It was hot in France on Tuesday. So hot that thirty départements were issued with heat wave warnings by the national meteorological agency. This included the Puy-de-Dôme, where the entirety of the 10th stage of the 2023 Tour de France would be raced.
Temperatures soared through the volcanic landscape of the Auvergne, so much that journalists were instructed that a defibrillator and a first aid kit were on hand in the press room, should they be needed.
Amidst the heat, the 170 riders tackled one of the hardest stages of the Tour so far, one that was raced at breakneck speed from the gun. It was not hard because of excessive distance, or climbing - 3151m over 167km is brutal but not unusual - but because of the way it was ridden.
The post-rest day stage was always marked as one for the breakaway, and so it proved - with so many riders knowing that Tuesday was one for an escape, the action lit up as soon as the flag had been dropped. Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) was the eventual deserving winner, but there was so much to stage 10 than a fight to the line.
The stage started with the third category Col de la Moreno from kilometre 0, which meant there were a lot of riders attempting to get away, infiltrate breaks, and shake things up. General classification riders, including Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), either fought to get into moves, or found themselves off the front.
The man who finished third on the stage, AG2R Citroën's Ben O'Connor, was one of those who were caught out at the explosive finish, with GC hopefuls like Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) also out the back early on.
"It was a cool stage, I'm a bit sad I lost though," the Australian said. "It's a lot of effort you put in, not to win. I really wanted to have another Tour de France victory, so I'm a little disappointed to be honest.
"I was dropped at the start too, I think I was probably last man over the first climb. It really touched all parts of cycling, and the suffering parts of cycling. With the heat too, a little bit of wind on top of the plateau, you really had it all today.
"Yeah [I expected it] but not that bad. I've had some pretty bad starts, and some hard ones, but that's probably the hardest start I've had in cycling."
Esteban Chaves (EF Education-EasyPost), who finished fifth on the stage, was blunt: "It was pretty tough. It's an art to be at the front. It's about guts and balls."
If even climbers were being dropped, then the whole peloton was suffering. Multiple breaks were established, but it took an hour for the one that went to the finish to form. Even then, though, there was no let up in the pace: the presence of Bilbao in the front group was a concerning one for teams hoping to preserve their GC places in the top 10. As a result, the pace kept high. This was no ordinary day where the breakaway was formed and then allowed to ride away.
"It was fast all day," Bilbao's Bahrain teammate Jack Haig said post-finish. "It was pretty easy to see how hard it was with guys like Gaudu and Bardet losing time at the very beginning. We went super fast at the start, and I think it took longer than an hour for the breakaway to actually form. Then all day was quite fast, because Pello was moving up on GC and a lot of teams weren't super happy with it, do it was quite a hard, hot day."
One feels most for the sprinters, the fast men who are not designed for this terrain. Even if the rest day meant fresh-ish legs, those fresh legs then had to race hard all day through central France.
"The start was pretty tough," Sam Welsford (dsm-firmenich) told Cycling Weekly. "They were jumping fast on the first climb, and everyone knew it was going to be hard, with a 5km climb to start. Then everyone was jumping. I heard on the radio that Tadej and Vingegaard were jumping, so you could tell it was going to be so difficult. You could tell that the bunch were going hard. Ineos were riding on the front, so then even when the break came back, the pace was still hard.
"A lot of guys were still getting sent, including me. Once you're in a group, of about 15, it's kind of alright. We had Jayco there working, so we had a lot of help from those boys too. It's all about getting to the next finish as well as you can ready for the next sprint day.
"Eventually the race settled, but it took a long time for that. Everyone knew it was going to be like that, these GC guys could sneak into the break and take back time. [Romain] Bardet was in the move before, but unfortunately they saw the danger in that and brought in back. The day after the rest day everyone feels good and just wants to dump it. I think tomorrow might be a bit easier."
Wednesday's stage looks much more doable, with 1873m of climbing across 180km. It should be a sprint stage, and with temperatures possibly back below 30 degrees, it will be a welcome change to Tuesday's volcanic efforts. A relief for many.
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