Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Perfect Start to the Classics Season

The name of the team seems to change every year – Belgian window manufacturers Deceuninck getting a top billing on the blue jerseys this season – but one thing stays the same… Quick Step riders winning bike races.

Although the World Tour kicked off in Australia in January before the peloton, like a flock of Lycra-clad swallows, followed the sun to the Gulf and the Mediterranean, to many fans it’s the first weekend of racing in Belgium that marks the start of the season proper. So, these true zealots must have been disappointed that this year’s opening races on the northern cobbles coincided with the warmest spell of winter weather ever known (I was out on my summer Bianchi, wearing shorts!). There was an almost total absence of legwarmers and waterproof gilets and hardly a sign of ‘Belgian toothpaste’. Oh well, it’s still only early March…give it time.

Stybar, Jungels and Senechal complete Quick Step Treble

The Belgian weekend begins with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – a sort of mini Tour of Flanders, taking in many of that race’s iconic cobbled climbs, culminating in the ‘Muur’ and the Bosberg. Strangely, it’s not a race that Quick Step have excelled in lately; who can forget Sky’s hard-man Ian Stannard riding away from their trio of Terpstra, Boonen and Vandenbergh in 2015? (just writing that last sentence makes me realise once again what an amazing performance that was). But there was no mistake this year, with Zdenek Stybar giving them a first win since Nick Noyens in 2005. Stybar, a Quick Step rider since 2011 and a former winner of the Strade Bianche (and 2x 2nd in Paris-Roubaix) shot clear from a 5 man break in the closing kilometres and, while his rivals were busy watching each other, the Czech rider opened up a decisive gap which he held to the line.

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Bob Jungels holds on for a gutsy solo victory in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

If Stybar’s victory was a win for canny tactics, that of Bob Jungels in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was down to sheer guts and dogged determination. With a flat finale across open farmland it’s a race that usually comes down to a bunch finish but not this year. Jungels, the champion of Luxembourg and winner of last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, was the instigator of a move on the Kwaremont that split the bunch with over 50km to go. He then went on a solo attack on the finishing circuit with 15km left, holding a 30s gap and crossing the line 12s clear of Sky’s Owain Doull.

On Tuesday the circus moved onto Wallonia for Le Samyn, a semi-classic run in the area of Mons, and the treble was completed by Florian Senechal, who was recording his first professional victory, sprinting clear of the leading group after team-mate Tim de Clerq’s earlier attack had been reeled in.  That made it 14 wins for the boys in blue – could Julian Alaphilippe make it 15 in today’s Strade Bianche? I’ve just looked at William Hill’s odds and he’s the 3/1 favourite, with Stybar at 4/1 and – if those odds look skinny for a race in which luck is sure to play a part, it just shows how dominant the team is, especially in the early season (either that, or it’s just bookmaker miserliness).

More wins for Bianchi Bikes

Another team that must be pleased with the season so far is Team Jumbo-Visma (though it’s still tempting to call them Lotto NL- Jumbo, especially as the team kit has barely changed and, thankfully, they’re still riding those distinctive Bianchi celeste bikes). With wins in Valencia and the Algarve sprinter Dylan Groenewegen has shown himself to be one of the fastest men in the peloton (it’s a pity he didn’t ride the UAE Tour, where a couple of the tightly-contested sprints saw Gaviria, Kittel, Viviani and Sam Bennett in top-class action). The overall went to team leader Primoz Roglic, who wore the leader’s jersey after the team’s well-disciplined win in the opening T.T.T. After a week of pedalling through the deserts and around the roundabouts of the Gulf’s hideous resorts, Roglic held onto a 31s overall lead ahead of Alejandro Valverde. He heads to the Tirreno-Adriatico before the Giro, where he will have a realistic chance of getting onto a Grand Tour podium after last year’s TdF 4th.

Tadej Pogacar…Remember the Name

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Team UAE’s new star Tadej Pogacar on the podium at the Tour of the Algarve

Former champion ski-jumper Roglic is probably the best-known sportsman from Slovenia, but there is a new kid (almost literally) on the block after the Tour of the Algarve was won by his compatriot Tadej Pogacar (Team UAE). Remember the name…well, learn how to spell and pronounce it, then remember it. There is an old head on his 20 year old shoulders – dropped early on the final climb of the last stage (won by Stybar), he lost a minute and looked in danger of losing the leader’s jersey he had worn since winning stage 2, but he coolly rode back into contention to limit his losses and took overall victory by 15s from Soren Kragh Andersen. Pogacar won last year’s Tour de l’Avenir and is very definitely a young man going places.

