Caleb Ewan’s superb sprint
Any doubts about Caleb Ewan’s (Lotto-Soudal) fitness following his crash on Saturday were categorically put to bed today, as the Aussie unleashed an extraordinary sprint to open his account in the 2020 Tour de France.
After being the very last rider to reach the finish line yesterday, it seemed as though Ewan might still be nursing injuries after hitting the deck, but it turns out he was simply resting his legs in anticipation of today’s bunch finish.
Depleted in number following the abandonments of Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb, Lotto-Soudal were limited in how much support they could provide in the finishing stages, but Ewan was able to look after himself masterfully on the finishing straight.
Despite having to make up a lot of ground on the other sprinters, zig-zag his way through a crowded field, and squeeze through a narrow gap between a rider and the barriers, Ewan still managed to storm past Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to the line.
The victory was the fourth at the Tour in Ewan’s career, and the manner in which he pulled it off suggests he will be the man to beat in the remaining sprints.
Sam Bennett is best of the rest
With 50 metres to go, Sam Bennett must have thought he had victory in the bag. The Irish champion had just waltzed past Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and had clear daylight between himself and the Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT), Hugo Hoffstetter (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Matteo Trentin (CCC) sprinting over on the left-hand side of the road.
Only the extraordinary acceleration of Ewan prevented him from winning what would have been his first ever Tour de France stage win.
The distance between these two and the rest of the field suggests that, in a straightforward, uncomplicated bunch sprint like this, Ewan and Bennett are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition. There could be some close contests between the two in the sprints to come.
One thing that might be expected to swing the balance in favour of Bennett is his lead-out train. Whereas Ewan is already down to just five domestiques, Deceuninck-Quick-Step is renowned for its lead-out train, which is loaded with quality rouleurs all united behind the goal of winning sprints, to the extent that even the yellow jersey of Julian Alaphilippe can be seen helping out.
But the lead-out train has not been at its best so far this Tour, and, on this showing, Bennett may need more support if he’s to get the better of Ewan.
No lead-out train is able to control the sprint
With Deceuninck-Quick-Step not bossing proceedings as they usually do, the sprint finish today was something of a chaotic affair, with no-one team taking control.
As well as Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Lotto-Soudal, several other teams had stints at the front of the peloton. Nizzolo’s NTT team were in the mix, while UAE Emirates also attempted a lead-out train to help Alexander Kristoff in the green jersey, but neither team were able to establish a clear train at the head of the peloton.
The best lead-out came from Team Sunweb, who had a couple of riders help pace their sprinter Cees Bol on the finishing straight, but even they weren’t able to string out the bunch, and Bol was ultimately swamped on either side and could only sprint for seventh place.
No single team looks capable yet of asserting themselves, which could mean that more messy sprints are in store later in the Tour.
Jerome Cousin left alone for a solitary 100km
After all the stress and activity of the opening weekend of racing, today offered welcome respite to the riders, in what was a leisurely paced, pleasantly quiet day for everyone.
Everyone, that is, except poor Jerome Cousin (Total Direct Energie). Although initially part of a three-man breakaway with Anthony Perez (Cofidis) and Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2r La Mondiale), the latter two dropped back into the peloton after they’d achieved their task of picking up more points in the king of the mountains competition.
That left the bearded Cousin facing the daunting prospect of over 100km all by himself at the front of race, with virtually no chance of winning, yet duty-bound to provide his team the television coverage. Everyone at Total Direct Energie owes him a favour after this.
One unusual feature of the Tour so far has been the reluctance of riders to get into the breakaway at the start of the day. Normally we’d expect a bigger group to stay up the road on a rolling day like this, formed in a big battle at the start of the day, but the three riders who broke clear this time did so without any competition from other teams or riders.
This might be because a lot of the lower-profile teams that usually resort to targeting breakaways have other ambitions to focus on. Cofidis, NTT and B&B Hotels-Vital Concept all have potential bunch sprint winners in Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo and Bryan Coquard respectively, while Arkéa-Samsic, despite being a wildcard team, have a genuine yellow jersey candidate in Nairo Quintana.
The virtual King of the Mountains abandons
Despite some ominous dark clouds early in the day, this was a mostly dry stage at the Tour de France, with nothing like the flurry of crashes that characterised Saturday’s stage
However, there was one abandonment, after Cofidis’ Anthony Perez crashed into a car, breaking his collarbone as a result.
What makes the incident especially unfortunate is that the Frenchman had been set to stand on the podium at the end of the stage, having out-sprinted Benoit Cosnefroy (Ag2r La Mondiale) over the day’s first two summits to become the new leader in the mountains classification.
Instead, Perez won’t get to wear the polka-dot jersey at all, after his luck rapidly abandoned him in the space of just a few kilometres — fist puncturing, then crashing into a car while trying to make his way back up to the peloton.
It was a sombre reminder of how suddenly fortunes can change at the Tour de France.