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And Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott team appears to be planning a concerted effort to defend the jersey for the long haul.
“Look, this certainly wasn’t planned, but we’re going to take it with two hands and run with it,” said Matt White, manager of Mitchelton-Scott. “The big picture doesn’t change. While we’re in the yellow jersey, it’s something we want to keep. It’s the most prestigious jersey in our sport.”
Yates passed a critical GC test on Saturday as he defended his lead during the Tour de France’s opening mountain stage.
The short, painful 140-kilometer route took in a classic trio of tough climbs: the Col de Menté, Porte de Balés, and the Col de Peyresourde. Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott teammates set the tempo through the opening half of the stage, eventually ceding the pace setting to Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma for the final two climbs.
Yates had teammate Esteban Chaves by his side for much of the day. But on the battle up the Peyresourde, Yates had to defend his lead all by himself.
“Jumbo-Visma came up and started pushing the pace really hard,” Yates said. “They went full gas from there to the finish. I did my thing and did my best to stay with the best guys.”
Yates was put into difficulty at the base of the climb after Dutch ace Tom Dumoulin put in a massive pull on the front of the GC contenders to draw out Jumbo-Visma’s leader Primož Roglič. The effort momentarily cracked Yates, who pulled out of the pace line and drifted off the back of the group.
“Dumoulin set a ferocious pace and I couldn’t hold the wheel,” Yates said. “I had to ride my own pace for a little bit. I collect myself and I clawed my way back.”
Indeed, the young British rider slowed briefly and then began to climb at his own pace. After a few tense minutes Yates rejoined the group of top GC favorites Egan Bernal, Roglič, and Nairo Quintana on the long, punishing climb. He then chased wheels up and over the ascent to finish safely in the group of GC contenders.
Yates holds a slim 3 second lead over Roglič in the overall.
And while he was not on the short list of GC contenders, Yates now has the opportunity to hold the yellow jersey for multiple stages. Yates took yellow on stage 5 after UCI commissaries punished Julian Alaphilippe for taking an illegal feed — the 20-second time penalty thrust Yates into the leader’s jersey.
Yates and Mitchelton-Scott defended the lead for four stages, despite the team’s pre-race goal of chasing stage victories and not the Tour overall. Much has been written about the heavyweight battle between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers at this Tour; Mitchelton-Scott is amongst the second-tier favorites to win. But Yates’ dogged defense of yellow has boosted the team in the unofficial rankings.
On Sunday the group tackles another punishing stage in the Pyrénées, however the final climb of the day falls some 20 kilometers from the finish in Laruns.
Similar to Saturday’s stage, Sunday’s route has a long descent that could allow dropped riders to catch back on.
“Tomorrow is very similar stage — if we can hold on for another day, then the day after that is a rest day, so hopefully we can hold ob until then,” Yates said. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
Following Sunday, the 2020 Tour de France eases up on the punishment. Monday is the first rest day, and the peloton then tackles three flat stages before the hilly stage 13, which finishes with the punchy climb to Puy-Mary. The climb is steep, however it is not long — it averages 8.4 percent for 5.4 kilometers. Whether or not the climb is decisive depends on the will of the GC riders.
The next high mountain test does not come until stage 15 on Sunday, September 13, when the route finishes atop the Grand Colombier.
White said the team’s plan for Sunday is similar to what it was for Saturday: defend the lead.
“We’ll be running a similar plan for tomorrow to keep the jersey,” White said. ” Then we have a rest day and a few flatter days before the next set of mountains. One day at a time.”