A Celebration of the 2019 Tour de France- Chapter 1
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
It was the 19th January, the UK had just experienced yet another record breaking day for COVID-19 deaths, times were bleak. Despite new season optimism beginning to creep in, the weather had been seriously foul and exams had meant a few weeks off the bike. It was the Tuesday following 'Blue Monday'. Despite listening to New Order's finest, something was needed to lift the spirits. As I browsed the internet in search of a new helmet, I found myself looking at Julian Alaphilippe's Instagram page and reminiscing on better times, reminiscing on his remarkable 2019 Tour de France. Oh how I wished I could watch that race again. This is a constant gripe of mine, an area of which cycling fails in, the ability to rewatch races. If I was to go downstairs, I would find season reviews of bygone Burnley seasons, I would find DVDs of match replays to soak in and revel in the transportation back to a special moment. It is not quite as easy as this with cycling; for a start there are the hours upon hours of race coverage, then there comes the extensive TV deals for broadcast around the world. In my dreams, at the end of each Tour de France, Eurosport would release a boxset with the full race coverage from each day of the action. One could collect these and watch back classic stages, or enjoy sitting through the 21 days of action through the lean winter months. Instead, this is, to my mind at least, not possible. It is a crying shame and something I would urge broadcasters to consider, I am certain enough people would like to purchase such a box set. The 2019 Tour de France seemed resigned to history and my urge to rewatch it would go unanswered, unless...
After half an hour or so of surfing the web (that sounds very early 200os, doesn't it?), I stumbled across SBS Australia's stage 1 replay from 2019, which was two hours long- "brilliant!", I thought. Alas, it was not available in my region, which makes sense from an Australian broadcasting network. Thus followed a scrambled search for the cheapest VPN on the App Store; after giving up on a few apps which took the George Michael, at last I settled on a suitable option that cost around a fiver. Soon followed a transportation back in time to the 2019 Tour de France, the greatest Tour in living memory. The words that follow were written throughout each day's stage and try to capture the beauty of this most incredible race, hopefully they jog your memory of those great times and provide a representation of a remarkable three weeks.
Stage 1: Brussels - Brussels
Stage winner: Mike Teunissen
Yellow Jersey: Mike Teunissen
2019, the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx's first Tour de France title, this year shall be the celebration, with SBS' coverage opening with 'The Cannibal' waving to the adoring crowds in Brussels. Our commentary team throughout the next three weeks of action will be Robbie McEwan and Matthew Keenan, let the racing begin, allez!
The early action is fraught with tension, as is always the case within the first week of Le Tour, but this time it is different, this time we have cobbles littered throughout the first day. It is not on the level of a 'Roubaix' stage, but it is enough to send jitters through the heart's of the GC contenders. Caught out in a split following a cobbled section 73km from home, are Simon Yates and Dan Martin, as well as Alexander Kristoff and Elia Viviani. In an early sign of changed intentions, France's great hope Thibaut Pinot is positioned right near the front of the pack as they make their way through the cobbles. This is a marked difference to his efforts on 2014's stage 5, which saw him suffering multiple mechanicals on the cobbles which led to explosive tantrums. This was a more mature Pinot, one intend on bringing France's first victory on the Tour since the days of Bernard Hinault.
In a return to normal proceedings, Peter Sagan takes maximum points on the day's first intermediate sprint, with not a thought of the Irish Sam Bennett on his mind, how times change...
Following early transfer rumours circling for Nairo Quintana (Arkéa–Samsic) and Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo Visma), the riders caught out on the cobbles regain contact with the peloton, very luckily one may add. With 50km to go, Julian Alaphillipe drops back to the team car and puts 6 bidons into his jersey, before adding another to his cage. The commentators mull over which stage will favour Alaphillipe... who's going to tell them?
In a brave solo attack off the front which harkens back to the winner of the 1947 stage to Brussels (René Vietto), Stéphane Rossetto of Cofidis gets his nose in the wind through the towns of Waterloo. Before Rossetto is caught 9.5km from home, the commentary pair of McEwan and Keenan back Egan Bernal for a potential top 5 finish, but are fairly adamant he would not win the Tour this year, even if Ineos' entire team was working solely for him; hindsight is a beautiful thing.
"That's disaster for Jumbo Visma", exclaims Keenan as a big crash in the final run to home brings down their sprinter Dylan Groenewegan. But just over a kilometre later, their very own Mike Teunissen takes the most shocking of victories, finding himself in the right place at the right time to lead home the field in the sprint, just pipping the new Green Jersey wearer Peter Sagan. It is a remarkable opening to the Tour, with the lead-out man donning the first maillot jaune, an outcome I doubt he could ever have dreamt about. On a day that celebrates Eddy Merckx, his home crowd of Belgium delivers. With not a single stretch of the road throughout the day's 194.5km being without a fan, it is a spectacle that is rammed to the rafters, which provokes nostalgia to bygone times pre-2020.
Reflections in Brussels
Today's stage was a typical opening to a Tour de France, with an atypical leader at the end of the day. This Tour is only just beginning with its surprises. The usual script of the Tour is that either a sprinter takes yellow initially, or a more established rider from an uphill finish or alike. It is not all too common for a domestique to claim the initial maillot jaune of the Tour and thus this day brings a delightful winner in Mike Teunissen. Lining up against the best sprinters in the world, it is wonderful to see the lead-out man take centre stage amid the loss of Groenewegen, surprising even the commentators who declare Sagan the winner initially. To watch the Belgians come out in their thousands was a joy, with the storied career of Eddy Merckx being celebrated in the manner it deserves. Watching this stage in the midst of January 2021, the joy and excitement of the fans bring welcome relief, but also a tinge of nostalgia and sadness. Let us hope that scenes such as this return in the not so distant future.
Stage 2: Brussels - Brussels
Stage winners: Jumbo Visma
Yellow Jersey: Mike Teunissen
Remaining in Brussels, stage 2 presents an unusually early Team Time Trial, which serves to extend the surprise lead of Mike Teunissen in the Yellow Jersey. It was a waiting game for Team Ineos, who were first out of the blocks and held onto the fastest time throughout the day, until Jumbo Visma brought the proceedings to a close by pipping Ineos by 20 seconds. Finishing at the Atomium, the day brings little to report. Simon Yates left contact with his Michelton-Scott teammates, damaging their hopes of having two cards to play on the GC front; it appears his brother Adam is now the sole leader of the team. In a relatively surprising effort, Thibaut Pinot's Groupama-FDJ only lose 12 seconds to Team Ineos, another sign that they are here to compete for overall honours.
Whilst riders often sing the praises of the TTT event, with it being cycling's purest form of 'team sport', it often fails to inspire across our television screens. It is an event which struggles to present itself as engaging to the viewer, with an inability to share the nuances and complexes that go into making a successful Team Time Trial ride. Despite this, the story of the day had scripted itself right from the off, with it being everyone vs Team Ineos following their early effort. Deceuninck-Quick Step and Katusha Alpecin went close, but Jumbo Visma's ride was sensational and Steven Kruijswijk was celebrating a few corners before the end. Particular mention must go to George Bennett who put forth an outstanding ride after working hard to bring in the breakaway yesterday. Tomorrow's stage should bring the Tour's first fireworks, with a competitive route that may suit a breakaway.
Reflections in Brussels
Today's stage was about as exciting as a TTT gets, with the competitive narrative that unfolded throughout the day. Whilst the riders sing the praises of the event that measures their teamwork and preparation, it has never found a way to be successfully implemented over the television. However, it is nice to see the ambitions of certain teams coming to the fore, with Thibaut Pinot's Groupama-FDJ promisingly looking like a formidable GC setup. France is desperate for a hero and that man may prove to be Pinot, let us hope.
© Cor Vos
Stage 3: Binche - Epernay
Stage winner: Julian Alaphilippe
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphilippe
The day starts with a bold prediction from the broadcast host Michael Tomalaris to watch out for Julian Alaphillipe, Michael Matthews and... Caleb Ewan, in today's stage; let's not forget, this is an Australian broadcast. Immediately from end of the neutral zone, riders are on the attack, with Deceuninck-Quick Step allowing a 5-man break to form consisting of Stephane Rossetto (he of stage One fame), Tim Wellens, Paul Ourselin, Yoann Offredo and Anthony Delaplace.
