'We tried to make the impossible possible' - Clever, strong breakaway foils the sprinters at Tour de France

It was supposed to be a day for a bunch sprint in Bourg-en-Bresse, yet Kasper Asgreen won. What happened?

Kasper Asgreen of Denmark and Team Soudal - Quick Step, Victor Campenaerts of Belgium and Team Lotto Dstny, Jonas Abrahamsen of Norway and Uno-X Pro Cycling Team and Pascal Eenkhoorn of The Netherlands and Team Lotto Dstny compete in the breakaway during the stage eighteen of the 110th Tour de France 2023
(Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

France is an enormous country, something the bike race which bears its name, the Tour de France, all too readily shows. On Thursday morning, at the start of stage 18, the race was in the Alps, Moûtiers, to be specific, in the shadow of several huge mountains. Just a few hours later, the race finished in Bourg-en-Bresse, a town which feels like it’s on a different planet, surrounded on almost all sides by fields.

Stage 18 showed it at its largest, but it has always felt this big, possibly bigger in the past. 

"France was immense, composed of populations distinguished by the food they ate and their ways of speaking,” the French writer and Nobel Prize laureate Annie Ernaux writes in The Years. “In July, the riders of the Tour cycled across the country, and we followed them stage by stage on the Michelin map tacked onto the kitchen wall. 

“Most people spent their lives within the same fifty kilometres, and when the church trembled with the first triumphal bars of the hymn 'In Our Home Be Queen', we knew that home meant the place we lived, the town, or at most the département. The gateway to the exotic was the nearest big town, the rest of the world unreal."

Stage 18 was one of those stages which felt like it showed the enormity of France. It might have been just 185km long, but it seemed like it was taking the race back to a different world, that of La France profonde, the country made up of so much space and provincial life.

Transition days always show off the vastness of France of at its best. Thursday was supposed to be a stage for helicopter shots of fields and bunting, one which ended in a bunch sprint, with everybody satisfied. It turned out, not everyone was happy with that plan.

An early breakaway of Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Dstny), Kasper Asgreen (Soudal Quick-Step), and Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X) attacked essentially from the flag, committed to being a fly in the sprinter's teams ointment. They were later joined by Pascal Eenkhoorn (Lotto-Dstny), but it never seemed likely they would stay away. What are four guys compared to the might of the peloton?

Well. Despite their advantage never exceeding two minutes, the quartet managed to hold on to contest for the victory at the end of the day, spoiling the day for the fast men. Asgreen won, with Eenkhoorn second and Abrahamsen third, but it was a win for all of the escapees, in a way.

"I think we played it very well," Campenaerts said post-stage. "Watching the race, some people thought 'what are those Lotto-Dstny guys doing?' After the race - we didn't pull it off - but people will say that it was a smart move. We tried to make the impossible possible. We lost our sprinter, and in a sprint stage we still got quite close to the victory."

On a stage that felt destined to be a sleepy day crossing the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, showing almost all of it off, the excitement of the result got the better of it. France might be big, but four men pushing at their absolute limit can conquer it.

Lotto Dstny's Belgian rider Victor Campenaerts, Lotto Dstny's Dutch rider Pascal Eenkhoorn, Soudal Quick-Step's Danish rider Kasper Asgreen and Uno-X Pro Cycling Team's Norwegian rider Jonas Abrahamsen cycle in a breakaway during the 18th stage of the 110th edition of the Tour de France cycling race

(Image credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

Winner Asgreen knew from past experiences that this kind of breakaway could work, especially in the third week, after all the mountains of the past fortnight. There was also no need for conversation in the escape.

"I’ve been on the other end of stages like this quite a few times and it’s not the first time that, in the last week of the Tour a small group of escapees can mange a victory like this," he said. 

"To be honest we didn’t speak at all. Everybody committed and I think there was an understanding between everybody that if this was to work out we couldn't look at each other we had to save everything, we had to put it all into it and if we did that we could get victory today."

"We played it well, and also Asgreen and Abrahamsen did a hard job," Campenaerts added. "There was a very good collaborationship [sic]. There was never one turn skipped until the sprint started. This was needed to stay in front, it was very close. I was the only rider caught by the peloton, but we were really going for Pascal in the sprint. It's bittersweet, but also in that there's a sweet part."

It was not just tired legs in the peloton which led to the break winning, however, but clever tactics..

"It's the third week, but there was also a really strong break," Lotto-Dsnty rider Florian Vermeersch said post-stage. "Victor, Kasper Asgreen, Abrahamsen, and then Pascal in the end. They just played it really smart. They used the peloton, they played a bit with them. On the hills we made it a bit of a hard race where they had to respond to everything, I think in the end all the small things added up. It's actually a pity that we finished second, but we tried."

Despite the plan, it was difficult to believe that there was a chance to go, with the gap never increasing enough to allow those in the break to think they had any hope of victory.

"I was hoping, but we had one minute all day," Abrahamsen said. "With 10km to go, we had 20 seconds. It's unbelievable that we were top three today. It's very cool. I was just focused on being first there in the end, so I didn't think about the peloton behind. It was lucky, that they didn't catch us today."

France may be big, the exotic might be just beyond the nearest big town, but on a hot day in the middle of L'Hexagone, four men conquered it, beat the peloton, and made it look small. With passion, simple.

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.