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MONT AIGOUAL, France (VN) — There wasn’t a breakaway in stage 5 in the Tour de France, and everyone complained.
In stage 6, the first winning long-distance breakaway held off the bunch to win, and everyone moaned.
- Tour de France: Stages
- Tour de France: Route Map
- Inside the Tour de France’s weird stage without a breakaway
Is this turning into the “Slow-Go” edition of the Tour de France?
After a fast start, and an imposing profile looming in the Pyrénées, riders in the 2020 edition of the Tour are noticeably taking it easy when they can.
“The riders here can feel it because we have not raced for these many months,” said stage-winner Alexey Lutsenko (Astana). “It’s not been an easy first week of the Tour, and we are here at the sixth stage, and we are already with a second summit finish. I think this will be a very hard Tour de France all the way into the last week.”
It’s the hard opener around Nice coupled with an even more imposing final week — not to mention racing in the middle of a pandemic-disrupted calendar — that’s creating some unfamiliar dynamics so early in this 2020 Tour.
If there’s been a bit of a lull in the action the past two days, don’t blame the riders.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said this Tour is the hardest first week in race history, with two demanding summit finales in the opening six days of racing coming on the heels of two challenging stages in the hills above Nice to open the race.
“The organizers must be a little disappointed how the race is going,” said Sebastian Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ). “With the difficulty of the course, and the few sprinter stages, no one dares go on the breakaway. On such a hard course, the riders cannot go on the attack every day.”
And organizers have stacked up the final week with a string of searing climbing stages and a final-weekend uphill time trial.
If there were some fireworks in the opening days, things are clearly switched back into simmer mode for a few days of the Pyrénées, the first true high mountains of the 2020 route.
“We were not afraid to take it on for the stage win, but it was a pretty strong breakaway, so right away we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to bring it back,” said Ineos Grenadiers Michał Kwiatkowski. “My money was on the breakaway today, and maybe the people can enjoy it.”
Every stage has its own unique dynamic that plays out depending on a variety of factors.
On Wednesday, a long downhill profile against headwinds on a course favoring sprinters put the squelch on breakaways. No one was going to attack in those conditions, and no one did. In fact, stage 5 was the first day in modern Tour history to not feature a breakaway.
Twenty-four hours later, the opposite was true. Everyone knew it was going to be a break, and it was a dogfight to get into the move.
And with Mitchelton-Scott inheriting the yellow jersey overnight following the controversial penalty against Julian Alaphilippe, having a breakaway gobble up time bonuses was a very smart tactic for the team to assure that Adam Yates would have the best chance to retain yellow.
“Once we had a minute gap in the breakaway, we knew someone out of that group had a very good chance of making it to the line,” said Neilson Powless (EF Pro Cycling), who rode in the break to finish fourth on the stage. “With Mitchelton in yellow, everyone knew today that a breakaway had a good chance to stick.”
With the time bonuses gone, would the GC riders attack anyway? The answer was no.
“The break had good riders and made enough time to make it to the finish,” said defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers). “On that final climb, it would not have been good to have been isolated for the GC riders. We rode it at a hard pace, but no one wants to take the risk.”
The top GC riders rode up the potentially explosive Cat. 1 Col de la Lusette at a steady tempo. And with the finish line coming after a quick descent and false-flat run to the summit, it simply wasn’t ideal terrain for the GC riders to make big moves.
“I was expecting a bit harder pace on the Lusette. It was not super-easy, but there was still quite a big group, and the last climb was just not hard enough,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema, who was sixth on the stage. “I was on the big ring the whole final climb, but we will see on the weekend how good we really are.”
For much of the past decade or so, course designers have been doing what they can to spice up race routes. Rolling transition stages without at least a few climbs simply don’t exit anymore.
That means harder racing day in and day out, so if and when the dynamics stack up for the peloton to ride a bit easier, they will take it.
And there’s the added element of what’s been a very odd 2020. The coronavirus put the brakes on the season in March, and after an intense month of racing, the Tour opened with big question marks of how far the legs might hold out.
With that uncertainty, and the climb-heavy final week looming on the horizon, a few more days of old-school “piano” racing might be in the cards.
Friday’s 168km features some lumpy terrain to open the stage, but ends on the flats near Toulouse. With temperatures forecasted in the low 90s F and strong winds, it could be another long day in the saddle.
“We are doing a great job so far,” said Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), a day after winning a stage. “We have two really strong guys, so it’s important to keep them out of the danger zone. That’s what we are trying to do. We showed that we are one team, and we are doing it together.”
And with Jumbo-Visma emerging as the top team so far smothering the race, riders are in no hurry to make attacks or moves that have little chance of success.
Just look at Fabio Aru. The UAE-Emirates star was the only rider who dared to attack off the front of the GC group on Thursday. He opened up a bit of a gap, but later struggled to hold the wheel when the big guns blew past him, ceding eight seconds.
In any Tour, it’s all about knowing when to burn the matches, and when to keep the powder dry. That’s even truer in 2020.