The Tour de France was in trouble. 19 stages in, three weeks since the race kicked off in Copenhagen at the beginning of July, there had still been no French winner. It did not look likely on stage 19 either, a day that was designated as one for the fast men, something France is lacking a true example of at this year's race.
With just a time trial and the final sprint stage in Paris to come, it was looking difficult to find hope for France. Step forward Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma). The man from Toulon attacked with 400 metres to go, catching the sprinters by surprise, and held on to take the biggest victory of his career to date.
Not since 2016 has a French stage win come so late, when Romain Bardet triumphed in Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc on stage 19. Not since 2006 has there been no French stage win, so this was important.
It was fitting that the first French win at the Tour since stage one of last year's race - 391 days ago - happened in Cahors, the birthplace of Leon Gambetta, the man who is held responsible for proclaiming the French Third Republic, finally ending centuries of monarchical rule. Just like the Third Republic finally ended the days of Napoleon III, Laporte ended the dearth of French success at their home race.
To put their dry spell into perspective, Denmark can claim four stage wins at this race, a country with a population of 5.83 million. They also have the yellow jersey through Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). This is despite having just ten riders on the startlist at the beginning. France has 67.39 million people, and had 32 natives on the start in Copenhagen. The odds would say they'd have produced a Tour stage winner by now, but no.
Laporte is from La Seyne-sur-Mer, about 500km away from today's stage, so hardly the most local winner of this Tour; that goes to Wout van Aert for his win in Calais on stage four, just over 200km from his Belgian hometown. However, it must have felt like a local victory, with delighted fans streaming home from the streets of Cahors.
"A lot of French people probably paid attention to this victory," Laporte said in his post-stage press conference. "I’m very happy to deliver the first French victory, even if it comes at the end of the Tour. If I’ve made French people happy, then I’m happy too."
He would be happy, this the 139th stage win he had completed. In that time he has finished in the top ten 19 times before Friday, and in the top five ten times.
Asked if this was the best win of his career, the Frenchman said: "I want to say yes, but I don’t forget my stage win in Paris-Nice. It’s hard to choose between the wins, but the Tour remains the Tour, so this remains the nicest day of my career."
It is no coincidence that this first Tour win, and his biggest win, came in the year that he moved to Jumbo-Visma after eight years at Cofidis, the team that famously cannot buy a Tour stage.
"My move to Jumbo-Visma contributed 100% to this victory," he explained. "We worked a lot before the races, I always repeat that. It has been a two month preparation at altitude, and one week at the Dauphiné.
"A lot of things have changed in my preparation since I joined Jumbo-Visma. As far as this goes, nutrition, equipment, all the riders here are excellent. This is the elite. Thanks to them, I have confidence in myself that I never had before, and it’s thanks to them that I won today."
The Tour de Jumbo
This might have been France's first stage win of the 2022 Tour de France, but it was Jumbo-Visma's fifth, after two a piece for Wout van Aert and Jonas Vingegaard. The pair are also hold the green, yellow and polka dot jerseys between them, naturally. This has been the Tour de Jumbo.
What must be terrifying for their rivals is the last two stages could go there way too - Van Aert won both the final time trial and the final stage sprint at last year's Tour. There is no reason to think this could not happen again.
"It has been an incredible Tour for us so far," race leader Jonas Vingegaard said. "Five stage wins, the yellow, the green, the polka dot. An incredible Tour, and hopefully tomorrow as well. We just have to do our best and hopefully at least I can bring the yellow jersey to Paris. We’re not there yet, I have to do a good time trial tomorrow."
Tomorrow's time trial is almost a moot point, as the Dane is over three minutes up on his nearest rival, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). The Slovenian basically admitted this yesterday, but Vingegaard is not the kind of person to celebrate early, or possibly celebrate too much at all.
He has not given much away in his press conferences throughout his run in the lead. Laporte, meanwhile, was much more happy to be confident about Jumbo-Visma's chances.
"I think it’s possible [to win twice more]," he said. "Already with 5 stage victories we’re very happy. Wout is motivated for tomorrow. Will he win, I don’t know. Wout already won on the Champs-Élysées last year. Where we’re at now is already huge, and we hope to savour it more tomorrow."
The Dutch team's dominance is so much that it must be boring for other teams; there will be at least ten squads that go home from this race having not won a single stage, or any of the jerseys.
"That question makes me laugh," Laporte said when asked if they should let other teams win. "We work very hard for this, we never do too much. We do the maximum we can. We already have Wout van Wert and he can win a lot. And then with Jonas, we have one of the best climbers in the world. No other riders came to us to ask us if they could win."
Their supremacy might not be over yet, disappointingly for other teams looking to get into the act. They can win on supposed sprint days, in the mountains, on rolling terrain, and there is no reason why they can't win a time trial. The yellow machine rolls on.
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