After a disappointing stage one, and with 2021 hindsight, it is nice to see Elia Viviani unleashing a maximum sprint to take the 6th place at the intermediate sprint ahead of Peter Sagan (with the breakaway riders taking the first 5 placings). Meanwhile, as the break’s lead reached 6 and a half minutes, Kasper Agreen decided enough was enough and alongside Tony Martin of Jumbo Visma, the Deceuninck-Quick Step man worked hard to reel them in. With a finale that sees a Category 4 climb followed by three Category 3s, it seemed unlikely that the breakaway would make it to the end alone.
”You could almost say the first 160 kilometres of this stage looks like a very straight forward bunch-sprint style day, but the last 40 kilometres looks like a spring classic!”
It is only as the riders climb through the stunning vineyards of Montagne de Reims that Julian Alaphilippe shows his face near the front of the bunch, with Thibaut Pinot suffering a rear-wheel puncture that is soon replaced and he returns to the pack without visual panic. With the help of some remarkable technology, Matthew Keenan points out that between kilometres 70-50 to go, Julian Alaphilippe rode the wheel of Peter Sagan. Perhaps an indicator of who he believes Is dangerous for today’s finish.
The attacks begin in the front group 48.5km from home, with Tim Wellens launching a solo move. He is soon into that time trial-esque position whilst leaning on his handlebars, with legs spinning away to build a gap. Although he may find the stage win a step too far, it is possible that Wellens could end the day with both the Combativity Prize and the Polka Dot Jersey of the Mountain’s Classification. With 29.8km left, the rest of the day’s break is caught and Yoann Offredo offers around congratulatory fist bumps to his companions.
The pace of the peleton seriously ramps up as they hit the base of the 900m long, Category 3 climb known as Côte d’Hautvillers. At an average of 10.5%, the Deceuninck-Quick Step train storms the front of the bunch, whilst Wellens mops up the KOM points on offer at the top of the climb. On the following Côte de Champillon, Wellens becomes the new leader of the King of the Mountains Classification, as Teunissen survives (for now) at the back of the pack.
So the day comes to its crescendo, after bubbling away nicely throughout, the day comes down to the Côte de Mutigny which whilst only 900m in length, averages a savage 12.2%. Wellens has 57” on the bunch, but is losing his core position on the bike, indicating an understandable fatigue after racing on the front of the race since leaving the neutral zone. After Dries Devenens makes life difficult with a ferocious pace in the peleton, we see the first flashes of brilliance from the enigmatic Julian Alaphilippe on this Tour. With Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas lurking like sharks, Alaphilippe explodes in search of Wellens. “This is long range, this is panache”, exclaims Keenan, he’s not wrong. It is heartbreak on the crest of the climb for Wellens, who suffers a mechanical and has to watch Alaphilippe sail off into the distance on the descent. With 15km still to go, it looks a tough attack to make stick, Jumbo Visma mount their troops at the front of the peleton in search of a bunch finish for Tour debutant Wout van Aert.
But the descending of Alaphilippe is magical as he throws his body down onto the top tube, with a steely determination written large across his face. Meanwhile, a chasing group has formed in front of the peleton, made up of Alexey Lutsenko, Max Schachmann, Mike Woods and Mikel Landa, but a clear lack of motivation halts their progress. Back in the front, Alaphilippe’s teeth are beared and his tongue is out, a lack of motivation there is not. With less than 5km to go and the peleton hovering at around 40”, Matthew Keenan ponders whether Alaphilippe should have waited until the final kick-up before Epernay to make his move. But that is not the Alaphilippe way, rather than tactical nous and energy conservation, Julian rides on instinct and passion.
Alaphilippe soon proves Keenan wrong as he dances his way up the final lip of a climb, out of the saddle in a beautiful display of sheer guts and drive. The French fans lining the roads are adoring as he crests the hill, cycling through a wall of noise. In an aero-tuck at over 75km/h, Alaphilippe makes his way down to Epernay. The job is not complete yet though, as the cobbles of Epernay form a tough uphill drag which reaches its steepest points with 300m to go; gurning away with his tongue draped out, Alaphilippe drives himself to the line. Finally finishing 25 seconds ahead of the bunch, Alaphilippe takes the stage victory and the maillot jaune, displaying a cathartic show of emotion as he crosses the line.
