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

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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

Thomas Leads, Froome Follows

It’s been all change at Le Tour. Last week it was the flatlands of the Vendée and the cobbles of Roubaix. This week it’s been the drama of 3 stages in the Alps which sees Britain’s Geraint Thomas in a clear lead, ahead of ostensible team leader Chris Froome. Will it be the same story when the race reaches Paris on 29th July? Who will be left to challenge the Team Sky duo, now that Nibali has joined Porte on the sidelines, Uran has had to quit the race and Quintana has lost too much time to be a credible challenger? Even Bardet and Dumoulin look to be playing for places.

Dutch Duo Serve Up Spectacular Appetiser in La Course

The Alpine dramas were preceded by a truly epic race for La Course, the women’s race, this year run as a 1-day event over much of the same route as the men’s race from Annecy to Le-Grand Bornand and featuring the last 2  category 1 climbs. The selection was made on the concluding Col de la Colombière and it was Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen who took a 10 second lead over the top, ahead of her compatriot and recent Giro Donna winner Annamiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott). The gap changed little on the long descent and Van der Breggen looked sure to hold on in the uphill run to the line, but she faltered in the closing metres, allowing van Vleuten one last chance to use her time-trialing skills to reel her in for a famous victory. The pair were 1-22 clear of 3rd-placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

The 4th Musketeer?

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Julian Alaphilippe wins at Le Grand Bornand, his 1st stage victory in Le Tour

The men’s race was won in emphatic style by Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step Floors) who went clear with over 30kms to go, claiming his first Tour stage victory (to add to his win in this April’s Flèche Wallonne) and securing a lead in the King of the Mountains jersey which he will take to the Pyrenees. Alaphilippe looks like a Musketeer, especially if you imagine him wearing a floppy felt hat with a big white feather instead of a casquette, something which D’Artagnan would have no doubt tossed aside with a Gallic shrug of disdain. With his active, attacking style he rides like a Musketeer too, or how I imagine a Musketeer would have ridden if the bicycle had been invented 200 years earlier. He had been one of the first riders to get into a break which eventually swelled to 21 and included none other than the wearer of the maillot jaune, Greg van Avermaet. The Belgian’s determination to go down fighting before the bigger climbs even extended to him taking 1st place in the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprint, which was decided on the gravel road that crossed the Plateau de Gilères, at the point where events of 1944 were being re-enacted in period costume (though this presumably did not include the Nazis’ slaughter of Resistance fighters). Van Avermaet led over the imaginary line, just ahead of Tony Gallopin (Ag2R) and Jon Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida)

Fortuneo’s Fortunes Improve

Shortly after the “Sprint” Direct Energie’s Rein Taaramae came to the front in a badly- judged tactical blunder, that, if it had been better-timed, would have seen him become the 6th member of his team to score points in the competition. After dominating proceedings in the 1st week, