man, two seconds off the lead. He was beaten today of course by Dylan Teuns whose performance there isn’t a whole lot of point in analysing: it was a great breakaway win by the strongest and smartest rider on the day.
Moving on to the GC battle, I lament that we haven’t learned nearly as much about it as we have on any other visit to this Vosges summit. We know there’s a group of about fifteen very good climbers and some of them are better on gravelly goat tracks than others. Making predictions on how Egan Bernal will ride up the Tourmalet based on how well he does in an uphill sprint on a dustbowl seems pretty much pointless. Basically, the two best stages of this race, three and five have been dropped in from the Ardennes and the Vuelta respectively. If you changed the hoardings from yellow to red today you could not have convinced me that I had just seen a Tour stage. This stage somehow turned from a one hundred and sixty kilometre stage with four thousand vertical metres into a one-kilometre sprint on a gravel track. That’s not a particularly bad thing but I feel that all we’ve learned about the GC is the following:
Geraint Thomas isn’t going to roll over and accept that he won’t win this year. In fact he’s going to put up quite a fight, maybe doing enough to win again.
Romain Bardet isn’t going to find the form that’s taken him to the podium this year.
Nairo Quintana is waiting until it will hurt the most to disappoint us again.
Jakob Fuglsang’s injury isn’t terminal to his hopes of winning.
Steven Kruijswijk isn’t quite there.
The Giro was enough for Nibali.
That’s about it. In 2012, ‘14 and ‘17, the fight for yellow was narrowed down to three, one and five riders respectively. This year, on a stage where you couldn’t win the Tour but could lose it, not that many guys lost it. This is, in the medium term, a great, great positive. There is a relatively large number of good climbers who are all on a similar level and are all still in contention for the race. Most of even the lower-tier contenders got through pretty much unscathed and while Thomas looked very good today, seven seconds on stage six is no time at all.
This stage could have been a brilliant one that ruined the race and I’m happy to report that it emphatically did not. In fact, it was a perfectly good stage that kept the GC battle just as unpredictable as it was beforehand. Maybe stage six is better off not being climactic. Just a week till the next mountain day.