Fabien Grellier dons the Balaclava

Team Astana have also had a superb start to the season – with 15 victories (4 in the Tour of Rwanda) they’re actually 1 ahead of Deceuninck-Quick Step! Luis Leon Sanchez won the Tour of Murcia, Jakob Fuglsang took the Tour of Andalucia (taking the leader’s jersey after Tim Wellens cracked on a proper mountain stage in the Sierra Nevada, a stage won in superb solo fashion by Simon Yates) and Kazakh champion Andrey Lutsenko totally dominated the Tour of Oman. He took overall victory by 44s from Domenico Pozzovivo and won 3 of the 6 stages, including that which finished atop the Green Mountain.

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Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier…still waiting for a 1st pro win

His late capture of Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier on that brutal climb enabled the Frenchman to go to the head of the leader board for the “Balaclava Award” (I am convinced that Grellier is an avid reader of this blog because he also won last year’s TdF virtual intermediate sprints competition !!) . He had been part of a 6 man break that had built a lead of 6 minutes, and still had 4 mins advantage with 20km to go, but the 10% slopes of the 6km climb and an Astana-led peloton put paid to the chances of all but Grellier. He was visibly tiring in the last kilometre, and, with Eurosport only showing recorded highlights, with no time gap graphics, it was impossible to know whether he would hold on or not until Lutsenko suddenly appeared, having gone clear of his GC rivals. He was caught with 100M to go (and lost a further 7 seconds!!). Grellier’s performance is lauded on the following grounds: (1) he went into the stage in 43rd place, 8-20 down, so could not hope to challenge overall, (2) Lutsenko and Astana were 100% certain to chase down the break to seal overall victory and (3) it just looked such a bloody awful climb, snaking up through a barren landscape that could have been Tolkien’s inspiration for Mount Doom – perhaps Grellier was carrying the One Ring, and its weight slowed his progress. He can wear the imaginary balaclava with pride!

 

Classic Contenders in Early Season Action

Such a lot of cycling since I last put virtual pen to paper…and it’s still only February! There’s been action on the roads on three continents, the world cyclo-cross championships and track action from Berlin, Copenhagen and Melbourne. Contrary to (un)popular belief, they don’t race the wrong way round on the Aussie tracks, but even the late Sir Stephen Hawkings would struggle to come up with a theory that explains how time passes at such a drastically different rate in the Southern Hemisphere – how can the ‘Melbourne 6’ last only 3 days?

Dutch and Belgians Dominate Cross Worlds

There were huge crowds at the Cyclo-cross Worlds in Denmark that were dominated by the Dutch and the Belgians. Belgium’s Sanne Cant completed a hat-trick in the Elite Women’s race, but the next four places were filled by Dutch riders, with Lucinda Brand and a resurgent Marianne Vos getting silver and bronze, while there was a clean sweep of the medals for the Netherlands in the U-23 race. How can The Netherlands produce so many world class women cyclists?

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Mathieu van der Poel on his way to victory at the Cyclo-Cross World Championships 

There were victories for Brits Tom Pidcock and Ben Tulett in the Mens U-23 and Junior races but the Elite Men’s race was dominated by the big 3, with Holland’s Mathieu van der Poel pulling well clear of Belgians Wout van Aert and Toon Aerts. If ever a rider was bred for cycling it is van der Poel – his father Adri was a leading rider in the 1990’s, with Tour stages and runner-up spots in the Worlds, Fleche Wallonne and Paris-Nice, while his maternal grandfather is none other than Raymond Poulidor.

Nature v Nurture?

As the manager of a Newmarket stud farm, breeding Thoroughbred racehorses, I have often wondered whether the principles of bloodstock breeding could be applied to cycling. There are similarities – both racehorses and cyclists are subject to carefully planned diets and training regimes, though the winner of the Giro won’t be retired to stud at the end of the season, and old, past-it, broken-down cyclists are unlikely to find themselves in a Birds Eye lasagne. But there are crucial differences too. When a horse unseats his jockey at a fence, or loses ground when it tires, it usually has the sense to pull itself up, whereas a cyclist will keep going, battling through storms and up the steepest of hills, getting back on his bike despite horrific crash injuries,  just to finish the race. So, the challenge for Thoroughbred breeders is to produce a horse with the determination of a cyclist, while the coaches of British Cycling are faced with trying to find a cyclist with the intelligence of a racehorse.

The 2019 Armchairtifosi.com Balaclava Award

Such a find would be a likely candidate for this year’s ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM award. Regular readers of this column – yes, Mr.Jenkins of Wood Lane, Reigate, I mean you – will remember last year’s Intermediate Sprints competition at the Tour, won by Fabien Grellier of Direct Energie. However, the big teams clearly realised that they would be spreading their resources too thinly if they targeted both this competition and the G.C. – Team Sky failed to score a single point. It was also disappointing that, despite numerous mentions of their company (and free advertising on the world wide web) my attempts to get sponsorship from Chateau D’Ax fell upon deaf ears. I am still waiting for my complementary recliner and, reluctantly, must state that other brands of luxury armchair are available.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM is this year sponsoring the Balaclava Award – named after the battle of the Crimean War that featured the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, a military cock-up that has become a byword for doomed futility and tragic waste. It will run all season and will be awarded to the rider who embarks upon the most futile, ill-fated solo break. The more meaningless the attack, the better. It will probably be won by an anonymous domestique who is an hour behind on G.C. on some interminable stage in  a minor tour, when all the leading contenders have called a truce. If he is battling through a torrential downpour or unseasonable blizzard or sweltering in a forty-degree heatwave so much the better.

Dillier and Ballerini the Early Contenders

So far this season there have been two contenders. On Saturday Ag2R’s Sylvan Dillier set off on a solo attack on stage 4 of the Volta a la Communitat Valenciana. He had been in the day’s break, that at one point had a 4:30 lead, but went on alone with 30km to go. Unfortunately the race finished at the top of a tough 4.2km climb with some double digit gradients. The finish was always going to be contested by the likes of Valverde, Adam Yates (who won the stage) and Jon Izaguirre (who took the G.C.). Dillier’s lead had already been cut to less than a minute at the bottom of the climb – the rest melted away  quicker than an ice cream in the Sahara. But Dillier’s effort had not been hopeless – he had started the stage only 1:50 down overall, so was the virtual leader until late in the race; on that basis his ride cannot be considered for the award. He is certain to try again. He is that sort of rider, remembered mainly for his gallant 2nd at last year’s Paris-Roubaix, when he stuck gamely to the wheel of Peter Sagan for countless kilometres, knowing that his only chance of success was for that wheel, upon which he must have concentrated all his grim determination, to puncture or for Sagan to set off the wrong way around the velodrome at Roubaix (which is not in Australia).

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Davide Ballerini on a doomed late attack in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – an early season marker in the ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM “Balaclava Award” for futile combativity

The early-season pace-setter in the Balaclava Award is Astana’s Davide Ballerini (and there is something Balaclavesque in that itself, because there are certain to be more deserving efforts as the season progresses) for his doomed late attack in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Victoria at the end of January. This race has only been going a few years but has always come down to a (reduced) bunch sprint, apart from when Peter Kennaugh attacked on the last hill and held on to a narrow lead.

Ballerini’s tactics were hard to fathom, which is another plus in the assessment of his ride. His team-mate Laurens De Vreese had been in the early break, mopping up enough points to win the K.o.M. competition, when Ballerini and Nic Dlamini bridged across to the remnants of the break on the 3rd ascent of the tough Challambra Crescent climb, after which it was just the two Astana riders left, with a 1-34 lead over the peloton and 25km to go. But the day’s efforts told on De Vreese who soon dropped back, leaving Ballerini with a dwindling advantage over a hungry peloton and one more climb of Challambra. It was as if he felt honour bound to keep trying, after the efforts of De Vreese, but he must have known that he was going to get caught. Chapeau, Davide! He capitulated on that final climb and, despite attacks by Dylan Van Baarle (who went on to win the Herald Sun Tour a week later), Richie Porte and Luis Leon Sanchez, the race came down to the almost inevitable sprint, with Viviani beating Ewan and Impey, all of whom had been in good form at the Tour Down Under.

Classics Contenders Flex their Muscles

The other big-name sprinters have been in action in Europe with Marcel Kittel getting back to winning ways in the Trofeo Palma in Mallorca – his first win since taking 2 stages of last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, and the 2 sprint stages of the Valencia race going to Dylan van Groenewegen, who showed raw pace to come from an unpromising position to win the final stage, and Matteo Trentin, who poached a win on the trappy finale to stage 2, coming home head of Bouhanni, Swift, Colbrelli and Kristoff. Trentin is a sprinter who can climb – if he’s up there going over the Poggio he could collect in Milano-San Remo.

The lumpier stages in Valencia and Mallorca showed that Alejandro Valverde, Greg van Avermaet and Tim Wellens are all coming into shape ahead of the Classics while Julian Alaphilippe notched a time-trial and a solo stage win at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina before losing over a minute on the ‘queen stage’ into the foothills of the Andes, finishing at nearly 3000M. The stage went to Winner Anacona, Movistar’s climbing domestique who doesn’t get many chances to live up to his name (his Vuelta a Espana stage win came back in 2014). Anacona beat his 2 breakaway rivals to the line and took the leader’s jersey, keeping it on his back till the last stage and beating  Alaphilippe by 35s with veteran Oscar Sevilla 3rd after a week of solid performances.

