Note: This was written before Sunday’s stage nine was completed. Any references to time gaps, performance, etc, is based on the first eight stages. If anything screwy happens on Sunday, I’ll try and update this. Otherwise, it’ll be one of my ever-popular “out of date before it even gets uploaded” columns.
Welcome back for a rest-day look at the Tour so far, and a look ahead to the next week.
My quick-take on the first tranche of stages: Thank goodness for Saturday.
My medium-length-take on the first tranche of stages: Are all cylicsts congentially stupid? There is no reason, no reason at all, not to ride hard on any of the appealing stages early in the race just because “you don’t attack until week three”, especially when, y’know, the Tour could be cancelled at any point.
My longer-take on the first tranche of stages:
I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.
I look back on what I wrote in the first preview and I wasn’t wrong. There really were stages with exciting parcours where lots could have happened. As I said throughout the preview, we need riders to make the race, and they… didn’t. Now, some of that is circumstance. The weather on stage one was awful and of course roads are treacherous when it rains for the first time in weeks. The sheer number of injuries undoubtedly hindered attacking riding for much of the rest of the week.
Plenty of riders weren’t injured. Plenty of riders had good health and good form and knew that their opponents didn’t. Plenty of riders knew this was an open Tour without a team able to exert control. Plenty of riders knew that every stage could be the last one. There should have been fireworks.
What were the biggest headlines after the first seven stages, from a GC perspective?
- A brilliant attacking rider with no realistic GC chances lost twenty seconds to a late feed, and lost yellow. Interesting, yes, but hardly decisive.
- A whole bunch of riders hit the deck on stage one, and didn’t lose time (reader, that crash was more than 3km out, clearly – though I do think the common sense decision was taken) and then a couple hit the deck later (Danny Martinez in particular) and did lose time.
- Primoz Roglic proved he was the quickest in an uphill sprint among the bigs, which we knew.
- Jumbo looked better than Ineos.
This is the kind of cycling that infuriates me. I do understand the need for some conservatism in three week races most of the time. I do not understand the need for total conservastism in this Tour, in this first week. Chances were thrown away and won’t come back.
Come stage eight and we were starved of action, but stage eight delivered. We saw tough riding, aggressive riding, and we saw one big favourite well and truly dropped (Thibault Pinot, still suffering from his day one crash, and clearly the unluckiest rider in the peloton). The GC is still tight, but we’re starting to see some narratives. Things that are starting to happen:
- We are getting a sense of who will be able to climb at the front of affairs for most days – it looks like Roglic, Bernal, Martin, Pogacar and Quintana, to me. Maybe the likes of Lopez, Bardet, Landa, Porte, Mas, Uran and Buchmann will keep up, but I don’t think so, at least not consistently.
- We are seeing the weaknesses in the big teams. Ineos are, as expected, looking at least one climber light, and Sivakov’s injuries on day one could prove decisive. Meanwhile, having looked unbeatable for the first seven days, Jumbo had only Dumoulin to support Roglic at the sharp end of stage eight. He did a fantastic job, but it puts a lot of Dutch eggs into a single Slovenian basket.
- Riders are starting to get a sense of each other’s form. Pogacar’s comments after his attack on stage eight were, if anything, more interesting to me than the time he gained. If he realises that riders are on the limit, and he has something left and attacks… well, that’s how you win bike races, especially if you can keep doing it. More on that later.
Ranking the Favourites
Going back to the list clarifies one point. Say it with me, folks. You can’t win the Tour in the first week, but you can lose it.
I though there would be more churn than this, but all we’ve really seen is injury changes (Bernal, Roglic and Buchmann healthy, Martinez and Pinot not healthy).
The list below is still a “who can win the Tour” ranking, not a projected top ten (last week’s rankings are in parentheses). Given Roglic and Bernal’s abilities to time trial as well as to climb exceptionally well, I’m looking for someone who can put in at least one truly exceptional day in the mountains to open up a lead, as there’s no other realistic way to win this.
In truth, I think this list need only be three deep.
1. Roglic (LW – 2)
2. Bernal (LW – 1)
3. Pogacar (LW – 3)
4. Quintana (LW – 6)
5. Landa (LW – 5)
6. Martin (LW – lurking)
7. Mas (LW – lurking)
8. Bardet (LW – 10)
9. Buchmann (LW – lurking)
10. Yates (LW – lurking)
Also lurking: Anyone who can climb and sits within theoretical striking distance of the leaders, effectively. That is to say, Lopez (LW – 7), Doom, Carapaz, Uran, Porte, Mollema and Chaves – probably in that order. I wouldn’t be worrying, though.
First, I’ve swapped Roglic and Bernal. This is still a marginal call and it is still an eyeball test. I like what I’m seeing from Jumbo (including the confidence to spike Doom’s chances in order to set a pace on Saturday) more than what I’m seeing from Ineos.
Am I unfair keeping Yates at number ten, as he’s now the yellow jersey holder? I don’t think so. What does a three second lead over Roglic mean in a race like this. He needs to pull a couple of minutes or more out of the favourites in the mountains, and I don’t see that happening.
If I’m overreacting to anyone, it is Mas. I’m just judging on ceiling, and his is really very high indeed. Is he likely to strike sufficient form to climb Roglic and Bernal of his wheel? No, but he probably could. More than most of these guys, anyway.
