Wout Van Aert took his second stage victory in this year’s Tour de France, on the frenetic seventh stage from Millau to Lavaur, as the Jumbo-Visma team again emphasised their collective superiority over the peloton.
“I’m really proud of this one,” the Belgian said of his team’s third win in a week. ‚“I didn’t expect it this morning. It was straight from the gun and an impressive stage from the Bora Hansgrohe team, who went flat out at the first King of the Mountains climb.”
Gusting crosswinds, that picked up as the peloton exited Castres, split the main contenders into three groups, with defending champion Egan Bernal, of Ineos Grenadiers, and current race leader Adam Yates, riding for Mitchelton-Scott, prominent among those seeking to take advantage.
“It was a really tough day,” Bernal said. “It was on from kilometre-zero to the finish, and we never really had a rest. It would have been nice to have a rest ahead of the Pyrenees, but it wasn’t possible unfortunately.”
The race leader Yates agreed, but added that “some guys had different ideas”, adding: “It was a hard day in general, but I stayed out of trouble and stayed in the lead.”
Earlier in the day, Peter Sagan and his Bora Hansgrohe team had dispelled the impression that the Slovak’s best days in the Tour were behind him, when they initiated the chaos by shredding the peloton over the top of the first climb of the day, the Cote de Luzencon.
Sagan, for once clad not in the green jersey, but in his own team’s colours, was hoping to loosen Irishman Sam Bennett’s grip on the points classification. The triple world champion’s tactics succeeded spectacularly. By the finish line, Bennett’s group was over eleven minutes adrift and Sagan was back in green.
Bennett’s isolation revealed the conflicted nature of his team’s tactics, as his teammate Julian Alaphilippe was shepherded into the front group, with Bennett largely left to fend for himself. “We didn’t have time to think,” Alaphilippe said after the stage.
Sagan’s collective effort provided the stimulus for the later attacks, that, with two Pyrenean stages this weekend, exploded the 2020 Tour and produced time gaps more associated with a mountain stage.
At the moment, though, there is only one team in it and Jumbo-Visma are winning stages for fun. Many in the race convoy are now sure that a change in the Tour’s power structure is about to be confirmed in this weekend’s mountain stages.
If last Tuesday’s ski station finish to Orcieres-Merlette was indicative of the direction of travel, it may prove a difficult 48 hours for defending champion Bernal. With his teammate, Giro d’Italia champion, Richard Carapaz, now two minutes behind race leader Yates, his team’s tactical options are limited.
There is of course still time to steady the ship. Bernal remains within ten seconds of Primoz Roglic, but the usurping of Ineos by the Jumbo-Visma squad has been encapsulated by the comparative failure to assert themselves.
The Dutch rider Bauke Mollema, of the Trek Segafredo team, even claimed that he had overheard Bernal telling his teammates to slow down in Thursday’s climb to Mont Aigoual.
“He said ‘Easy, easy’ to Michal Kwiatkowski,” Mollema told the Dutch TV station NOS. “Maybe he didn’t want to go any faster, or he didn’t feel well.”
With the Pyrenees looming, Bernal cannot rely on the sterling support of the so-called Sky Train, that Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas enjoyed. Team captain Luke Rowe acknowledged as much at the start of the week.
“If I’m being completely honest, we wanted a few more numbers up there alongside Egan,” Rowe said of the Orcieres-Merlette finish, “but Egan was there and that’s all that matters. As a team, the longer climbs suit our team better.”
Jonathan Vaughters, manager of rival team Education First, said: “They’re not what they have been in past years.” Dave Brailsford, however, will be scoffing at the scepticism already being expressed about his Ineos team’s ability to stand up to the Jumbo-Visma onslaught.
“We will come at if from a different angle,” he said of his team’s tactics, shortly before the Tour’s Grand Depart in Nice. Right now, with Roglic and his team in the ascendant, it is difficult to see what angle that will be, beyond relying on Bernal’s undoubted climbing prowess to secure final victory in the Tour’s mountain stages. Much will rest on his performance in the Pyrenees.