Magnus Cort Nielsen makes it two in two for Astana
Astana may not have mounted a serious GC challenge, with Jakob Fuglsang the team’s highest placed rider in ninth overall, but they have over the past two days displayed a masterclass of how to win stages from breakaways.
Following Omar Fraile’s smartly-timed winning attack yesterday, their pair of Michael Valgren and Magnus Cort Nielsen got their tactics spot on today after getting into the day’s break, to set the latter up for Astana’s second successive victory.
It was a superb ride by Nielsen, a rider noted for his sprinting (he won two bunch sprints at the 2016 Vuelta a España), but who built the foundations for his win today by matching out-and-out climbers like Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) on the category one Pic de Nore.
Aged just 25, Nielsen is one of the peloton’s most exciting emerging talents. His surprising climbing and composed, explosive sprint showcased his all-round ability, and why he will be one to watch for years to come.
A tactical battle for the stage win
Today was a great example of how breakaway stages can be decided as much by brains and tactics as it is legs and strength.
The sorting out process of the Pic de Nore eventually resulted in a group of eight forming to contest the stage win, which had the unusual composition of three pairs of riders from the same team – Bahrain-Merida, Trek-Segafredo and Astana.
Each team made the most of their numerical advantage once the break started attacking each other. All three were represented in the group of three that broke clear through Ion Izagirre, Bauke Mollema and Cort Nielsen, allowing their teammates Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) and Michael Valgren (Astana) to sit in and force the other isolated riders in the break, Lilian Calmejane (Direct-Energie) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) to chase.
Thus the chase came down to a two versus three situation, and inevitably the latter group came out on top.
Of the three teams, it was Astana who came out on top. Mollema and Izagirre made the mistake of failing to force Nielsen – the vastly superior sprinter of the three – to do most of the work, and failed to attack him in the finale. Arguably, they might have benefited from having the chasers return, but for Astana it was the perfect situation – and Nielsen capitalised with aplomb.
Bora-Hansgrohe animate the race
Perhaps the two most eye-catching names in the day’s 29-man break were both Bora-Hansgrohe riders – Peter Sagan and Rafal Majka.
Just two days after winning a bunch sprint, Sagan was out for glory on a stage that featured a category one climb, while Majka was in the familiar position of being out on the attack searching for stage wins having lost too much time to be a threat on GC.
Ultimately the climb proved to be too much for Sagan, although the world champion did manage to take another haul of points at the intermediate sprint to tighten his grip on the green jersey – a classification he is already on the brink of sealing mathematically.
With Sagan adrift, Majka put in an explosive attack on the climb, and reached the summit just under half a minute ahead of the chasers.
It was a fine effort from the Pole, but it was always going to be a big ask to hang on alone throughout the 40-odd kilometres of descending and flat that followed, and he was reeled in by an organised chase.
They may not have been rewarded with a stage win, but Bora-Hansgrohe deserve credit for animating the race, and it is unlikely that was have seen the last of Sagan and Majka at this race.
Dan Martin attacks
In typical Dan Martin style, the Irishman set off on a bold attack on the lower slopes of the Pic de Nore, with the best part of 60km left to ride.
Sky set a pace quick enough on the climb to ensure the gap never exceeded one minute, then gradually ate into the slender lead on the descent, until Martin was inexorably reeled in.
Still, it was a sign that Martin not only still has some great legs, but also that his spirit remains high despite suffering yet more misfortune yesterday when he lost almost two minutes thanks to an ill-timed puncture.
It seems safe to say that we can expect plenty more gutsy attacks come the Pyrenees.
An uneventful day in the GC
Apart from Martin’s attack, no riders in the peloton attempted to gain any time today, despite the potential of the rolling terrain.
After an early flurry of activity as the break was formed at the start of the day, all the favourites were happy to sit behind the familiar Sky train as it set a slow and steady pace all day.
There was a hint of activity when Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) moved to the front of the peloton at the start of the descent of the Pic de Nore, perhaps ready to unleash his fine descending technique, but did not ultimately press on – perhaps spooked after getting a corner wrong.
There was talk of crosswinds possibly affecting the run-in to the line, but this too amounted to nothing.
It could hardly have been a more welcome day for Geraint Thomas, who has survived yet another day without suffering the kind of one-off bad day he is notorious for, and is one step closer to taking the yellow jersey to Paris.