If you felt on Monday that the Tour de France peloton was racing a 1980s Giro d’Italia stage, you were right. For much of the stage it was piano, piano, as the bunch saved its legs for Tuesday’s mountaintop finale to Orcières-Merlette.
The climbs come hot, heavy, and early in this year’s Tour de France route, and Tuesday fourth stage concludes with the first summit finish of this year’s race to the category 1 Orcières-Merlette, in the southern Alps.
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The peloton’s top climbers are already licking their chops.
“Today was a bit more relaxed, but tomorrow will be a different story,” said UAE-Emirates Tadej Pogačar. “If the legs are good, I will try and do something.”
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) didn’t miss his chance Monday in the Tour’s first pure sprint, taking the flowers with a magnificent finish. The GC riders cooled their jets ahead of Tuesday’s first serious uphill finale.
The Orcières-Merlette climb — 7.1km at 6.7 percent — isn’t where the Tour will be won, but an unlucky GC contender could see his yellow-jersey quest end on the climb. A few GC-hopefuls are already struggling, and anyone who can’t match the pace that will be inevitably set by Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma will be in for a long Tour.
“It’s not a climb that will decide the Tour,” said Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), 11th at 17 seconds back. “The most important thing will be to watch the rivals, and stay in control of the situation.”
The first summit finish also comes abnormally early in the Tour. In 2019 the finishing climb to la Planche des Belles Filles fell on stage 6, and in 2018 the first true summit finish didn’t come until stage 11. Traditionally, organizers have saved the first true uphill final battle until just before the first rest day.
This year, however, the first stinger falls after just three stages. How riders adapt to the early uphill battle — and whether or not they commit themselves to a major fight — is the pressing question ahead of the stage. The strongest climbers may simply test each others’ legs on the slopes to the finish, or, they may ramp up the pace to see who falls out of the GC hunt early.
Overnight leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) keeps saying he’s not at this Tour to challenge for the GC, but vows to defend the yellow jersey in the Tour’s first mountain stage that comes very early in the road book this year.
“I know it will be very difficult tomorrow. I will do my best to defend the yellow jersey,” Alaphilippe said. “The legs will do the talking tomorrow, and I hope to retain the yellow jersey.”
All eyes will be on the ongoing duel between Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma. So far, it’s largely been a truce, though Jumbo-Visma has been letting its intensions to be loud and clear in the opening days of the Tour.
Tom Dumoulin, who shook off a late-stage spill Sunday, said Jumbo-Visma is satisfied with how it came out of the opening string of stages.
“It was a great first weekend for us,” Dumoulin told Sporza. “Primož [Roglič] and I are just where we ought to be. It was most important for us to get through the first stages safely.”
Defending champion Egan Bernal has also floated through the first few days without major mishap, and his Ineos teammates will be protecting his flanks in Tuesday’s first dip into the pool. Teammate Michał Kwiatkowski said everyone expects fireworks with the GC still tightly packed and the yellow jersey in the offing.
“The yellow jersey is the yellow jersey. If you have the opportunity to take it, you have to try it,” Kwiatkowski said. “I guess it will be a dynamic final again.”
“It’s not the hardest day if you look at the whole three weeks,” Kwiatkowski continued. “I would not expect big moves to try to explode the race early. You never really know what the conditions are like, the riders make the race. When the opportunity is there, we are going to take it. In the end, we have to be cautious and watch out for the main rivals.”