It’s a Slovenian battle for yellow
Unless an Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) blowout happens (see below), then we can confidently predict that the yellow jersey is heading to one of Europe’s smallest countries, Slovenia.
The expected action on the long and arduous slopes of Grand Colombier didn’t materialise thanks to Jumbo-Visma’s hugely impressive nullification of the race, with the general classification riders only able to make their move in the last kilometre, discounting the earlier but unrewarding attack by Adam Yates (Mitchelon-Scott).
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Richie Porte, who looks as strong as he ever has done and making some question whether his rumoured return to Ineos Grenadiers as a super-domestique is in fact premature, was the first GC rider to try his fortune with 400m to go in the sprint for the line.
But the Australian was overpowered by Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar, the latter showing his class, his immense raw talent and underlining that only he is capable of beating his countryman.
Just like he did on stage nine, Pogačar won again. He has shown repeatedly throughout this Tour that he isn’t substantially stronger than Roglič, but he has a better kick than him. Pogačar lost 81 seconds in the crosswinds on stage 7 and sickeningly for him, if he hadn’t fell victim to the echelons, he would now lead Roglič by 41 seconds.
He can’t afford to rue such losses for a Grand Tour is won equally on the windy roads as it is in the oxygen-depleted high mountains, but if Pogačar continues his thrilling form, buoyed by his youthful and fearless exuberance – and don’t forget that he has pedigree to match Roglič in a time trial – he could well become the Tour’s second youngest ever winner aged just 21. Just a year after Bernal triumphed a year older
The procession of Jumbo-Visma
All those years of seeing Team Sky/Ineos hit the front of the peloton with a breathless pace that kicked riders out of the front group were studiously watched by Jumbo-Visma and are now masterfully being emulated with a potency that, arguably, the architects of such a tactic never quite even achieved.
At the foot of the Grand Colombier, more than 17km from the spectator-free summit, the team had six riders remaining at the race’s head. Wout van Aert then took over and he hung out front for almost 10 kilometres. Such was his pace, Bernal and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) were booted out of the back.
Tom Dumoulin then took control of proceedings and he marched his way up the climb. The Tour hasn’t seen a super-domestique of his quality since Chris Froome in 2012.
Such was Jumbo-Visma’s force, riders behind couldn’t attack because the rhythm was already high enough, and second they dared not to because Roglič’s other key assistant Sepp Kuss was being marshalled and protected by the yellow jersey himself.
It was an astonishing ride by Jumbo-Visma. If they don’t take yellow in Paris, it will be the biggest crime in the sport’s recent history, and one that Roglič would struggle to comprehend.
Not because Pogačar or another rider who attacks and gains significant time in the ensuing days wouldn’t deserve to win, but because a team of this force simply has to become champions.
Ineos’s nightmare day must lead to questions of its management
Those projections, hopeful remarks, fantasy suggestions, whatever you want to call them, they have all now been answered definitively and affirmatively: no, Egan Bernal will not come good in the Alps.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider is not set to defend his yellow jersey. It had been prophesied in recent weeks after obvious signs of weaknesses and a back injury, but there remained a school of thought that the higher and longer Alpine climbs would see him to claw back time on Roglič and Pogačar.
Not to be. He lost help from Andrey Amador early in the stage and then Richard Carapaz, the man many assumed was the team’s de-facto stand-in leader should Bernal fail. Well, plan B blew up in the first week. Plan A spectacularly failed on the early part of the Grand Colombier.
With 13km left, a group of 25 riders led by Van Aert was shedded of three of its riders, Michał Kwiatkowski and Jonathan Castroviejo trying to pace Bernal back to the group. It was futile: Bernal finished seven minutes and 20 seconds behind Pogačar and Roglič and is now in 13th place, 8:25 minutes of the top.
Judged by their world-leading success of the past decade, welcoming the same expectations that super sport clubs like Manchester United and the New York Yankees demand, the assessment of the British team’s ride at this year’s Tour is significantly below standard. It’s been a disaster.
Different to the original team we were expected to see line-up, each member of the eight-man squad has been put in the distant shade by Jumbo-Visma. Questions have to be asked about the team’s coaches and training plans, including head coach Tim Kerrison.
One can make an exception for one rider suffering from bad form, but when multiple key riders are below the standards expected, it’s harder to accept. An inquisitive, fact-finding finger has to be pointed at the management.
Why has the riders’ lockdown and post-quarantine training resulted in physical conditions far below Jumbo-Visma? Ineos will already be probing those questions on the team bus.
Colombian prospects halved
The Colombian quartet of Bernal, Rigoberto Urán, Quintana and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) sat in third to sixth place ahead of the stage. Now, going into the second and final rest day, Colombia’s prospects look significantly weaker.
Bernal’s chances of winning again are left in tatters. So too Quintana, who rolled home almost four minutes adrift and is now in ninth, 5-08 behind. He is out of contention. His early season form before lockdowns stopped racing saw him win five times and alerted the world to his resurgence. The reality, though, is at the Tour he has been hanging on and on stage 15 he finally capitulated. His chances are over.
It all leaves Colombia with two hands to play now. Urán moved up to third, but did lack the finishing pace of his peers. López pushes up to fourth. In the grand scheme of things, it’s impressive – but in a results-driven society where more is always craved and sought after, halving your cards can only be seen as a blow in the immediate aftermath.
In the days previous, there had been some whispers of a Colombian alliance to try and overthrow the Slovenian powerhouse of two. Whether such a thing would really transpire is questionable, but now the gang of Bernal, Quintana and Martínez no longer have their own GC ambitions, perhaps such an informal pact could occur.
To compound a day to forget for the South American country, early on in the stage Sergio Higuita fell fast and hard to the ground when he collided with the rear wheel of Bob Jungels (Deceunicnk – Quick-Step). The 23-year-old, who was 16th on GC but way out of overall contention, was able to remount but crashed again shortly after. He was eventually forced to abandon with a broken hand.
Trentin tries to remain relevant in the hunt for green
It’s become a theme of this year’s Tour that the day’s breakaway had struggled to form, owing largely to the battle for green.
Stage 15 followed the same script, but when a break was allowed to stick, it included Matteo Trentin of CCC Team. The former European champion began the stage 93 points behind current points classification incumbent Sam Bennett (Deceunnick -Quick-Step), and expectedly took the maximum 20 points at the intermediate classification.
Bennett claimed seven points to keep Trentin 80 points adrift of him with just six stages remaining, while Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan claimed five points. The Slovakian, who reduced his deficit on stage 14 into Lyon but not by the amount his team’s efforts warranted, was beaten to six points by Bennett’s teammate Michael Mørkøv.
Irishman Bennett now has a 45 point lead over Sagan, and with stage 19’s lumpy but not mountainous stage seemingly the only chance left for Sagan to regain green, it looks as if Bennett has all but sealed green. Unless, of course, Bennett struggles in the mountain and misses a time limit – a plot that Bora may well try.