Alaphilippe will not be down-hearted for long – he showed good form and will no doubt be a force to reckon with at Strade Bianche, Milano-San Remo and the Tirreno-Adriatico. He was well-supported by Belgian youngster Remco Evenepoel, who continues to look the real deal and is mature beyond his years, unlike Iljo Keisse who acted like a 13 year old and was sent to his room. His lewd actions were, inexplicably, defended by his father; there was no record of what his mother thought.

The sprints in Argentina were won by Fernando Gaviria (x2) and Sam Bennett, with Mark Cavendish showing glimpses of form at the start of his long road back to the front rank of the sprinters, but the name to note from the week-long race might be German Nicolas Tivani – the Argentinian outsprinted his two compatriots in the break that stayed clear of the pursuing World Tour teams on stage 6. Tivani rode as a stagiare for UAE-Team Emirates last year, winning the Tour of Serbia, and a return to Europe must come soon.

 

Porte’s Invincible on Willunga Hill but Impey wins his 2nd Tour Down Under

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Richie Porte wins on Willunga Hill for the 6th time, beating Wout Poels, but Daryl Impey (3rd) has done enough to retain his overall title

There’s a Col de Porte (1326M) in the Chartreuse Mountains in France. It’s on the D512 between Grenoble and Chambery, and it’s a proper 1st Cat climb – 17km at an average 6.8%. The Tour de France first climbed its slopes in 1907, but A.S.O. have strangely avoided it since 1998.  Maybe if they don’t want it anymore they should let the State of South Australia use the title to rename Willunga Hill after Richie Porte. After his 6th win on the hill at the Tour Down Under it’s the least they could do. If he was a racehorse he would get a life-size bronze statue.

Although Porte has won 6 times on Willunga, the Tasmanian has only once netted the overall ; with most of its stages culminating in bunch finishes in the quaint Colonial towns that surround Adelaide, the TDU is not a race for the climbers – Willunga Hill is the only real obstacle to trouble most of the sprinters. But not Daryl Impey. Going into the final stage the South African held a 13s. advantage over Porte and more than a dozen other riders. Porte was always the odds-on favourite to win the stage, attacking twice to catch and pass Wout Poels and then ride into a clear lead, but it was always going to be a big ask to open up a 9s. lead in the last 600M, always assuming Impey finished out of the podium placings and time bonuses. But, paced back by his Mitchelton-Scott team, Impey closed the gap as the gradient eased in the closing metres. He not only finished on the same time as Porte, but picked up a 4s. bonus for finishing 3rd, winning overall by 13s.

Impey: A Sprinter who can Climb

Daryl Impey is the first rider to retain the Tour Down Under title in its 20 year history, and his brace of TDU wins is probably the highlight of his career. A pro since 2008, the 34 year old has also won the Tour of Turkey (2009) and the Tour of Alberta (2014), stages in the Basque Tour (2012/13), The Tour of Catalunya (2017) and the Dauphine (2018), and has been S.African time trial champion 7 times. He also became the first South African to wear the yellow jersey of the Tour de France (for 2 stages in 2013) and has always been seen to best advantage in uphill sprint finishes. He’s the sort of rider that you’d expect to do well in the northern classics but his best result in Belgium was 10th in last year’s Brabantse Pijl. Maybe he doesn’t like the cold weather.

What Next for Richie Porte?

Richie Porte summed up the TDU when he said “you’ve got to climb better than the sprinters and then sprint better than the climbers”. He was delighted with his stage win and 2nd overall in his first race in the colours of Trek-Segafredo. Porte will be 34 on 30th January and logically his best years are probably behind him. It seems hard to believe that it was back in 2010 that he won the young riders’ classification at the Giro and spent 2 days in the pink jersey; since then he has never really delivered in the Grand Tours (though his days at Sky, acting as a super domestique to Froome and Wiggins hardly helped his cause). His best placing at the Tour was 5th in 2016, his first year with BMC, but he crashed out spectacularly on a descent in 2017 and broke his collarbone in another crash last year. Porte’s forte is the early season 1 week stage races, with 2 wins in Paris-Nice and victories in the TDU, Tour de Suisse, Giro del Trentino and Tour of Romandie. Those sorts of race will probably be his targets this year; it is hard to see either him or team-mate Bauke Mollema challenging for Grand Tour success.

Mentioned in Despatches: Bevin, Sanchez and Hayman

This year’s TDU was set alight by New Zealander Patrick Bevin. He took the sprint finish into Angaston on stage 2 and held the ochre jersey until the last day, going into the final stage with a 7s. lead over Impey and winning the blue points jersey. But the results don’t tell the whole story – Bevin crashed heavily in the last 5kms of stage 5. He fought his way back to the peloton but finished with blood pouring from his elbow and clearly in pain. He started (and finished) the last stage but dropped out of contention on the first ascent of Willunga Hill. He is clearly not a snooker player (see below).

