Yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Emirates team looks vulnerable as the Tour de France’s two biggest stages loom, members of Ineos Grenadiers concluded after a difficult day for the Slovenian.
At the beginning of the Tour’s tenth stage Pogačar lost key domestique George Bennett, when he tested positive for Covid. That left UAE Emirate two riders down after Vegard Stake Laengen had to leave the Tour on stage eight.
UAE remained present at the front of the race for much of the stage but were forced to concede over eight minutes to Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) who lifted himself into second place in the race after a day in the breakaway.
Rod Ellingworth, Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal, said: “I think they're vulnerable aren’t they? Of course they are. They will be thinking if they lose another man, certainly if they're lost Rafal Majka, they'd be in trouble.”
That possibility seemed all the more realistic after Majka tested positive for Covid in the morning but had too low a cycle threshold score - which is an indicator of infectiousness - to be taken out of the race.
Ellingworth added: “It’s part of the game now. I don’t see it as any different to the normal set of health issues. At the end of the day it’s about keeping riders healthy so that’s always been part of the programme.”
Geraint Thomas, now sitting just off the podium in fourth, 1-17 off yellow, added: “It’ll have an impact for sure, George was one of his strongest guys in the mountains, with [Brandon] McNulty and Rafal [Majka]. But I think once you have a jersey on the team and you’ve all got someone like Pogacar to ride for you can all up your game.
“There's been times in the past when we were riding for Froomey and we had a bad day and we looked really vulnerable, but you bounce back and you stick together and I'm sure that's what they're going to do.”
Anyone at Ineos Grenadiers will tell you that the team has for a long time had fairly robust infection minimisation programmes but UAE Emirates are not much different.
Pogačar confirmed that the whole team had been isolating from each other whenever possible, with no riders sharing rooms. “I think the problem is that we race among so many people, a big bunch of the crowds we are in close contact with, with many people on the road,” he said.
There was even suspicion UAE Emirate might have been keen for Kämna to take the yellow jersey to alleviate them of the responsibility of defending it but Pogačar denied that saying the size of the advantage the break on stage 10 was allowed was because “it wasn’t necessary to ride hard”.
On the face of it UAE now has three strong teams, Jumbo-Visma, Ineos and now Bora-Hansgrohe positioned to attack it.
Kämna was rueing what might have been: “It’s not that we give presents to each other, we are all fighting for the good position and yellow jersey stage positions, and I don’t expect anyone to just give me anything, especially not the maillot jaune. They gave me a lot of time which isn’t completely typical so I can almost say thanks [because] they gave me the chance, but I didn’t use it.”
The 25 year-old German who placed in the top 20 of the Giro d'Italia in May while helping team-mate Jai Hindley win pink, said he wasn’t going to waste his new-found position. “For sure I will try to see where I stand [for top-10 overall] and not just give up now but the thing is if you are in the breakaway you lose a lot of energy getting in and then riding in the wind today, especially with the day tomorrow I can imagine I will probably struggle a little bit.
“I will see how it goes. I will try to hang on as long as possible.”
Both Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates said they’d welcome a situation developing on the road where it was in their interested to work together. However, Thomas added: “I’m not going to be calling up Primoz to try and make a plan… We have to try and reduce that gap to Jonas[Vingegaard] and Pogačar but there are a lot of other guys in the race as well we can’t be too focused on them.”
One tactic open to the British squad is to use Tom Pidcock, who is now eighth on GC, 1-46 down on Pogacar, to go up the road and put pressure on UAE. He attempted to get into the break at the beginning of stage 10.
Ellingworth didn’t rule it out. “The thing for Tom is it’s a bit of land of the unknown,” he said. “He’s never been here before he’s here to soak up the Tour in its entirety. You can see that first few days he was on the front but he’s there on GC, why do anything other than try and race? We’re going to push and we’re going to not just be sat in the peloton and follow we’re going to be aggressive.”
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