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Tour de France

Dan Martin deconstructs the Tour de France Super Planche showdown

Retired climbing star dives into what can be learned from the explosive stage 7 final on the Super Planches des Belles Filles on Friday.

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So this is it. The day we were all waiting for.

Sorry to all the sprinters out there, but let’s face it, the Tour de France is all about the mountains! The drama that unfolds among the stunning yet vertiginous landscape is what keeps us all glued to the TV for the next two weeks, and believe me, the feeling when the riders (well, the climbers and GC contenders) woke up this morning is very similar, although you could also add in a little trepidation.

The ASO seems to do a great job each year of prolonging that feeling of anticipation, but for the riders it’s been a long week of riding on the flat. It has been somewhere between 12 and 14 days since any of the guys have made a concerted climbing effort, and no matter how good you are feeling, you have no way of knowing how you will go on the first test, and more importantly how you will match up to your competitors.

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Some may see how the race unfolded on Friday as an anticlimax, especially with the way that UAE Team Emirates rode the front all day. It created the impression we would see Tadej Pogačar making a huge attack from far out, but I was not surprised. The addition of the Super Planche gravel section encourages a conservative style of racing even for our enigmatic Slovenian.

Having ridden both versions at the sharp end, attacking before the gravel section would have been suicide, just look at the amount of time Kämna lost in the final 300m!

It was a demonstration of force by UAE Team Emirates, who once more entered the race with people questioning their ability to adequately support Pogačar. They set a brutal tempo from the bottom which deterred any attacks and exposed any weakness any pretenders to the crown. One guy who I had down as a real contender, Aleksandr Vlasov was found lacking early on.

He’s not totally out of contention, but it’s not looking good. I was actually surprised at the size of the time gaps in the final with even Quintana in 15th losing a substantial 51 seconds. Pogačar showed real confidence in not hesitating when Majka pulled off and continued the high pace. He didn’t seem to care that the other favorites were set right on his wheel and didn’t panic when Jonas Vingegaard started his sprint, judging the finish perfectly. It was really good to see him being pushed right the way to the line.

Jumbo-Visma have the second and third strongest guys in the race with Vingegaard and Primož Roglič , but they will have to create some kind of surprise ambush to unseat Pogačar. The same goes for Ineos with Geraint Thomas shining on a climb that on paper should have been much better suited to Adam Yates. Having said that, Thomas lead the GC group home in 2019 so he will get a big morale boost from the performance. Right now the race seems to be the expected three-way battle between the big super teams. But, a lot can change.

Ordinarily, the first mountain stage will set the tone, a GC hierarchy for the remainder of the race. However, La Planche is a different beast to what awaits us in the Alps and the Pyrénées. A relatively short effort at lower altitude after not the most testing day is a very different test, much more explosive and one that wouldn’t have been specifically prepared for, but also you get a lot of draft on the wheel as there are flatter sections between the steep parts.

I can speak from experience that a good performance today doesn’t necessarily mean you will be good when the high mountains come. I finished just behind overall winner Egan Bernal on the same finish in 2019 before the wheels well and truly fell off my challenge once the race arrived in the Pyrénées.

Having said that, history has showed us that those that lose time on these opening exchanges are often just lacking the form to contend. It’s always difficult to mentally stay in the game after such a blow to morale. Even though the defending champion is clearly in great form, he was pushed harder than ever today. Nevertheless, we can’t read too much into this being a two-horse race just yet, as the challenges ahead mean the time gaps today will be meaningless in Paris.