The Tour de France is both locked down and wide open as the race heads toward two short, explosive stages in the Alps this weekend.
Tadej Pogačar‘s dominating opening week was almost blown from beneath his wheels by a ruthless play from Richard Carapaz and Ineos Grenadiers on stage 7 Friday in what makes for a warning of what’s to come in the high mountains.
After being forced to ride the front for the majority of an exhausting marathon stage Friday, UAE-Team Emirates’ underpowered squad was left tattered across the road and Pogačar was exposed. Ineos Grenadiers smelled blood, and Carapaz looked set to bite into Pogačar’s GC stranglehold. The move came to naught, but it won’t have gone unnoticed aboard the UAE team bus.
“Everyone knows they need to take time off Tadej,” Dan Martin said of the mountains to come.
“You’ve got a lot of strong teams, Ineos, Jumbo, they’ve got a lot of riders high on GC still, and they need to take a lot of time, and everyone’s seeing UAE as a weaker force in the GC fight.”
“Tadej is probably the strongest but he’s got a team that can potentially not control the race. They’re a lot stronger than they were last year but it’s a bit of an unknown. It will be interesting to see how aggressive people are from far out.”
The Alps look set to host a key battle in the Tour’s GC this weekend.
Ineos Grenadiers needs to continue trying to reign in Pogačar before he gallops too far into the horizon. With Carapaz aggressive and Geraint Thomas still in contention, Pogačar’s 1:40 gap looks a lot less secure than it was Friday morning.
And it’s not just Carapaz that Pogačar needs to worry about.
Wout van Aert battled into the day’s break looking for a stage win or to set up teammate Primoz Roglič only to end up with over three minutes of a GC lead on Pogačar after a pressured UAE-Team Emirates lost control of the race.
It’s just as well van Aert went on the offense, because behind him, Roglič crumbled, losing over four minutes on all his major rivals.
Jumbo-Visma’s GC hopes now sit upon the unlikely shoulders of classics-man van Aert and Tour rookie Jonas Vingegaard. Van Aert could last longer into the mountains than some expect after his exploits at last summer’s Tour and this spring’s Tirreno-Adriatico, but it’s rising talent Vingegaard that is the Dutch squad’s best hope of a slot on the podium.
And that’s without mentioning the shadowy threat of veterans Rigoberto Urán and Vincenzo Nibali.
Pogačar has it all to lose as the Tour tilts uphill.
Top favorites after stage 7 (with time splits on Pogačar):
- Tadej Pogacar: –
- Vincenzo Nibali: +0:29
- Rigoberto Urán +1:21
- Jonas Vingegaard +1:35
- Richard Carapaz: +1:36
- Geraint Thomas: +1:46
Pogačar’s exposed underbelly
The peloton will head to the high peaks for the first time in this Tour de France on Saturday.
The 150km multi-mountain stage 8 finishes with a long downhill into Le Grand-Bornand that could stymie the impact of mountain trains and controlling tactics.
Stage 9 Sunday finishes atop the 21km grinding climb to Tignes where group strength could prove favorable as the race reaches its first HC-rated climb. Teams looking to unseat Pogačar will have a range of moves that they could work in the bid to eat into the 22-year-old’s lead.
Pogačar has proven to have rockets in his heels, but early questions around the strength of UAE Emirates were blown wide open Friday.
After Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers positioned riders into the day’s all-star breakaway, Pogačar’s crew was forced to pull for much of the monumental 248km into Le Creusot. With 20km to go, UAE-Team Emirates was strung across the road, with only Rafal Majka guarding Pogačar’s flank.
“They pressed like crazy at the start,” Pogačar said after the stage. “We tried to close the gap but it was complicated.”
“It was very demanding, I took a lot of wind with my team, so I don’t know what we can do Saturday … maybe just follow the others. ”
Friday’s stage sees the Tour perfectly poised ahead of two sub-four-hour stages in the Alps.
“It’s Pogačar’s race to lose,” Simon Yates said Friday morning. “He’s shown he has the best legs by a mile in the TT.
“It puts a lot of guys in a position where they have to do something. And a lot of those guys are in the position where they have to do something – and some of those guys don’t normally try anything – they’re used to being more conservative in the wheels.”
Ball is in Ineos Grenadiers’ court
Jumbo-Visma won’t give up trying after the loss of Roglič – with van Aert and Vingegaard so high on GC, the team’s two lead men won’t have the room to race for breakaways. However, with mountain man Robert Gesink out of the race and Tony Martin, Mike Teunissen, and Steven Kruijswijk carrying enough injuries to fill a hospital ward, Jumbo-Visma will have to sit and wait rather than playing offense.
And Ineos Grenadiers?
It will be a case of “when” rather than “if” as the British-based squad looks to tear open the exposed belly of UAE-Team Emirates.
“Pogačar’s team has a big job to do,” Ineos Grenadiers sport director Gabriel Rasch said. “They’re not as experienced as a rider or as a team at defending a jersey.
“We need to wait for the right moment and attack them when the team is vulnerable. We have to look for the possibility. It depends on the stage.”
Thomas may still be nursing the nagging pains of his shoulder dislocation, but the altitude-adapted Carapaz proved Friday he should have the fizzle to fight Pogačar one on one if the situation arises.
“We hoped that UAE would have to ride all day today and they did. Carapaz is in a good position, we’ll try and use that as best we can,” Thomas warned Friday.
Pogačar won’t be sleeping quite so easy Friday night.