Honorable mention should also be made of Luis Leon Sanchez. who finished 4th and had been involved in the finish of nearly every stage. Sanchez won the TDU in 2005 and is only a year older than Porte, but he seems to have been around for ever – it’s probably false memory but I’m sure I can picture him riding in wool shorts and toeclips, spare tubs wrapped around his shoulders, a flat cap turned backwards and a handlebar moustache.

Mathew Hayman is even older – officially a “veteran”- and the TDU was the last chapter of a 20year career that was highlighted by his unforgettable victory in the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. Hayman spent last week in support of his Mitchelton Scott team-mate Impey, and then hung up his cycling shoes. In 20 seasons he has ridden an incredible 237,358 racing kilometres, to say nothing of the countless hours training.

Eurosport Struggling to Kick the Habit

It was good to see the TDU on Eurosport, an aperitif for the forthcoming season, even if it was only a 30mins highlights slot, which twice seemed to vanish from the schedules as we were treated to unending coverage of tennis and snooker. They are both equally infuriating for those of us wanting to watch some proper sport due to their indeterminate duration. You end up willing the player who’s a set or a frame up to win with a succession of aces or a clearance of the table, only for their opponent to fight back and take the soporific spectacle to another set or frame. It goes on for ever and it’s goodbye to stage 5 of the Tour of Slovenia!  At least tennis requires a high level of fitness – it’s hard to classify snooker as a sport. In the old days when the tournaments were sponsored by Rothmans and Embassy, and Hurricane Higgins puffed through a packet of fags per frame, it was at least true to its roots as a pub game, though if a player had a serious coughing fit when the last frame came down to the last 3 colours he was never given the same score as the winner.

 

 

Fabien Grellier Leads Direct Energie to Victory in Paris

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A first Grand Tour win for Geraint Thomas and for Wales. A 6th Tour de France win for Team Sky. It had taken nearly 3 weeks for the speculation as to who was leading Sky to be resolved; only when Chris Froome struggled to hold a wheel on the last climb of the Pyrenees did we definitively know the answer, even though Thomas had been wearing the yellow jersey since his first stage win in the Alps. There was the little matter of the T.T. to get through, but there was never a chance of Thomas conceding nearly 2 mins to Tom Dumoulin in a 31km test, barring a crash or a major mechanical issue.

So to the ceremonials. The peloton rolled through the suburbs of Paris at a leisurely pace. There were the handshakes, the winning team linking arms for the obligatory photos, the glasses of champagne drunk while on the move. There was a dramatic sprint finish, with Alexander Kristoff winning his first stage for 4 years – with Gaviria, Greipel, Kittel, Groenewegen, and even Cavendish, absent, and points winner Peter Sagan nursing injuries picked up in a crash earlier in the week, it would be hard to give the race its usual unofficial title of a sprinters’ world championship, but the Tour is all about surviving the mountains to get to Paris, so credit to Kristoff and Demare and Colbrelli.

All of the jerseys had been decided before Paris – if Thomas could be named the overall winner after Saturday, it seems like weeks ago that Sagan claimed his record-breaking 6th green jersey. The French had 2 reasons to celebrate after Julian Alaphilippe was a convincing winner of the Polka Dots and Pierre Latour eventually had a comfortable winning margin over Egan Bernal in the Young Riders’ white jersey competition.

All to Play for in Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints

The only competition that was still up for grabs as the peloton completed its laps of the Paris circuit was the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints. After my last update on Thursday Fabien Grellier was clinging onto a slender 1 pt advantage. Friday’s “sprint” was at the halfway point of the 200km stage, which happened to be about a third of the way up the fearsome Col du Tourmalet – a break of more than half-decent riders had gone clear, intent on either salvaging a stage win or putting the leaders under pressure, and it was Adam Yates who led from Bob Jungels and Mikel Nieve, all of whom were scoring their first points in the competition.

There were no points on offer for the T.T. so it all came down to the last stage and the group of 6 riders who went clear on the first circuit included none other than Wanty’s Guillaume van Keirsbulck – if only he had known how close he could have come to glory! If he had led over the line with 5 laps to go he would have moved onto 8 pts and snatched a last-gasp victory. Direct Energie had sent Damien Gaudin to police the move and hoover up the points but his efforts were not needed as B.M.C.’s Michael Schah led AG2R’s Silvan Dillier to a Swiss one-two, while Van Keirsbulck picked up a single point in 3rd place. Schah’s non-existent lunge for the line to gain the points meant he moved up to 4th in the final standings; equal on points with Yoann Offredo, but they finished 90th and 91st respectively on GC (with a time gap of only 13s.)

