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Just 11 seconds.
That’s all that separated Lennard Kämna from a place in his country’s history.
Only 14 riders from Germany have donned the yellow jersey during the history of the Tour de France. Kämna was almost the 15th, but things didn’t quite work out that way on Tuesday’s stage 10 of the Tour.
He had started the day 21st overall, 8:43 back in the general classification. The Bora-Hansgrohe rider infiltrated a 25-man breakaway which moved clear shortly after 50 kilometers of racing, and gained sufficient advantage for him to became race leader on the road.
Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates squad chased at times, but on other occasions took the foot off the gas pedal. There were valid reasons for the team to hand over yellow for a stage or two: it had been hit by the Covid-related withdrawal of George Bennett prior to the start of the stage, plus the retirement last week of Vegard Stake Laengen for the same reason.
To make matters worse, Pogačar’s right hand man Rafal Majka has also tested positive, but has been able to continue in the Tour for now as the viral load is below the threshold for him to be deemed a risk to others.
He may or may not be able to continue this week, but it is clear that UAE Team Emirates is under pressure. Even one day with Bora-Hansgrohe assuming responsibility for the chase would have given the squad some relief.
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Closely marked by others who were conscious that yellow could be a goal, Kämna tried to shake off the other riders from the break on several occasions on the final climb.
That ascent ultimately did not prove steep enough for his surges to make a difference and, over time, he started to run out of steam.
But even though it is a full seven years since a German rider donned the maillot jaune (Tony Martin in 2015), Kämna insisted afterwards that he had another goal in mind.
“I just wanted to go for the stage today but that really wasn’t easy. I had the impression that everyone was riding against me, and the last climb was no fun at all,” he said.
“I had good legs again, but I also had to invest a lot during the day, especially when that bigger group was in front on the last climb.”
Things came back together inside the final kilometer, but Kämna was already under pressure and he faded on the final drag to the line.
He finished 22 seconds behind the stage winner Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost). Kämna then stood in the finish area counting the seconds and waiting to see if Pogačar would finish far enough behind for him to take over at the top.
In the end the Slovenian rider put in a huge surge inside the final 200 meters to try to distance his rivals. He crossed the line sufficiently close in time to Kämna to hold on by 11 seconds.
It’s a huge disappointment as yellow would have been massive for both himself and the team.
“The last three kilometers I just went full gas as I knew already at that point that the win was gone,” Kämna said. “I didn’t expect in the end that it would be so close regarding the yellow jersey. It is of course disappointing now to realize I almost got it and finally got nothing in hands for the second time.”
Another near miss
Bora-Hansgrohe will rue how things turned out, not least because Kämna and the team already had an agonizing near miss on the La Super Planche des Belles Filles finish on stage 7.
There, Kämna had put in a decisive attack from the day’s break on the final climb and raced into the final two kilometers with a lead of 45 seconds.
He was caught and passed by the first of the overall contenders with 100 meters to go, finishing a disappointed fourth.
Taking yellow on Tuesday would have made up for that, and would also have softened the blow of the team’s general classification contender Aleksandr Vlasov not performing as hoped in the Tour.
Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Rolf Aldag said that the close marking of Kämna by the other breakaway riders had ultimately made things too complicated.
“Everybody knew that Lenni would go for the stage today. Therefore, it was incredibly difficult for him in the front,” he said. “Because from the other riders no one really had a chance to go for the jersey, they also had been able to poker a lot more. In the end that made the difference.
“Still Lenni rode a really strong race again. That Jumbo started to ride in the end, well, we didn’t really think they would do that. I mean it’s clear why they did it, but still we didn’t expect them to ride, which was a pity for us.
“We haven’t been really lucky so far in this Tour, but we hope that will change at some point.”
Kämna will feel that way too. Following near misses on stages 7 and 10, he’ll hope that it will be a case of third time lucky at this year’s Tour.