”I didn’t expect that I attack so far from the finish line... I saw that my legs are good and I attack.”
Reflections in Epernay
Today's stage saw a barnstorming day of action, with the brilliant trio of Wellens’ solo mission, Teunissen’s brave battle to save yellow, and Alaphilippe’s daredevil attack that saw him move into his first maillot jaune. The Tour has well and truly begun! The Frenchman provided a masterclass in attacking and set fire to the Tour, with his panache and elegance shining through en route to taking yellow. The roar that greeted him in the finish was deafening and gave a glimpse of things to come, with the remarkable rider lifting France to its feet in applause and adulation. After a run-of-the-mill sprint day, with an atypical winner, and a TTT day, it feels as though it was on the roads to Epernay that the Tour finally came to life in the most enthralling fashion. This is delightful stage to watch and a fantastic display of the greatness of Julian Alaphillipe.
© Cor Vos
Stage 4: Reims - Nancy
Stage winner: Elia Viviani
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphilippe
The day is one for the sprinters, the only question surrounds who will be the unfortunate souls to engage in the doomed breakaway. As expected, two of the riders come from a wildcard squad, Wanty-Gobert, with Yoann Offredo represented once more. Joining him is teammate Frederik Backaert and CCC's Michael Schär. The stage begins in the beautiful fields of Reims which provided the backdrop for yesterday's finish. One site of note is Le Moulin de Verzenay, a stunning windmill complex that was used as a watch tower during the war and, as you'd expected, overlooks the vineyards for miles upon miles. Back in the action, Romain Bardet is further hampered as his teammate Tony Gallopin takes another tumble, after coming into the Tour on the back of an injury sustained during the French National Championships. Expected to be a key domestique for France's chosen one, it is another misfortune added to the list for Romain Bardet, perhaps this is to be another year where his hopes fall apart.
On the KOM climb, Schär smashes the Wanty-Gobert brethren and looks strong en route to taking maximum points. With 17.5km to go, Schär drops the pair of Wanty-Gobert before being caught by the peleton on the final climb of the day, 16.4km from home. The day is being set up as for the sprint as Team Sunweb, Bora-Hansgrohe and Jumbo Visma all enjoy spells on the front. The sprinters teams don’t have it all their own way, with Lilian Calmejane of Total Direct Énergie going off the front with 11.4km to go. A stage winner of a few years ago, this is not someone to be snuffed at, lasting 5.4km before he is caught.
As they pass under the 1km banner, it is the maillot jaune of Julian Alaphilippe that leads out Elia Viviani, before Dimension Data take over and all hell breaks loose. Caleb Ewan gets boxed in behind the eventual stage winner, Viviani, a first career win at Le Tour for the Italian.
Reflections in Nancy
Today's stage saw the return to action for the sprinters and whilst most of the day was uneventful. the scenery provided was breathtaking. it is a classic example of what makes the Grand Tours special; even on a day where not much happens on the road, by nature of travelling across a country in 21 days of action, the viewers get to experience a visual tour throughout the geography of Europe's great nations. The French countryside is one of the most beautiful in the world, with large swathes of the country untouched by human development and with a geographical terrain that is as varied as anywhere else in Europe. To travel through France is a beautiful and serene experience and whilst that is not possible at the moment, to experience it second-hand by rewatching this Tour is a pleasure, and harkens back to memories past. The greatest marketing hand of France always has been, and always will be, the Tour de France, providing the viewers with hours upon hours of wanderlust-provoking scenery.
Stage 5: Saint-Dié-des-Vosges - Colmar
Stage winner: Peter Sagan
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphilippe
A hilly day that precedes a monstrous finish to stage 6, this is certainly one that will have nerves racked across the peloton. This explains why the opening 25km are spent with multiple breaks coming and going, before Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss finally patrol the front of the bunch and allow the day's four-man break to go away, consisting of Polka Dot Jersey wearer Tim Wellens, Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo), Simon Clarke (EF Education First) and Mads Würtz (Katusha-Alpecin). On the parcours today are 4 categorised climbs, with two coming in the final 35km (2nd Category followed by a 3rd Category).