Mention must be made of Team Sky. Overall victory (again) and 2 riders on the final podium but they failed to gain a single point in the competition.

FINAL STANDINGS IN THE ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION (NOT SPONSORED BY CHATEAU D’AX FURNITURE)-(ties decided by GC positions)

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FABIEN GRELLIER (DIRECT ENERGIE) held on to win the armchairtifosi.com intermediate sprints competition

1st-FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7 pts; 2nd-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- GUILLAUME VAN KERSBULCK (BEL)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 6 pts; 4th- Michael Schah (SUI)(BMC) 5pts; 5th-Yoann Offredo (FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5 pts; 6th- Greg van Avermaet (BEL)(BMC) 4 pts; 7th-Julian Alaphilippe (FR)(Quick Step-Floors) 4 pts; 8th- Jerome Cousin(FR) (Direct Energie) 4 pts;

equal 9th – Kevin Ledanois(FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Laurent Pichon(FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Marco Minnaard (NL)(Wanty Groupe-Goubert), Damien Gaudin (FR)(Direct Energie); Adam Yates (GB)(Mitchelton-Scott), Elie Gesbert (FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Pierre Rolland (FR)(E.F.Drapac),  Thomas de Gendt (BEL)(Lotto Soudal), Gorka Izagirre (SP)(Bahrain- Merida), Christophe Laporte (FR) (Cofidis Solutions), Kristan Durasek (CRO)(UAE) all 3 pts

TEAM STANDINGS – 1st-DIRECT ENERGIE 23 pts; 2nd-WANTY GROUPE- GOUBERT 14pts; 3rd-FORTUNEO-SAMSIC 12pts; 4th-B.M.C. 9 pts; 5th- Quick Step Floors 8pts; equal 6th- Bahrain-Merida, Lotto Soudal and Mitchelton-Scott  5 pts.

Bianchi Takes Former Ski-Jumper Roglic to Pyrenean Glory

In a few hours Geraint Thomas will be able to cherish the extended lap of honour that is the right of Tour de France winners, as he leads Team Sky around the finishing circuit of central Paris and over the finishing line on the Champs Elysees. Since the famous final stage T.T. that decided the 1989 Tour by a handful of seconds in favour of Greg Lemond, the last stage has never had any overall significance. To all intents and purposes it is a day off for the GC contenders as the surviving sprinters fight out the finish.

Thomas consolidated his win with a solid performance in the Pyrenees, shadowing all the attacks that Tom Dumoulin could muster. The mountain stages were notable for the eclipse of Chris Froome and the daring stage 19 win by Primoz Roglic, who jumped ahead of Froome to claim the 3rd podium place, only to falter in yesterday’s T.T.  Roglic rides on the famous celeste Bianchi bikes for Dutch team Lotto NL- Jumbo, who had looked likely to gain a mountain win last week when Steven Kruijswijk set off on a solo attack on Alpe d’HuezKruijswijk gets close at Alpe d’Huez…but not close enough.

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Primoz Roglic’s Bianchi Leads Dumoulin, Thomas and Bardet on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque

Friday’s stage was a brutal test to put at the end of the 3rd week of a Grand Tour – 4,800M of climbing and the ascents of the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. It was on the last climb that Roglic’s teammates, Robert Gesink and Kruijswijk, attempted to break Team Sky but, though they couldn’t shake off Thomas on the ascent, Roglic’s daring descent opened up a decisive gap and he finished 19 seconds clear of his rivals. It was his 2nd TdF stage win following a win in similar style last year, attacking over the Col du Galibier in the Alps. He is becoming one of the leading stage race riders and has the vital abilities to climb and to time trial with the very best.

The 28 year old Slovenian came into top-class cycling via an unusual route as he was a former Junior World Ski Jumping champion, switching to cycling when he felt that his opportunities in that sport were more limited. He was soon in the big-time, finishing a close 2nd to Dumoulin in the opening T.T. of the 2016 Giro in Apeldoorn and then taking the 40km T.T. stage in Chianti.

Last year Roglic preceded his TDF stage win with overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve, and 4th and 3rd places in the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Romandie respectively: at both races he won the T.T. stages. He ended the season with a close 2nd to Dumoulin in the World T.T. Championship on a lumpy course at Bergen in Norway.

This year Roglic has gone from strength to strength, winning the overall competition at the Tours of Romandie, the Basque Country and Slovenia and, with a contract at Lotto NL-Jumbo for the next 2 years, and a strong team to back him, it cannot be long before Roglic’s Bianchi takes him to a Grand Tour podium place.

