Close calls in the Tour de France can go either way for a cyclist. Sometimes a big result builds so much pressure a rider can wilt under the weight of expectations. Others are only fueled with desire after coming oh-so-close to victory.
Put Marc Hirschi firmly in the second category.
After gut-wrenching near-wins in Nice and another in Laruns, the third time was a charm for the 22-year-old Swiss Tour rookie who took on the entire bunch with a gutsy, solo attack at just under 30km to go in Thursday’s longest stage of the 2020 Tour de France.
“Still in the last kilometer I didn’t believe I could make it,” Hirschi said. “I was two times close, is was more special. I was especially sad after Sunday. That also gave me more confidence to try again.”
Hirschi has raced 12 days into his Tour de France career, and he has a second place, a third place, and victory Thursday. He counter-attacking behind late-stage moves by Marc Soler (Movistar). Alaphilippe and other gave chase, but this time Hirschi finished all alone in the finale.
That’s the very best way to assure you won’t lose a sprint.
“I got to the front and just went full-gas,” he said. “I want to enjoy this now, and then we can see if we attack again in this Tour.”
Hirschi’s success and repeated aggression is confirmation of Team Sunweb’s bold new direction for the 2020 Tour de France and beyond. Thus far Sunweb has been a team for the long breakaways with Hirschi, Søren Kragh Andersen, and Belgian rider Tiesj Bennoot. The three men attacked relentlessly on stage 9 to put Hirschi in a solo breakaway. And Benoot and Andersen helped set Hirschi up for the win on Thursday.
The strategy marks a departure for the German team, which in years past has targeted a high GC finish with Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman, as well as sprint victories with Michael Matthews.
Matthews famously won two stages and the Tour’s green jersey in 2017 for Sunweb. Just one season later the squad shepherded Dumoulin to second place overall and a stage win. The back-to-back success made Sunweb one of the most successful Tour teams in the peloton.
Just as the team scored these heights, cracks emerged in its makeup. Dumoulin left Sunweb for Jumbo-Visma after tension over his 2019 injury at the Giro d’Italia. In June, Sunweb management then told Kelderman and climbing domestique Sam Oomen that they were free to seek employment elsewhere.
The final move came just prior to the Tour. Sunweb left Matthews off of its Tour de France squad, and the Australian sprinter negotiated to leave the squad at the end of the season, which is before the end of his contract. The departure of Matthews and others comes as Frenchman Romain Bardet is set to join the team for 2021.
Amid the shakeup Hirschi has emerged as a new face of the team with his Tour success. A product of the Sunweb development team and the U23 world champion in 2018, Hirschi is obviously a quick learner. The victory, with Sunweb teammate Soren Kragh Andersen riding across the line third, is good for Hirschi’s first as a pro.
“I like to open the book in the morning, and see what the stage is,” Hirschi said. “We knew it would be another good chance today.”
The win is also the first by a Swiss rider since Fabian Cancellara won the opening prologue in Liège to open the 2012 Tour. And, as it turns out, Hirschi has a close connection to the retired Swiss great.
Growing up in Bern, Hirschi was a big fan of the town’s hometown hero, Cancellara. Cancellara has since emerged as a mentor and training partner for Hirschi. Cancellara’s business also serves as his manager, so there is a direct line from Switzerland’s two biggest performances in the Tour over the past decade.
“We are in close contact,” he said. “He helps me as a person and as a rider. He can give me lots of tips, especially because he lived many of the same things.”
How far can Hirschi go?
Like Cancellara when he was younger, some believe he could develop into a grand tour rider. Cancellara never did, and later evolved into a world-class time trialist and power rider.
In contrast, Hirschi seems himself as a pure puncheur. At 5-foot-7 and 135 lbs, it’s obvious he can climb with the best. His sprint typically is his secret weapon, but at the elite level in the Tour de France, Hirschi didn’t want to take chances Thursday.
“I think I can do well in races like Liège,” he said. “Right now I am more explosive. As you grow older, you lose that and gain more power. Right now, I am just starting out. I want to see what I can do.”
So far, he’s been more than impressive in the opening 12 days of racing. Before the Tour, he’s never raced more than nine days in a row. Every day is a new chapter.