A fascinatingly poised GC race is taking shape
After a couple of cagey stalemates on the two earlier summit finishes of the Tour de France, the GC race has exploded into life this weekend in the Pyrenees.
The final climb, Col de Marie Blanque, followed much the same pattern as the Peyresourde yesterday. First Jumbo-Visma set a searing pace, with Sepp Kuss reducing the peloton to just 22 riders. Then once again it was Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) who made the first attack, blowing the race to pieces and instigating a mano a mano battle by isolating all the other leaders from any remaining domestiques.
The only difference this time was that he was joined by three other riders over the summit — defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), a rejuvenated Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who becomes the new overall leader of the race.
This quartet worked well together, sharing turns at the front to gain 11 seconds over a chasing group containing the likes of Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Guillame Martin (Cofidis), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). They also managed to catch lone leader Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) and therefore contest for the stage win — taken by Pogačar in a sprint.
So far the most consistently strong riders appear to be Roglič and Pogačar (who is still making up time lost on stage seven’s crosswinds, remember), but the situation can change with each passing day — yesterday Quintana was equal to them, whereas today he was dropped while Bernal and Landa upped their game.
The time gaps remain very small at the top, with each rider between Roglič in first and Pogačar in seventh still within 45 seconds of each other. Notwithstanding the results of the Covid-19 tests being taken on tomorrow’s rest day, we should be set for a fascinating and close battle for the yellow jersey.
Primož Roglič takes yellow from Adam Yates
Stage nine brought an end to Adam Yates’ four-day stint in the yellow jersey.
Having looked vulnerable yesterday, the Mitchelton-Scott rider didn’t have an answer to Pogačar’s attack today, and finished the stage in a group 54 seconds behind.
Usurping him is Primož Roglič, who takes yellow after a successfully executed strategy from Jumbo-Visma.
With the threat of Covid-19 still casting an ominous shadow over everything that’s happening — especially given the worrying number of unmasked spectators seen on the roadside — you sense it’s better to take the yellow jersey sooner rather than later, and Jumbo-Visma clearly intended to do so today.
Their familiar wasp-like train was put to work early in the stage, setting a fast pace on the day’s first category one climb, the Col de la Hourcère, with the clear intention of not allowing the day’s breakaway to make it to the finish.
Having made the catch (apart from lone attacker Mark Hirschi), Jumbo-Visma then set to work with whittling down the peloton even more on Col de Marie Blanque. Their final super-domestique, Tom Dumoulin, wasn’t quite able to reach the wheel of Pogačar after he attacked, but still managed to keep Roglič well-positioned to cover the gap himself.
Although Roglič could not win the final sprint for the stage win — and the bonus seconds that would have come with it — he gained enough time to take yellow, with a handy lead of 21 seconds over Egan Bernal, who sits in second place.
He’ll now use his formidable Jumbo-Visma to help defend the jersey, with the intention of taking it all the way to Paris. On the basis of today, the others have a hard task of taking it from him.
An incredible ride by Marc Hirschi
Aside from the blossoming contest for the yellow jersey, the story of the day was a truly extraordinary ride from Marc Hirschi.
On a day where the pace was too fast for almost anyone to make a successful break, Hirschi was the only rider able to gain a significant advantage over the peloton, and somehow stayed out from alone for almost the entire stage, remaining in contention for victory up until the very last metres.
He made his move on the Col de la Hourcère, with the best part of 100km still to ride. It seemed a naively bold decision at the time, but, despite containing climbers of the calibre of Dani Martínez (EF Pro Cycling), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) and Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic), a chasing group behind him was unable to reel him in.
Out alone with so many kilometres still to ride, it seemed inevitable he would eventually crack, especially after the GC race kicked off on Col de Marie Blanque. Yet somehow the young Swiss rider still hung on to his lead over the summit, even extending it on the subsequent downhill.
The draggy roads to the finish were his ultimate undoing, as the four chasers at last caught him an agonising 1.7km from the finish, but even then he had not given up. One last effort was made for the sprint, which Hirschi instigated with an all-or-nothing acceleration from behind, and was only just pipped to the line by Pogačar and Roglič.
The 22-year-old has caught the eye before, with third place at the Clásica San Sebastián last year, and earlier this week in Nice when he finished behind Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) on stage two. But this was his most impressive ride yet, and a sign that the cycling world has another major young talent on its hands.
Tadej Pogačar claims maiden Tour de France stage
Amid all the drama of Hirschi’s stunning effort, it would be easy not to give Tadej Pogačar his due for winning the stage.
Defeating a rider who had been out off the front all day might seem almost cruel, but it was a huge moment for Pogačar, who is riding his first ever Tour de France.
The 21-year-old Slovenian has been one of the most impressive riders this week, and now has a first ever Tour de France stage win for his efforts, to add to the three Grand Tour stages he already picked up at the Vuelta last year.
Pogačar should also be given credit for his attack on the Col de Marie Blanque. Were it not for his intent to attack so early, there’s every chance that the pace among the favourites would not have been fast enough to bring Hirschi back.
Hirschi’s attacking racing may not ultimately have been rewarded for a stage win, but it took a similarly aggressive mind-set from Pogačar to claim victory for himself.
Another tough day in the saddle
For the third stage in a row, this was another intense day in the saddle, with everyone racing full-on from kilometre zero and barely letting up until the finish.
You might have expected the riders to take things easy today, after all the efforts used up battling the wind on Friday and the three Pyrenean cols yesterday, but there was no such respite.
The stage began with an almighty battle to get into the breakaway, and, despite countless attacks, a decisive break still had not formed by the base of the Col de la Hourcère.
When a small group did at last get away on that climb, Jumbo-Visma set too quick a pace at the front of the peloton to allow them much of a gap, and they were caught with around 40km still to ride, leaving just Marc Hirschi out alone off the front.
All this hard racing had consequences. Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) was on a bad day, hovering just in front of the broomwagon from the very beginning of the stage, and the relentless pace proved too much and he was forced to abandon.
To paraphrase a famous idiom, the riders rode as if there were no tomorrow — which is in a sense true, as tomorrow will be the first rest day of the race. After three such brutal days, it’s a rest that everyone in the peloton has earned.