On a stage that many predicted would be a mellow day with a sprint finish quickly turned into a chaotic battle in the winds of the Auvergne, blowing apart the GC battle and allowing a reduced peloton to sprint for the line in Albi. The ascendant Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) shocked the sprinters who remained in the lead group, including Elia Viviani (Decueninck-Quick-Step), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Jumbo-Visma), and Michael Matthews (Sunweb), among others, to take the win.
“I can’t believe it. Beating all of the fast guys in the sprint — I’m sorry, I can’t believe it,” Van Aert said as he choked up after the stage. “It’s above anything else. I felt that the last 10 days were our biggest races and winning in my first attempt — wow.”
But the real story was the GC carnage. At the end of the day, five of the top 10 GC riders at the beginning of the day lost significant time: Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) lost 1:40. Mikel Landa (Movistar) lost 2:09. George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) lost an astounding 9:41.
“It’s disappointing but the race goes on,” Porte said after the stage. “It was just a power thing to be honest. When they put it in the gutter on the left-hand side, it was just a different thing and I just wasn’t up to it today.
“There were quite a lot of other GC guys in my boat as well, so now we have to do something but there’s still a lot of hard racing to come,” Porte continued.
With just under 40km to go, members of EF Education First and Team Ineos amassed at the front of the peloton and tried to split the field. With echelons forming and the field strung out in single file, chaos ensued. At a roundabout, the field split, with some riders and teams going the long way around. Several GC contenders got gapped: Bennett, who was back at his team car gathering water bottles, Pinot, Porte, Urán, Landa, and Fuglsang were among those caught behind the splintering.
Members of the Deceuninck-Quick-Step, including Julian Alaphilippe and Elia Viviani, continued to drive the pace as the winds cut across the narrow country roads.
With 20km left, the Pinot grouped dangled off the back, and Bennett was left to fight alone over 1:30 back. After much shuffling and regrouping, a small group led by Pinot, Porte, and Fuglsang, often doing much of the work, formed and began working together over a minute back. Three Movistar teammates dropped back to help pace Landa.
Up front, Ineos continued to smash the pace, with everyone, even Egan Bernal, working, except for leader Geraint Thomas. It wasn’t until the final few kilometers of the stage that the sprinters’ teams came to the front.
In the finale, Team Sunweb perfectly lined it out for Michael Matthews, until 300 meters to go. Then, a swarm of sprinters lined across the road, with Van Aert emerging for the win.
“It became quite nervous in the final and I managed to stay in the front and keep our leader, Stevie [Kruijswijk], in good position,” Van Aert said. “Unfortunately Dylan was not in the first group and I was allowed to try and go for the sprint. From last spring I learned it is good to go quite early. So, I went with 250 meters from the finish and it was close with Viviani but I won it with only one centimeter.”
How it unfolded
On a sunny, warm day, the peloton rolled out of Saint Flour into the Auvergne countryside, as a group of breakaway riders launched from Kilometer 0, containing Anthony Turgis (Total Direct Energie), Natnael Berhane (Cofidis), Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale), Mads Wurtz (Katusha-Alpecin), Odd Christian Eiking (Wanty-Gobert), and finally, Michael Schar (CCC Team).
The group’s gap grew to over two minutes, and Berhane made it clear that he was hoping to collect KOM points throughout the day. In the end, he led over each of the four categorized climbs, at Côte de Mallet, Côte de Chaudes-Aigues, Côte d’Espalion, and Côte de La Malric.
In one of the last sprint stages of the Tour, and the stage before the first rest day, the sprinters’ teams remained attentive, however, holding the break’s lead to no more than three minutes through the first half of the race. With 100 kilometers left to race, the gap was down to 2:30.
With around 65 kilometers to go, the peloton surged as crosswinds began to blow. With members of several different teams smashing at the front of the group, the gap to the break dropped precipitously, and was quickly down to 45 seconds. Meanwhile, behind the front group, things began to split, though it was short-lived.
That’s when the chaos began. The six breakaway riders dangled out front, but their lead vanished under the pace of the feisty lead chase group, containing many of the top sprinters, sans Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and GC contenders. With 25km to go, they were caught.
The Tour will now break for its first rest day tomorrow, after which the second half of the race is packed with high-altitude climbs.