Last Chances for Tour Glory

Today is the last day in the Pyrenees. A killer 200km stage with the climbs of the Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, racking up 4,800M of climbing. In theory all Geraint Thomas has to do is sit on the wheel of Tom Dumoulin to seal victory – it’s virtually impossible to see anyone else bursting into the picture, and it’s equally unlikely that Dumoulin will be able to beat Thomas by the 2 minutes he trails by in tomorrow’s 31km time trial. So, the affable Welshman is all set to become GB’s 3rd TdF winner, finally able to receive the plaudits after nearly 3 weeks of media speculation as to whether it was him or Froome who was leading Sky, even though Thomas was leading the race.

Will Grellier hold onto Narrow Advantage?

The situation in the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition is similarly poised. Fabien Grellier holds a 1 pt advantage over Direct Energie team-mate Sylvain Chavanel going into today’s stage – the halfway point will be somewhere up the slopes of the Tourmalet, so the break (possibly with the obligatory Direct Energie member) may still be clear. There will be no points for the T.T., so there will only be Sunday’s jaunt to Paris (with points awarded on one of the passages de ligne on the Champs Elysee). Direct Energie have all but settled the team competition – mathematically Fortuneo or Wanty could still win, but they will need to bag maximum points on both days to overhaul the leaders.

Crashes, Protesting Farmers and Tear-Gas – all in a day’s work for the Peloton

Tuesday’s stage which wound its way into the Pyrenees from Carcassonne was notable for the crashes of Philippe Gilbert and Adam Yates while leading, another stage win for the swashbuckling Julian Alaphilippe, a total stalemate amongst the GC hopes and the annual protest by French farmers, this year enlivened by the indiscriminate use of tear gas. Gilbert (who finished the stage with a cracked patella), Yates and Alaphilippe had all been part of a huge group that had built an unassailable lead and fought out the official (and Armchair) intermediate sprint at Saint-Girons, with Cofidis’s Christophe Laporte gaining his team’s 1st points since the Vendee, ahead of Edvald Boasson-Hagen and former yellow jersey wearer, Greg van Avermaet.

A Short, Sharp, Shock in the Pyrenees

Wednesday saw the “short, sharp shock” of the 65km mountain stage that culminated with the climb of the Col de Portet, Quintana’s long-range attack, Dan Martin’s gallant efforts to chase him down and the eventual eclipse of Chris Froome as Thomas made more gains. It also featured my moment of the race as Julian Alaphilippe, who was dropping back from the lead, passed a similarly toiling Adam Yates and patted him on the back – it had been Alaphilippe who had ridden past the sprawling Yates on the downhill run to Tuesday’s finish, and he had looked to slow up to see if his rival was going to get back onto his wheel. Alaphilippe had picked up a couple of “Armchair” points at the halfway mark, behind Team UAE’s Croatian Kristjan Durasek, and just ahead of Astana’s Estonian super-domestique Tanel Kangert, shortly before he struck out on a lone bid for glory.

Boudat Becomes 6th Direct Energie Rider to Collect Points

Yesterday was a day off for the GC men and a chance for the sprinters who had survived the mountains to go for glory in Pau – victory went to Arnaud Demare, recording only his 3rd win of the year, but as the previous wins were stages of the Tour de Suisse and the Paris-Nice, he clearly goes well on the big days (he’s also a winner of the Milan – San Remo). A group of 5 riders had gone clear early, maximising TV coverage for their sponsors and fighting out the Armchairtifosi points at the sleepy town of Aire-sur-Ardor before being swallowed up by the peloton.  Victory went to Wanty’s Guillaume van Keirsbulck (moving up to 4 pts) ahead of Thomas Boudat, a 6th individual points scorer from Direct Energie’s 8 man team, and Aussie veteran and former Paris-Roubaix hero Matt Heyman (Mitchelton-Scott) who kept fellow Monument winner Niki Terpstra out of the points.

A bad Weekend to go on Holiday

Dear readers, wherever you are, you will have to wait until next week before finding out the final winner of my competition as I am off to Amsterdam for the weekend and will have to record Sunday’s stage. This is the 2nd year running that I have gone on holiday for the last weekend of the Tour – last year I rented a villa in the south of France; when we arrived the owner was there, watching the Marseilles TT on TV – I should point out to Dave Brailsford that this friendly Frenchman did not feel the need to throw cups of urine at the screen whenever the cameras showed Chris Froome’s efforts.

