Stage six, a mammoth mission through the Vosges mountains, was to be a litmus test. Not big mountains, but a big mountain stage – seven climbs in all – for us to find out who’s got form and who hasn’t.
The pre-stage hype was in full effect. The upper slopes of La Planche were, of course, brutal and epic. Someone cranked the one-armed bandit of clichés to advise us that you can’t win the race here but you can definitely lose it. We named names, the men most likely; Quintana, Yates(s), Landa, and a new, but still old, super-skinny Valverde.
We wondered whether Yellow Jersey, King Julian Alaphilippe, could survive with the big contenders and keep his race lead for another day. Many of us thought not.
Thibaut Pinot, on his home roads, we concluded, would be fine.
Geraint Thomas, I told anyone who would listen, would lose some time. Short, steep climbs are not his thing, I pointed out.
Dan Martin might have a go.
But bike races, especially big, mountainous ones, are hard to predict. It’s a fool game.
Let’s start with Pinot; he was indeed fine. Pedalling through whole paragraphs of Pinot road graffiti, the local hero, he was sprightly and perky and, on the finale on La Planche, right up at the business end. He finished among the best placed of the General Classification contenders.
In six stages to date we’ve had no steady drip of leaking time. No mishaps. No accidents. His biggest problem, right now, is that France is starting to think he might be able to win le Tour.
Pinot, and pressure, have got history.
Stay cool Thibaut…stay cool France.Embed from Getty Images
His countryman Alaphilippe, digging into that deep well of ebullient character, did indeed ride with the favourites. Right until the final kilometre when, briefly, he rode away from them, sparking Thomas into life. He, underprepared and under-raced according to many observers, clawed Alaphilippe back and pipped him on the line.
From there, it was dribs and drabs; Quintana, Yates, Fuglsang, Landa and back to Uran, Woods and, ultimately Romain Bardet. Losing time. The great French hope of previous years wrangling his way up the brutal slopes, broken, his ambitions ebbing away.
Expectation, passed on, to Pinot.
None of which tells the story of stage winners and Yellow Jerseys.
From a day long break-away we were whittled down on the finale of that final climb to Giulio Ciccone and Dylan Teuns. Ciccone the King of the Mountains at the recent Giro d’Italia, Teuns a Belgian, and recent stage winner at the Criterium du Dauphine. Not names on lips pre-stage, but men in form.
Ciccone, the pure climber, perhaps the favourite, but Teuns saw it differently. In the final few hundred metres he dished out great legfulls of power, from a seated position, in slow-motion. Ciccone danced, and fought, and was then broken, mere metres from the line.
Agonised, and disappointed, his day ruined.
Teuns, the delighted victor.
A man at the finish with a big stopwatch – that’s how the timing works, right? – was on the ball. He clicked once as Ciccone crossed the line, then watched, and waited, and clicked a second time upon the appearance of King Julian.
Add the bonus seconds.
Quick bit of maths.
Et voila…congratulations Monsieur Ciccone. If you’d like to follow me we’ll get you measured up for that Yellow Jersey.
They’ve already got one ready in Thibaut Pinot’s size. Just in case.