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CHALON-SUR-SAONE, FRANCE - JULY 12: Arrival /...

Time is running out for the Tour de France’s pure sprinters

Just three flat stages remain at this year's Tour de France, and the race's pure sprinters must survive the hills and hight mountains to reach them

CHALON-SUR-SAÔNE (VN) – The ‘Last Chance Saloon’ will soon open for those pure sprinters who are still without a stage win at this year’s Tour de France.

After Friday’s fast finish in this small French village, just three flat stages remain for the pure sprinters: the 167km 11th stage from Albi to Toulouse; 177km 16th stage in Nîmes; and 128km 21st stage to Paris.

Elia Viviani (Decuninck-Quick Step), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), and Mr. versatility Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) have all tallied victories thus far. But the time is now running out for Andre Greipel (Team Arkea-Samsic), Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and others.

And as a cruel twist, organizers have packed plenty of climbing into the Tour’s second and third weeks. The uphills started on Thursday at La Planche des Belles Filles, and continue on Saturday with an extremely challenging day in the Massif Central for stage eight, 200km from Mâcon to Saint Etienne. Later comes the brutal haul across the Pyrenées before stage 16 and then the Alps before stage 21.

And with these days in the mountains comes the ever-present hazard – possibly fear – of missing out on the daily time limit. Readers may remember the 2018 Tour de France, when many of the race’s top sprinters were time cut during a trio of mountainous stages in the Alps.

Greipel needs to survive the mountains if he wants to challenge for the sprint stage in week 3. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

So, the race’s heavy sprinters now face the brutal reality that, in order to win the few remaining flat stages, they must push themselves to the limit to avoid the time cut in the mountains.

In a potentially cruel twist, one of the most dangerous stages could be the penultimate and 20th stage from Albertville to Val Thorens in the Alps. The 130km stage includes the first category 19.9km long Cormet de Roseland and second category 6.6km Côte de Longefoy before the 33.4km climb to the summit finish at Val Thorens. It should be a lightning fast stage with it offering the overall contenders a last chance to make a difference – and possibly fight for the Tour victory – before the final day into Paris.

Oh, the agony — to fall out of the time limit on the Tour’s last climb and on the eve of reaching Paris.

It is a scenario that can add pressure, but for three pure sprinters they can still draw on their experience as last stage winners in Paris – Greipel (2016), Groenewegen (2017) and Kristoff (2018).

Kristoff told VeloNews that his secret to success could be to weather the climbs and then pounce on his fatigued foes on the final stage into Paris—similar to what he accomplished in 2018.

“I know I can perform, but I also know that I’m usually not as fast as Viviani or Groenewegen, but then then they get more tired our differences, gets less and less,” Kristoff said. “Maybe in the last sprint stages I am faster than them? We’ll stay motivated on to Paris as long as I’m here. I know for all the sprinters there is that final stage. We have one more chance.”

But that is Kristoff. The mountainous terrain poses a different challenge for different fast men. There is no trademark formula for how a sprinter can find his motivation to win in the Tour’s second half.

The stimulus for Greipel’s charge towards his 2016 victory over Sagan and Kristof on the Champs Elysées in Paris – his 11th and last in the race – even surprised his team at the time, Lotto-Soudal.

Lotto-Soudal manager Marc Sergeant recalled that Greipel was not only frustrated for himself about being winless prior to the Tour’s final stage that year. He said Greipel also felt guilty for having not repaid his teammates for their work to set him up for an aspired victory.

Sagan already has his victory; he’d like to add another stage win or two. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“Of course, it’s easy to say we want to win earlier,” recounted Sergeant. “With Andre, he couldn’t grab it [the win] and then he was so angry at himself because he hadn’t won.”

Greipel’s solution? He woke up the next morning and stunned Sergeant by telling him that he wanted to attack that day on stage 12, 178km from Montpellier to Chalet Reynard on Mont Ventoux.

“He said, ‘I’m going to go in the break. That didn’t make sense,” said Sergeant. “But it was great for Thomas De Gendt. He didn’t say, ‘I want to be in the break,’ but he thought [with Greipel’s willingness to try to get in the break], ‘That’s good. We will have one the break and I will be there as well.’”

Once Greipel and De Gendt got into the move, Greipel worked tirelessly as De Gendt’s domestique.

“Andre was fighting for him, doing the work for him,” said Sergeant. “When [De Gendt] was calling for the car, he said, ‘No … I’m going to go bring some drinks.’
“He wanted to give something back to the guys. He was feeling guilty, because he hadn’t won a stage, and [thinking, how the team,] ‘Worked so much for me, and finally I can do something.’”

De Gendt won the stage. Greipel finished alone in 33rd place at 9 minutes 30 seconds, but the weight of guilt was off his shoulders. Sergeant agrees that Greipel’s effort that day was an absolution of sorts.

“That was a big relief for Andre. Then he went on to win on the Champs Elysées,” said Sergeant.

Sergeant has cited Greipel’s turn of fortune to his Tour team here to show how the tables can turn in the Tour. The Lotto-Soudal team has worked as hard for Ewan who is in first Tour, as it did for Greipel.

Ewan is also discovering the difference between the Tour and Giro d’Italia where he won two stages this year. “He’s fighting like hell, you know, for position,” said Sergeant. “In the Giro it’s okay. It’s more polite there. It doesn’t exist here, that word polite. Everybody’s there [in a Tour sprint]. It’s the ‘GC’ contenders or another sprinter. they all fighting like hell for that corner or that narrow stretch.”

Caleb Ewan (left) has not yet won a stage. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Ewen has remained stoic, if not calm about his near misses. He was second in Friday’s 230km seventh stage from Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône won by Groenewegen and third on stage one in Brussels and on stage four to Nancy where Viviani added a career first Tour win to his stage victories in the Giro and the Vuelta a España. As

“I’m disappointed, but that’s the way racing goes,” he said. “There have been plenty of times when I’ve missed out in the first few stages and I’ve come back.”

Ewan was equally as calm on Friday after Groenewegen pipped him on the line by the breadth of a tyre.

“I think I’m the type of guy that doesn’t lose my cool too much and yeah, I’m happy with how the team is going and I know my speed is there and it’s just going to take a few more stages,” he said.

Sergeant has not discounted the possibility of creating an out of the box opportunity for Ewan either. Perhaps the diminutive fast man can play a role in a team victory for De Gendt, Tim Wellens, or another breakaway rider. He does not underestimate the potential of the lumpier stages in between the Pyrénees and Alps should the sprinters’ teams somehow find a way to manage the breakaways and force a bunch sprint.

“Sometimes we create other opportunities,” he said. “Maybe we can take control at a certain moment when everybody thinks, ‘This is not a sprint stage, but all of a sudden it is. It can happen.”