Will Yates and his teammates defend the yellow jersey, or will they follow their pre-race plan to hunt stage wins?
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The answer, it seems, is both.
“I still want to win a stage — that’s what we came here to do,” Yates said after Thursday’s stage 6 to Mont Aigoal. “But it’s pretty hard to throw away time when you’re in the lead. We play it day by day and see what happens.”
Indeed, Yates’ team rode on the front of the group for much of the day, keeping the strong breakaway at just under four minutes over the flat and rolling terrain between Le Teil and the uphill finish.
Only on the steepest ramps of the Col de la Lusette did Mitchelton-Scott abandon the front to Team Ineos Grenadiers, which set the pace up to Mont Aigoual to protect Egan Bernal. Still, Yates finished the stage alongside teammates Mikel Nieve and Esteban Chaves, and the presence of the top climbers on the squad show that Mitchelton-Scott has the firepower to defend the jersey for multiple stages to come.
“It was all flat to the climbs so it was hard to control and I think we did quite well,” Yates said. “In the end, I still had Mikel and Esteban in the final, so all in all a good day.”
The question now becomes how Mitchelton-Scott will target both stage wins and a defense of yellow. With Yates’ strengths in the high mountains, and Mitchelton-Scott’s strong lineup of support riders, it is conceivable that the Australian team could hold the yellow jersey for eight more stages, until the stage 15 battle up to Grand Colombier.
Such a defense, however, would unquestionably tire the team and torpedo any chances at stage wins. So, will the squad abandon the yellow-jersey defense at some point to attack? The steep and punchy climbs of the Pyrenees, for example, suit Yates’ riding style. His accelerations on steep climbs are among the most fearsome in the group.
But in years past, Yates has struggled on the long grinding climbs of the Alps.
When asked if he planned to attack in the Pyrenees, Yates wasted little breath.
“Yeah, why not? Even though I’m sitting in the yellow jersey, I want to win a stage,” Yates said. “We came here to win stages. Once we get to the high mountains hopefully we can do something.”
The Pyrenees loom on the horizon, with Saturday’s stage 8 taking in three category 1 mountains before the fast descent into Loudenvielle. On Friday, the pack faces another hilly sprint stage. Yates expects his team to hold yellow through Friday until the big test on Saturday.
“Tomorrow is a sprint stage, and then we have two really hard stages. these stages have quite a lot of climbs,” he said. “It’s going to be tough but we have a super strong team here, not just for the flats but also for the climbing stages. So yeah, I look forward to it.”