Stage nine, across the cobblestones of northern France, was always going to be about survival.
Could the various GC contenders – flimsy mountain climbers almost to a man – limit their losses and avoid catastrophe in the domain of the one-day specialists?
The answer to that questions was, barring a few unfortunates, yes. How, is another matter entirely.
I would love to talk you through the various incidents that led to John Degenkolb winning a sprint against Greg van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert, and saw the main GC contenders finishing largely together and intact just a short distance behind. But short of sitting in front of a complete re-run of todays race with notebook to hand, that ‘aint going to happen.
So, what exactly did happen on today’s stage between Arras and Roubaix?
In a word, everything:
Degenkolb was emotional at the finish, looking like a man who’d narrowly survived the big set piece shoot-out at the end of an action movie. He was only a tight white vest away from Bruce Willis at his most knowingly heroic.
Richie Porte ended the race, as he does so often, sitting roadside, teary-eyed and clutching an apparent broken bone. You’d have to have a cobblestone for a heart not to feel for the guy.Embed from Getty Images
Chris Froome had a crash (of course) but managed to fight his way through in the company of the main group. Mikel Landa hit the Tarmac hard whilst taking a slurp from his drinks bottle and also, slightly implausibly after seeing him lie in a tangle of bikes of riders, managed to haul himself back into contact.
The conspiracy theorist in me can’t quite shake the thought that Alejandro Valverde had surreptitiously slipped a fistful of salt into that bottle and Landa’s crash was a direct result of an overstimulated gag reflex.
But the man of the day was Romain Bardet.
The French hope.
A slight, will ‘o’ the wisp of a rider, he had clearly climbed the wrong side out of bed and stepped on a black cat. His luck, all day, was out.Embed from Getty Images
I counted four mechanical issues during the stage.
The final one – a front wheel puncture with but a few K’s to go – left him alone on the road, with neither team mates to help or a group of fellow riders to hook up with. Any chances he had of winning the Tour were, at that moment, in the balance.
He shook his head momentarily, flashing a look at the camera that suggested he considers cobbles to be not the domain of cyclists, but savages. Either that, or he was simply willing the cameraman to f**k right off.
How he managed to chase back and catch up with the main group of contenders is lost to the director’s cut of today’s stage. If Bardet comes back to win the whole thing that, right there, was the brink.