Alaphilippe triumphs with brilliant attack
Another Tour de France, another sublime Julian Alaphilippe stage victory. For the fourth year running the Frenchman has taken a stage win, and this was one of his most spectacular yet, taking the peloton by surprise with an attack early on the finishing climb, and crossing the line with a significant advantage.
The sight of him crossing the line to take victory resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey will surely be one of the defining images of his career.
The lesson from the women’s La Course race earlier in the day appeared to be that patience was a virtue on the finishing climb, and that anyone hoping to win the stage should keep their powder dry until towards the top, when the gradient shallowed. But Alaphilippe made a mockery of such logic, making his move on a steep gradient 2.3km from the top in what was clearly a co-ordinated move set up by his Deceuninck - Quick-Step domestiques.
The result means that Alaphilippe is back in yellow, for the third Tour running. With a gap on GC already of twelve seconds over Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) in second and 14 seconds on Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in third, and with another uphill finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne coming up tomorrow that again looks perfectly suited to him, he might be able to hang on to it for a while.
Vollering takes the mantle from Van der Breggen to win La Course
La Course had been one of the few top races on the Women’s World Tour that the all-conquering SD Worx team had never won, but they at last put that right today with a first victory on their eighth attempt.
The source of victory was not, as might have been expected, Anna van der Breggen, but rather her younger compatriot Demi Vollering. Rather than ride for herself, Van der Breggen instead lead-out the sprint, backing Vollering to win the sprint despite the presence of fast-finisher Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma). The ploy turned out to be the correct one, as Vollering pipped Vos at the line to take victory.
The result was the latest indication yet that the baton at SD Worx is being passed from the retiring Van der Breggen to 24-year-old Vollering. Van der Breggen fulfilled a similar support role earlier this season when she lead-out Vollering to sprint victory from a small group at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a win that was Vollering’s biggest following a run of impressive finishes at the classics over the past three seasons. This might be Van der Breggen’s final opportunities to add to her palmarès, but she has been happy to instead aid her teammates to success, and Vollering has proven herself worthy of her backing.
As one of the all-time greats, Van der Breggen might seem virtually irreplaceable, but in Vollering it’s becoming increasingly clear that the team has a new star in the making, who has the tools to win many of the biggest races in the sport.
Huge crashes blight the opening day
So often the big story during the opening few days of the Tour de France are the crashes that take place in the nervous peloton, and that was unfortunately again the case on the first day of the 2021 edition as two separate incidents both saw huge numbers go down.
Even by Tour standards, these were spectacular crashes. In the first, Tony Martin went down right towards the front of the peloton when he collided with a spectator recklessly holding a cardboard sign in front of the peloton, taking out and holding up all but a small handful of riders in the race. Then as the final climb approached, an apparent touch of wheels in the peloton caused several more riders to once again go down.
Despite the shocking nature of the first, what with it being caused by a spectator, every rider was able to remount, with no-one appearing to sustain serious injuries. But the second did have more of an obvious impact, with Chris Froome (Israel-StartUp Nation) the most notable victim. Given how long his journey has been to return to the Tour de France following his previous horrific injury, it was especially upsetting to witness; but despite being clearly hurt, he was at least able to make it to the finish.
With so many riders going down, there will be a significant fall-out throughout the peloton, and plenty of injuries sustained that we don’t yet know about. The consequences of these crashes may not become completely known to us until later in the race.
Climb proves too hard for Van der Poel and Van Aert
Despite all the hype and expectation, the finishing climb proved too steep for both Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). They both sat on and near Alaphilippe’s wheel at the beginning of the climb, but had no response when he launched his attack, and drifted further and further back as the climb went on while the lighter climbers passed them. Ultimately, Van Aert was 24th, and Van der Poel 20th.
In fact, this finish turned out to be too tough for many of the sprinter-cum-puncheurs who had been tipped to contend for victory. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the on-form Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious).
The one rider to buck the trend was Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), who looked in brilliant form to take second place. Having picked up some points at the intermediate sprint earlier in the stage, he looks like a top contender for the green jersey.
Behind Matthews was a cluster of GC riders, with Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) taking third, Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) fourth, Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) fifth and defending champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) sixth. That means Roglič takes four bonus seconds — a small but promising boost in his bid for yellow.
GC contenders lose time, including Ineos Grenadiers pair
It was difficult to gauge the exact consequences of the second crash when it occurred, but its impact began to emerge when big potential GC riders rolled into the finish having lost significant time to the leaders.
It’s just as well that Ineos Grenadiers took so many potential GC candidates with them to the Tour, as two of them may be out of contention already. Richie Porte lost 2-26 and Tao Geoghegan Hart 5-43, removing any doubt that one of Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz will be their main man.
Jumbo-Visma also found their plan-b left in tatters, with Steven Kruijswijk finishing 1-59 adrift, and Sepp Kuss well out of contention at 16-39. They will be praying that Roglič was not hurt in the first crash, although the fact he had the legs to sprint for third suggests he’s feeling fine.
The most notable rider to lose time was Movistar’s Miguel Ángel López, who arrived 1-59 down on Alaphilippe. That may prompt the team to back Enric Mas as their outright leader, and any hope of a trident of GC contenders already appears over as Alejandro Valverde lost 5-43.
Any thoughts that Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) may target the GC rather than stages are also put to an end, as he lost 8-59, while GC outsiders Emmanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) saw their hopes dented as they finished in the same group as Lopez, 1-59 down.
Whether or not all of these riders were so adrift because of injuries from going down, or from falling adrift by being held up in the crash, is as yet unclear. How they perform in the coming stages will give a clearer sign of whether they can play a significant role.
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