Sagan off the mark
Having opened his account within the first three days in each of the past Tours, this year has actually been his slowest start since the 2016 edition, when he endured a winless three weeks.
The three-time world champion is far too cool a customer to let that concern him, however, and he demonstrated his familiar self-confidence in what was a commanding sprint victory, even capping it off with a muscle-flexing pose for the camera as he crossed the finish line.
With its challenging hills and flat run-in to the finish, this always looked like a stage Sagan would relish provided the breakaway were kept under control, and his Bora-Hansgrohe team did a great job of ensuring that the group that escaped at the start of the day was neither too big nor strong, and keeping the four-man group that did eventually get away in check throughout the day.
The result also means that Sagan extends his lead in the points classification, and he’ll no doubt also have his eye on picking up more stage wins in the hilly and medium mountain days to come.
Wout van Aert impresses again
Wout van Aert continued to enhance his reputation as one of the rising stars of road cycling with second place in today’s finishing sprint.
Having made such an impression in the bunch sprints at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month - where he pulled-off a stage victory ahead of pure sprinter Sam Bennett - the other remaining sprinters will have fearfully taken note of his presence in the reduced bunch that made it to the finish.
Although he could not quite out-class the great Peter Sagan, the 24-year old did nevertheless manage to defeat an esteemed line-up of sprinters, with Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) all left in his wake in third, fourth and seventh place respectively.
Having contributed so much to Jumbo-Visma’s stage two team time trial triumph, as well as enjoying a stint in the white jersey, this is turning out to be some debut Tour de France from the prodigiously talented multiple cyclocross champion.
A battle for the breakaway
One of the most entertaining aspects of a stage like today is the initial battle among breakaway specialists to get into the escape group.
It’s days like this that we can relish broadcasters’ decisions to show the whole race from start to finish. Right from the off there was a flurry of determined attacks, with some pretty big names mixing it up - Lotto-Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt (inevitably), sprinter Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), and even eventual runner-up Wout van Aert all tried their luck, while British veteran Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) could also be seen towards the front of a race seeking an opportunity.
Eventually, after over 20km of intense racing, a four-man group was successful, featuring polka-dot jersey Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Simon Clarke (EF Education First), Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo) and Mads Würtz Schmidt (Katusha-Alpecin) was successful, allowing the race to calm down for a while.
Although it was a strong group, the peloton showed no desire to let it succeed and ensured they were kept within touching distance, meaning there was no exciting contest between the break attempting to survive and the sprinters’ teams trying to bring them back.
The final survivor of the four - Skujiņš - was swept up on the final climb with 22km still left to ride.
Not a day for the pure sprinters
With four categorised climbs on the parcours, it was always going to be a big ask for the pure sprinters to contest today's stage, and indeed the only rider to finish in the top seven from yesterday’s bunch sprint who was still present in the 77-man peloton to contest today’s finish was the winner, Sagan.
The penultimate climb, the category two Côte des Trois-Epis, proved to be too much for most, with Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and yesterday’s winner Elia Viviani (Deceununick-Quick-Step) all having been distanced before its summit.
Spare a thought for Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension-Data), who did manage to get over that climb, only to suffer a mechanical on the foot of the final climb. The Norwegian put in some effort to catch back up just 9km until the finish, but was clearly too tired to sprint at his best and could only manage twelfth place.
It’s stages like this where the real contenders for the green jersey come to the fore. After yesterday’s stage Viviani placed second in the points classification, but has now fallen behind Michael Matthews (Sunweb) with Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) hot on his heels - both of whom were present in the lead group, and look likely to be Sagan’s closest challengers.
Rui Costa spices up the finale
A bunch sprint was not guaranteed until 2km from the finish, when a dangerous-looking move from Rui Costa (UAE Emirates) was at last shut down.
The Portuguese rider made a move 8km from the finish, and capitalised on the lack of fully-stocked lead-out trains in the reduced bunch to dangle off the front with a handy lead of between 10-15 seconds.
It was the kind of canny tactical move that used to be Rui Costa’s trademark, although it’s now been six years since the last of his three career Tour stage victories.
Perhaps if the 32-year old still had the legs of old he might have been able to hold on for victory, but ultimately an urgent chase from the likes of Bora-Hansgrohe and Sunweb - for whom leader Michael Matthews even put in a turn - neutralised his threat.
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