On the first of these categorised climbs after 44km, Wellens rolls through on the front of the break to pick up maximum points in the KOM classification. Meanwhile, later along the route, Elia Viviani takes 5th place at the intermediate sprint (following the break) in a full-blooded sprint for the second day in succession.
In a day that rolls through the gorgeous landscapes of France without too much action, intrigue is found 47km from home, when Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Max Richeze (Deceuninck-Quick Step) have a heated argument at the front of the bunch, after Burghardt went off the front in an attempt to raise the pace throughout a technical part of the route. Trouble is also found for UAE Team Emirates who have Dan Martin a minute off the back of the peloton following mechanical difficulties. This is unwanted stress for a rider who seems to have suffered more bad luck than most throughout the course of his career, there is no luck of the Irish where he is concerned...
On the penultimate climb of the day, Côte des Trois-Épis, the Latvian national champion Toms Skujiņš attacks from the break and looks to have Wellens and co. on the ropes, quickly having the neutral service car placed between him and the rest of his day's companions. With little over a minute between himself and the peloton, the attack is seemingly only in search of KOM points, as Mads Würtz is quickly submerged into the cannibalistic bunch. After Skujiņš takes full points at the top of the climb, Wellens and Clarke both make it over before being caught by the peloton on the descent. In a surprising and brave effort, Skujiņš' attack continues on the descent as he flies into the corners and look to hold off his gap to the peloton which hovers around 53" until he reaches flat ground, upon which it begins to tumble in favour of the chasing pack.
With 23.6km to go, Skujiņš begins the final climb of the day, Côte des Cinq Châteaux, which lies 4.6km long with a 6.1% average (13% pitches). With Team Sunweb and Bora-Hansgrohe determined to see this day finish in a sprint, for Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan, it is only this final climb which stands in their way. 3.2km from the summit is the point at which Skujiņš is caught by Wilco Kelderman who leads the peloton for Sunweb, a surprising situation given he is their GC leader.
'Bienvenue en Alsace' reads the humungous banner draped from the walls of Le Château de Hohlandsbourg, built in 1278 and strategically placed on the hillside.
There is no action on the climb, apart from Xandro Meurisse (Wanty-Gobert) being allowed off the front of the peloton for the second time thus far in this Tour in order to get maximum KOM points, as he chips away at Wellens' lead. The finish looks set to end in a sprint finish, with Matthews and Sagan being the clear favourites, although 2nd on GC Wout van Aert has shown he has a kick on him, by winning a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné in the Tour's prelude.
In an early indication that he shall be no normal placeholder-maillot jaune wearer, Alaphillipe leads the peloton down large parts of the descent and strings them out as he leads the way down on his top tube. It is not an attack, he is just having fun going downhill incredibly quickly, one would also imagine it to be the safest place to ride also. In the feel-good moment of the day at 8.7km to go, Edvald Boasson Hagen rejoins the peloton. Whilst this may sound a simple feat, it is anything but. Suffering a mechanical at the bottom of the day's final climb, he was 50" adrift of the peloton and attached his way through the forested climb, passing casualty after casualty of riders who could no longer stand the pace. In some moments the gap to the peloton for Boasson Hagen reached over a minute, but still he fought onwards, looking increasingly like a man on his limit. Nonetheless, he persevered and was 45" adrift on the descent, as he made his way down a tricky route which saw him in the middle of the race convoy, meaning he could not take his own lines into the corners and probably lost time as a result. Still he persevered and given his monstrous effort, a couple of kind team cars gave him a little bit of assistance on the flat run to home, offering him fleeting moments of drafting behind their cars before wishing him on his way. When his return to the bunch became imminent, his Dimension Data teammate Michael Valgren dropped of the back to relay him the remaining few metres. With 8.7km to go, after a monumental show of mental fortitude, Boasson Hagen was back and in contention once more for the stage victory.
With a sprint finish looking all but certain, one man does not conform to the script and it needn't take you many guesses to ascertain the identity of this non-conformist, the Portuguese former-World Champion, Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates). He attacks 7.4km to go on a slight rise in the road, bursting out from the pack and presumably catching everybody unawares. The gap reaches 13" at its greatest, but he is eventually reeled in as they fly under the 2km banner. The sprint is finally set up, after a tough day of racing that has seen lots of action.
