The riders lined up for the start as advertised, Geraint Thomas to the fore, in Formula 1 grid-style formation.
Kind-of. If you squinted and pretended it made any sense.
The riders had brought their A-game of casually deliberate.
Sitting astride top-tubes, wrists a-rest on bars, and impassive. Whoever had made the decision to start this stage with riders staggered in rank order had perhaps never seen a bike race. Or heard of cycling.
It was a decision, as ITV’s David Millar put it, made over a long lunch.
The tension rose. The start lights went out, and…
The riders clipped in, slowly, deliberately, and rolled lazily away. The pack of the peloton shuffled, team-mates found team-mates and assumed a position, and we had a fully-formed standard-issue peloton ready to race.
The “B” of the bang stage start experiment done, and indeed dusted.Embed from Getty Images
The stage, though, was underway, and that’s a pretty crucial component of any bike race, so we’ll take the positives. And as stages go it was short (65 kilometres) and sharp, with three big climbs, culminating in the – and there’s really no other word for it…brutal – Col du Portet.
The first climb thinned the peloton, allowing it to shed sprinters and tired riders, and established a smattering of groups up the road. In the thick of things – naturellement – was our polka-dotted hero Julian Alaphilippe.
The second climb saw further developments, with Sky bossing the front until Romain Bardet put his young upstart teammate Pierre Latour to work as the summit approached. Bardet, you see, is a skilled and daredevil descender. He was setting something up. No doubt. Here it comes. Any minute now.
The swallow dive over the summit never came.
Latour, turned inside out, for nothing.
At the base of that final climb Alaphilippe, tired at last, gave the classic throat-slit gesture for the cameras. Done. So Nairo Quintana was the man to make a move. He borrowed the wheels of teammates Soler, and Valverde, before launching clear, alone, with a lead that he’d never lose.
Dan Martin, gasping and chasing like a demented wind instrument got close, but no cigar.
And behind, a grinding attrition was underway.
It was exciting, in the same way as growing your own vegetables is exciting; slow-motion, time-lapse attacks from Roglic, Froome and Dumoulin, that promised to produce something edible, eventually.
The unfortunate Bardet was cooked, his Tour all but gone.Embed from Getty Images
Froome, on the other hand, was showing imperious control. Back and forth through the group, sizing things up, a word for Geraint Thomas here, a quick chat on the radio there.
He began to lose wheels.
The yo-yoing no longer looking like a plan.
And a trademark time-trial attack from Dumoulin did for him.
Froome called back Bernal, in need of help, but to no avail. The combined weight of a Tour de France, a Giro d’italia, and a Vuelta Espana finally, after 10,000 kilometres, had caught up with him.
He needs another of his near miracles to come back from this.
At the run in Thomas, capping a consummate Yellow Jersey ride, nipped a handful of seconds from Roglic and Dumoulin and settled the Sky leadership debate for another day.
Casual, yet deliberate.
(Top Geraint Thomas Image: By Hoebele [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)