If Tour de France breakaways were given VIP status, Thursday’s all-star escape was one of them.
After a snoozy day with neither a breakaway nor GC fireworks Wednesday, the race into Mont Aigoual yesterday sparked into life early, with stage-hunters and opportunists rolling the dice early in the hunt for a valuable Tour stage win.
“I knew it was a day where the break could go the distance,” said Nicolas Roche (Sunweb), who sparked the escape with a move in the first hour.
The 36-year-old was soon joined by an all-star cast made up of American rookie Neilson Powless (EF Pro Cycling), Jesus Herrada (Cofidis), Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT Pro Cycling), Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe), Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Greg Avermaet (CCC Team), and eventual stage-winner Alexey Lutsenko (Astana).
Sunweb has been on the attack all week after head coach Rudi Kemna promised “offensive racing” from his team at this year’s Tour de France as it develops its fleet of upcoming talents. While it’s been youngsters Marc Hirschi and Cees Bol that have taken the three trips to the podium so far enjoyed by Sunweb, Thursday saw Roche get his opportunity, though the steep slopes of the first climb of the day put an end to the Irishman’s chances.
“Our goal for today was to get Nico [Roche] or Marc [Hirschi] into the break, which we achieved,” Sunweb coach Matt Winston said. “They’re the sort of breakaways we want to be a part of but Nico just didn’t have the legs today.”
Like Sunweb, CCC Team is on the stage hunt at this year’s Tour as the imperilled squad seeks a new sponsor, with team manager Jim Ochowicz making it his mission to win “at least one stage” at the race.
Van Avermaet came close on stage 2 Sunday with fourth place, and going into stage 6 Thursday, the Belgian knew that finishing in a breakaway could offer him a chance to raid the yellow jersey, sitting 3:17 down in the overall. He was quick to make the jump when Roche formed the move early on.
“It was what an elite group, so then it is also prestige to be with,” Van Avermaet told Sporza. “I was also close in the classification. You never know what will happen behind you in the peloton. Maybe it will come to a halt. So there was always a chance. I think it was a good choice.”
The eight inevitably splintered as the race hit the slopes of the Col de la Lusette in the final hour of racing, though 35-year-old Van Avermaet defied his brawny frame to hang on for third-place, gaining his long-time manager Jim Ochowicz a little fuel in his negotiations with potential new backers.
“It was one of the strongest breakaways I’ve been in at the Tour de France and also with this kind of finish, it was a stage where you never really stop,” Van Avermaet said. “Because of this we had a little bit of an advantage on the GC guys because they were waiting and on a climb like this, a GC guy cannot make the biggest difference.
“If you saw the names of those riders, I knew we would get far. I had hoped to survive that first category climb, but those steep parts killed me. For the rest I can be satisfied with my course. When I get beaten by one of the better ones, I am never disappointed.”
While Van Avermaet’s labors bore the fruit of a step on the podium, Roche cracked to finish seven minutes down. Being awarded the day’s combativity award for initiating the break was some consolation.
“I’m exhausted and a bit disappointed,” Roche said. “I’ll take a stage or so to recover but hopefully over the next few weeks I’d like to be able to give it a go again.”
A mostly hilly stage with a flat finish beckons Friday, and the possibility of crosswinds could cause carnage. Expect to see the stage-hunters to be back on the move.