In the explosive sprint finish, one man conquers all and that man is the 'Incredible Hulk' of Peter Sagan, donning the green jersey that he now calls his own. He simply out-sprints the rest and times his move to perfection, providing him with his 12th stage win at the Tour. Finishing second on the day is Jumbo Visma's Tour debutant Wout van Aert; this won't be the last time we hear his name over the next two and a half weeks. Tomorrow the riders tackle the monstrous La Planche des Belles Filles, with Julian Alaphilippe in the maillot jaune.
Reflections in Colmar
Today's stage ended with a sprint won by Peter Sagan, as expected at the start of the day. However, it was a day littered with unexpected surprises that delivered a tremendous day's entertainment to watch. The bravest rides of the day have to go to Toms Skujiņš and Edvald Boasson Hagen, with both riders digging deep to get their noses in the wind. Watching Boasson Hagen's gut-busting ride to bury himself and regain contact with the main group is a pleasure, with the Norwegian writing another brilliant chapter to his notable career. The final climb of the day is not the hardest, but provides a great spectacle with the riders snaking up hairpins through a dense forest of trees. Opening up on the descent and riding into sunny Colmar, once more the Tour delivers a gorgeous stage, with the added benefit today of exceptional racing. Although they do not contribute to the GC race, apart from putting miles in the legs, days such as this go towards making the 2019 Tour de France one of the greatest in living memory, with action barely stopping for breath. It was a great two hours of my day spent watching the action unfold.
© Chris Graythen
Stage 6: Mulhouse - La Planche des Belles Filles
Stage winner: Dylan Teuns
Yellow Jersey: Guilio Ciccone
Here we are, the first of five summit finishes on this Tour de France. La Planche des Belles Filles has been conquered by Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru and has now been extended by an extra km. With gradients up to 25%, today will surely be the first shakeup in the General Classification. Whilst only 165km long, today's stage plays host to three 1st Category climbs and a 2nd Category for luck; this is the day that the sprinters have feared and the climbers have relished. The breakaway quickly gathers itself as a 14-man group that soon build up a 6-minute lead and perhaps take with them the stage victory.
A seemingly ever-present by now in the breakaway, Tim Wellens takes maximum points on the day's first climb, Le Markstein, which extends his lead in the KOM classification. Battling Wellens in the sprint is Trek-Segafredo's Guilio Ciccone and it is a close affair following Thomas De Gendt's lead-out on behalf of Wellens (De Gendt has previously won the KOM Classification himself). Ciccone won the Mountains Classification at the year's first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia. Further clever teamwork from Lotto Soudal is found on the following 3rd Category climb, where Wellens allows De Gendt to attack off the front of the group and force Ciccone into working to catch up. This allows Wellens to rest up for the bigger climbs to come and results in Ciccone only taking three points with De Gendt winning the maximum. By now the gap to the peloton is over 7 and a half minutes, leaving Guilio Ciccone the virtual Yellow Jersey by almost six minutes on the road.
On the Ballon d’Alsace the break begins to fracture as the day's climbing really begins to test the riders' legs, with André Greipel being the first man dropped. Yet again it is Wellens who takes full KOM points ahead of Ciccone, following another De Gendt lead-out. Meanwhile back in the peloton, Movistar come to the front in an attempt to raise the pace for their armada of leaders, Mikel Landa, world champion Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, the soon-to-be stars of a cycling documentary, or was it a tragedy? With the change in tempo coming from behind, after doing minimal efforts all day, Dylan Teuns comes to the front of the break on the Col des Chevrères, presumably as he believes he has a shot at winning today's stage if the break were to stay clear. It is thought that the breakaway will need a minute lead at the bottom of La Planche des Belles Filles in order to ensure the mopping up of the day's stage. In yet more outstanding manoeuvring from Lotto Soudal, Thomas De Gendt attacks the breakaway to get maximum KOM points. But that is not all, De Gendt has lulled their breakaway companions into a false sense of security and continues his attack after the summit- never underestimate Thomas De Gendt.