All to Play For as the Pyrenees Beckon

So, no cycling today – just the ITV highlights programme as Ned and crew savour the rest-day delights of Carcassonne and the survivors get ready for the final week. Since the race left the Alps the GC men haven’t had much to do. Roglic clawed back a few seconds on the finishing ramp to Mende, and yesterday Dan Martin attempted to undo the damage done to his chances after a late puncture on Saturday, only to be recaptured by the Sky train. The rest of the week will be somewhat more animated. The next three days in the Pyrenees are crucial for Geraint Thomas to hold on to, or even extend, his not insubstantial lead, ahead of the time trial on Saturday where Tom Dumoulin can be expected to blast back into contention, if he hasn’t already. Not that Thomas is a bad time trialist. Then there’s Froome. Everything is still to play for.

The same could be said of the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition – or, at least the individual rankings, as Direct Energie seem to have “done a Sagan” and settled the Teams competition with a week to go.

Points for De Gendt

On Friday stage 13 tumbled down from Bourg D’Oisans and rolled past the chateaux and vineyards of the Massif Central to finish at Valence in the Ardeche. With most of the top-drawer sprinters eliminated or abandoning in the Alps, Peter Sagan didn’t look unduly troubled as he swept past Demare and held off Kristoff and Degenkolb in a drag race to the line.  A bunch sprint had looked inevitable long before the peloton had reeled in the last survivor of the day’s 4 man break. Surprisingly that last survivor was Michael Schar (BMC) and not the man who had instigated the break hours before, Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt. It was equally surprising that it had taken 13 stages for De Gendt to get in a break as he has already collected stage wins in this year’s Tours of Romandie and Catalunya, spending more time alone than Greta Garbo. De Gendt won a Tour stage in 2016 but he will always be remembered for his epic solo win at the Passo dello Stelvio in the 2012 Giro d’Italia, when he took 3rd overall. Back then he looked like being that rare beast – a genuine Belgian Grand Tour contender – but he has since settled into the role of a freewheeling (forgive the pun) knight errant; even his name makes him sound like he belongs in the pages of Medieval history not the modern professional peloton (one day I’ll write a blog post, or a Ph.D. thesis, on the similarities between the Age of Chivalry and the code of the peloton. You have been warned). On the road to Valence the Belgian took his share  of KoM points, plus the official intermediate sprint, and he rolled across the Armchairtifosi line in the little town of Beauvoir-en-Royans ahead of Schar and E.F. Drapac’s Kiwi Tom Scully.

Direct Energie Save Energy?

On Saturday’s stage to Mende a group of 31 riders (the best placed of whom was 39 minutes behind Thomas) was allowed a huge lead – Direct Energie got 5 of their team into the escape but somehow managed to avoid scoring any points as Spanish National Champion Gorka Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) led Jesper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) and Tom Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) over the imaginary line, halfway up the delightfully named 4th cat climb of the Col du Pont Sans Eau. Izaguirre added 3 more points to the solitary one picked up by his team-mate and brother Jon before the Alps – brought to the race with the aim of helping Vincenzo Nibali in the Mountains, their leader’s untimely departure has left them free to try for stage wins, and Jon came close on Sunday, when 2nd in the 3 up sprint to Magnus Cort Neilsen.

Grellier Deposes Chavanel at the Top of the Rankings

fabien grellier
New Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Leader Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie)

Sunday’s stage from Millau to Carcassonne was a fantastic advert for cycling – as far as the overall picture goes it was a complete irrelevance, as another big break of riders with no GC hopes  went clear, but it produced a brilliant race like a one-day classic, with lone breaks and counter-attacks  before Neilsen predictably outsprinted Izagirre and Bauke Mollema. The Armchairtifosi.com points were awarded with 50km to go, as the break began the ascent of the 1st Cat Pic de Nore, a climb which, incredibly, had never before featured in a TdF stage. The riders had just passed through the feed zone in the town of Mazamet, birthplace of 90s French legend Laurent Jalabert (after whom the climb to Mende on Saturday is named). It was all change on the leader board as Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier got the 3 points to move ahead of team-mate Sylvain Chavanel. Grellier had gone clear with Trek’s Julien Bernard, son of another 90s French hero Jean-Francois Bernard, while another of Bahrain’s newly-underemployed climbers Domenico Pozzovivo led the rest of the break in 3rd place.  23 year old Grellier has spent the whole of his pro career at Direct Energie – his best placing so far was 2nd in the Fleche du Sud in 2015; like Geraint Thomas, he will have a nervous 3 days in his quest to hold on to a jersey and, also like Thomas, the most likely rider to wrest it from his back will be a team-mate.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION – Standings after 15 stages

1st- FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7pts; 2nd-Sylvain Chavanel (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- Yoann Offredo(FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5pts; 4th-Jerome Cousin(FR)(direct Energie) 4 pts

TEAMS  – DIRECT ENERGIE 21pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd-Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11pts