The murmurs, as they often do, began on social media. It happens every year. Suggestions that this edition of the Tour is ‘boring’, ‘predictable’, ‘lacking excitement’.
A couple of ho-hum stages and the negativity sets in.
For Stage 7, from Millau to Lavaur, the teams decided to put a stop to this.
On paper it looked like a lumpy, Massif Central kind of a stage. Tough roads, not much in the way of flat, but a probable bunch sprint. Over in the Bora Hansgrohe team bus they were brainstorming ideas.
“Right lads, Twitter says this is all a bit boring…any ideas?” wondered team boss Ralph Denk, stepping out from the on-board team-issue Raindance premium shower, towel around his waist, water dribbling down the aisle.
“How about we just go balls-out from the flag and kick the shit out of everyone?” offered Daniel Oss, with a shrug.
“I like it…if we drop Sam Bennett, Peter can sweep up the bonus points and get the Green Jersey back?” suggested Lukas Postlberger, “what you think Pete?”
“I like,” agreed Sagan, with a nod.
So they did.
The pace was ferocious, the likes of Bennett and Caleb Ewan shelled out the back like a pair of plump pistachios, and our entertainment was underway.Embed from Getty Images
Over in the Ineos team car they too were concerned about the entertainment levels, and so they did what Ineos do: they engaged a crack team of boffins to marginal-gain the f*** out of the weather.
By feeding twenty-years-worth of data into a massive bespoke spreadsheet they established that when the race turns right upon leaving the town of Castres with thirty-five kilometres to go a hefty cross-tailwind would splinter the peloton like a dry log at the blade of a well-sharpened axe.
Which it did.
Michal Kwiatkowski (among others) gave it the beans, echelons formed as riders spread across the road in search of shelter behind others, and our bike race had become a bare-knuckle brawl.
Run out of road while seeking shelter and you find yourself spat back into a second group. Then a third. Mikel Landa would lose time, as would Tadej Pogacar and Richie Porte.
And I put it to you that nothing – sprints, mountains, sprints up mountains – is more exciting than echelons in a bike race!Embed from Getty Images
Team Jumbo Visma, of course, remained in tight control of all their faculties and well clear of any peril. This year, 2020, tight control being their modus operandi. But to their credit, they also stepped up to address the perceived entertainment deficit.
At breakfast, team boss Richard Plugge held court amongst the tightly regulated selection of nuts, grains, and non-dairy milks.
“Wout, would you like to win today or should it be someone else?” he asked Van Aert, world number-one and the-man-who-can-do-it-all™.
“Yes Richard, I would like to win.”
“Ok then, win.”
“Right, I will.”
And he did.Embed from Getty Images
With Ewan, Bennett, and other pure sprinters several miles back down the road and adrift in the crosswinds, Van Aert had the likes of Sagan, Boasson Hagen and Coquard to deal with. While Sagan bumped and barged and the others blustered and blew our man Wout simply pedalled, then pedalled harder as he got near to the finish line.
Not exciting because there was jeopardy and doubt, but exciting because oh-my-goodness-he’s-flippin’-well-won-again!
From here, the race heads off for two days in the high Pyrenees.
Adam Yates still has a Yellow Jersey to defend.
Twitter seems happy again.