"Alaphillipe is now back within 3'06" of being the race leader on the road, but the Yellow Jersey will have his work cut out sticking with the pure climbers on the final ascent through to the finish line"
The breakaway splinters completely on the final few kilometres of the Col des Chevrères as Ciccone goes off in search of De Gendt, shadowed closely by Wellens. Having been caught, De Gendt almost grinds to a halt having put the fear of God into the rest of the breakaway. There are four riders at the tête de la course as they approach the final kilometre of the 1st Category climb, Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), Guilio Ciccone, Tim Wellens (over 400km spent in breakaways thus far this Tour) and Xander Meurisse (Wanty-Gobert). In a move that signals at the hierarchy in the Movistar Team, Valverde sets the pace on the front of the peloton, whilst up ahead Guilio Ciccone sneaks ahead of Teuns to take the maximum KOM points. With 18.5km to go, all that remains is the descent to the bottom of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Hitting the bottom of La Planche des Belles Filles with 4'03", the break has no time to mess about if they wish to take the stage win. Wellens and Meurisse look cooked and the Teuns/Ciccone rivalry appears front and centre. Valverde continues his monstrous turn on the front of the peloton until 4.7km remains, at which he swings off and makes apparent his role at this Tour de France. Up at the front, Wellens is the first rider to be dropped, quickly followed by Meurisse.
3.5km from the summit brings the first attack from the peloton as French champion Warren Barguil takes flight in the gorgeous tricolore jersey, shortly followed by Mikel Landa who rides straight past him and dances away. This forces Kwiatkowski to chase on the front of the bunch, a clever tactic given he is the last man in front of Egan Bernal and reigning Tour champion Geraint Thomas. Kwiatkowksi is soon burnt up and this allows David Gaudu to come to the fore and set a high pace for his Groupama-FDJ teammate Thibaut Pinot, who rode the climb 10 times in the spring in reconnaissance and was 2nd on the day to Vincenzo Nibali up La Planche des Belles Filles in 2014. The 2017 winner up here, Fabio Aru, is dropped 1.4km from the gravel summit. Meanwhile the Yellow Jersey Julian Alaphillipe remains firmly in the peloton, a surprise to Keenan and McEwan.
Teuns and Ciccone battle for the win, with Teuns leading them out into the final 350m, at which the gradient reaches pitches of 25%. After a gargantuas battle between the pair, Teuns conquers La Planche des Belles Filles and drops Ciccone with 5om to go, who finishes 111 seconds in arrears. In a bid to save his Yellow Jersey from Ciccone, Alaphillipe attacks from the peloton to the delight of the French fans. He has not only survived the climb but he is flourishing, baring his teeth as the defending champion Geraint Thomas emerges from behind. Thomas spins his way past Alaphillipe 40m from the line, without even standing up from his saddle as he grinds away in his trademark style, a legacy of low cadence efforts from his days on the track. Pinot finishes behind Thomas after a brutal final 100m, with Alaphillipe heartbreakingly losing the Yellow Jersey to Ciccone and collapsing onto the barriers as he crossed the finish line. The biggest loser of the day is Romain Bardet, who drops his chain as he stumbles across the line. Alaphillipe appears gutted after the finish whilst his soigneur wraps him in the blue team jersey of Deceuninck-Quick Step.
"I was feeling good, I was just unsure with the steep climbs not being cup of tea, as they say... it is one of those climbs where you really have to be patient... yeh it's decent."
At the start of the day, Alaphillipe's gap over Ciccone was 1'43", but by the close of proceedings the Italian Ciccone now leads the race by 6 seconds.
Reflections atop of La Planche des Belles Filles
Today's stage was blockbuster, with La Planche des Belles Filles somehow improving as a spectacle. The climb has always been a delight to fans over the past decade, but the added gravel section created a monumental task for the riders to conquer and the racing is always more relatable to the fans back home when the riders are going as quickly (or slowly) as we climb. With tremendous rides to battle for the stage victory, Dylan Teuns and Guilio Ciccone announce themselves to the cycling world on the grandest stage, with Ciccone taking the maillot jaune for his troubles. Behind it is a barnstorming battle between the favourites, with Alaphillipe sticking with the greats as they grind their way up the climb. The Frenchman even has the guts to attack the group and is only bettered by Geraint Thomas and Thibaut Pinot, both of whom are winners up Alpe d'Huez in the past four years. First weeks can, for myself, often fall victim to tedious flat stage after flat stage that result in sprint finishes, but with this brute of a climb featuring early, it allows us a glimpse into the form of the pre-race favourites and provides an order to the general classification for the first time. We as fans do not have to wait until after the first week for action, it has already got well and truly underway with stages 3 and 6, to the delight of us all. Well done to the ASO, this Tour is shaping up very nicely indeed thus far and has been a joy to watch for the most part.