There are tests happening as I’m writing this, I imagine, so this is probably premature. But, weirdness aside, we appear to still be racing and we appear to still have a full peloton. I’m going to stop right now before I say too much.
Two Favourites I’m Watching
Let’s go back to the list of top-ten riders as I ranked them. I think that Bernal and Roglic, in proving they aren’t injured, and in avoiding serious trouble through the first tests (and, for Rog, winning a stage) have improved their chances of winning. Despite that, I think there are three possible winners, and that’s because Tadej Pogacar looks to me to be the best climber in the race so far – and of course that can change.
If he keeps climbing as he has, especially on Saturday, then he’ll soon make up for the time lost in the crosswinds, and he is an adept time trialler, especially on a tough uphill TT. He hasn’t got the support that either Ineos or Jumbo can offer, but I don’t see any team who can control a race in the mountains, so this will be more “mano a mano” than we’re used to seeing. He might fade to a top five finish, still impressive, or he might dance away up the hills and be in yellow this time next week. We shall see.
I’m also, rather to my surprise, watching the green jersey battle. Peter Sagan is stealing points and wearing green, but Bennett looks the superior climber and is also behaving like he wants to take the green jersey. Meanwhile, Wout van Aert doesn’t bother sprinting very often, but tends to win when he does.
With a bunch of latish sprintermediates on tough stages, and with days like 11, 12 and 14 allowing some prospect of him picking up some points, can he get involved? Let’s see. Jumbo sacrificed Doom’s chances of a podium at the altar of Roglic’s bid to win, and they may well do the same with Wout’s green chances. Don’t forget, he proved to be a better mountain super-dom than Sepp Kuss on Saturday. Still, he’s made this far more interesting.
The Next Six Stages
10. We’re back racing, and this is a shortish, flattish, not very interestingish way to restart. 169km from island to island along the coast. It will remain a not very interestingish stage (with a likely sprint, and one that looks perfect for Bennett) unless the wind starts blowing. If it does, this could get very interesting very quickly. A day for the leaders to look to their strongmen.
11. This looks an even likelier stage for the sprinters. One km fewer to navigate but far less chance of cross winds, the biggest issue here is a bump a couple of klicks from the finish. Probably not enough to dislodge the sprinters but will change tactics. Do-everything superstar Wout van Aert might juuust be able to do enough that we have to send the fainting couch to Washington State. Again.
12. This is the sort of stage I love to see in a grand tour. It won’t be GC-decisive but it sure as heck isn’t a pure sprinters stage. Barely a flat bit of road, and the toughest climb is the short, steep cat 2 Suc au May (3.8km, 7.7%), summiting about 25km before the end of a long 218km day. There’s more climbing after that, and an uphill finish. Looks to be one for the break but the leaders will need to be attentive, as I expect at least a couple in the top ten to ship time here. The winner will be a climber with a free hand – Reichenbach, maybe?
13. Into the Massif Central, for a massif stage (sorry). 192km to cover, seven categorised climbs, and a finish up an 8.1% climb over five kilometres. This looks tough and if the bigs decide to race, it might be very tough and potentially decisive. Tadej Pogacar might be your winner here, as he seems to cope with multiple climbs very well, and is just floating uphill at the moment.
14. The weekend begins with a run between Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon. Plenty of climbing, but anything tough is early in the stage. One for the break, and I can’t help you very much with a winner. Darryl Impey took a day like this last year and I don’t see why he can’t do the same again.
15. The day of rest sure isn’t what it used to be, and Sunday is the biggest day of the race so far, at least on paper. The first 90-odd kilometres out of Lyon are fine – dull, even. Then, as they say in France, merde gets real. First up is the long, tough Montee de la Selle de Fromentel, and then the Col de la Biche. They’re both cat-ones, the former longer and comparatively less savage, the latter short and really very steep indeed.
Both, however, are mere pipe-openers before the Grand Colombier, an Hors-cat monster of a mountaintop finish. With a rest day coming, and gaps sure to be opening up in the GC, this is a day to lay down a marker. One thing is for sure – I won’t be able to write next week’s preview/review until I know what’s happened in this beast of a stage. Your winner? Maybe Nario Quintana. If he’s going to make a noise, this would be the right time for it.
Two Outsiders I’m Watching
There are an awful lot of riders in this field who can really climb, are nowhere near the top on GC, and won’t have too much to do in support of their leaders. There are a few days where guys like that could win a stage. I’ve mentioned Seb Reichenbach, but how about Marc Hirshi having a second go for glory from a break? He’s winning at some point in the tour, he might as well start this year. (Though he’s in a break right now, which he wasn’t when I started writing, so maybe this will be a Sunday win)
Meanwhile, there are points aplenty in the newly-aligned polka dot competition (quite why this is bothering Chris so much I don’t know, but we all have our problems) and Benoit Cosnefroy will have to climb awfully well to hold onto his lead. I think we’ll see Ilnur Zakarin infiltrating a fair few more breaks and trying to put this competition to bed over the coming days. It could serve as a lively competition but also a way to ignite the field on some bumpy days.
If I Only Watch One Stage, It’ll Be…
I’d love to get cute and suggest stage 13, I really would. But it has to be Sunday. When you think of a Tour stage, you think of a day with multiple climbs and a mountaintop finish, and riders spread over tens of minutes of time. There aren’t many of them in this route, but this is a classic. Still, make time on Friday as well, if you can.