© Bettini Photo
Stage 7: Belfort – Chalon-sur-Saône
Stage winner: Dylan Groenewegen
Yellow Jersey: Guilio Ciccone
In a relief to the sprinters, today should be a day for them after surviving through La Planche des Belles Filles. Nerves are not completely relaxed however, as a crash occurs early into the day which sees both Tejay van Garderen and Mike Teunissen hit the deck. Van Garderen gingerly gets back on his horse amid multiple cuts to the face, with Teunissen appearing better off from the fall. Meanwhile the peloton takes an incredibly slow pace as a doomed two-man break develops up ahead, containing Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert) and Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis), two men well versed in breakaways by now.
At 230km, this is the Tour's longest stage and could prove to be a day for the more hardened sprinters, especially coming right after a mountainous day on stage 6.
The two breakaway riders put up a good fight and scare the peloton by lulling them into vulnerability, with no team willing to put their foot down as doing the work on the front. With 38km to go, the gap is wavering around 1'50" as Alaphillipe puts in a hard turn to bring his teammate Elia Viviani towards the front of the group, it is worth remembering that Ciccone is now in the maillot jaune and Alaphillipe appears back to team duties whilst laying second overall.
The pressure is soon put on in the peloton and Rossetto and Offredo are caught 12.4km from home; in this midst of this chase there is a split in the bunch, with Wout van Aert, Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin all caught out for 10 minutes or so, forcing a desperate and frantic turn of the pedals. Rossetto and Offredo must be hugely applauded for undertaking a monstrous 217km break!
The most noteworthy moment of the stage comes when Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwan discuss the pronunciations of Stefan Küng and Álvaro Hodeg... Küng is actually pronounced 'King', who'd have thought? And the Colombian/Scot Álvaro Hodeg's last name is actually 'Hodge', given his Grandfather is Scottish. Hodge changed to Hodeg in Colombia as the Latin speakers couldn't get their tongues around the pronunciation!
Wout van Aert puts in a tremendous 2km+ turn on the front with 4.5km to go, successfully stringing out the peloton and allowing his teammate Groenewegan to surf the wheels behind. Caleb Ewan is stuck to the wheel of his lead-out man Roger Kluge and Sagan is in the mix, as ever. Daniel Oss takes the head of the race as they pass under the 1km banner, before Yves Lampaert initiates the Deceuninck-Quick-Step train in service to Elia Viviani. As they move into the final 300m the order of riders goes as follows: Richeze, Viviani, Sagan, Ewan, Groenewegen, Kristoff. Once Max Richeze pulls off, they all spread out in unison and open their sprint, with Groenewegen and Ewan the fastest men in the pack. Both sprint with all their might and the win is decided on the bike throw, with Groenewegen taking the victory by a quarter of a wheel after topping out at 74km/h.
Reflections in Chalon-sur-Saône
Whilst the discussion of riders last names is enjoyable, it does go to display that today was very much a transitional sprint stage. Although the generation older than me grew up with Tours starting with a week or so of sprint finishes, I'm not sure I could enjoy this myself. In the era I have been watching, the Tour's opening week has been more dynamic and involved a mixed parcours. However, last year's Tour was the first I managed to sit down and watch every hour of each stage, and I feel it could be a nice relaxed way to open the three weeks- sitting and soaking in a subdued sprint day for the first week and work your way into it. As you can tell, I am seriously not settled either way on the first week parcours debate. Whilst today was a simple bunch finish day, the 10 or so minutes of crosswinds tearing apart the peloton are a precious reminder of why no day in the Tour is simple. For the favourites and their teams, every minute is spent focusing on positioning and identifying upcoming hazards, with a constant paranoia of what may lead to their downfall. This is why three-week racing is hard and the winners deserve to be applauded to the hilltops.
© Bettini Photo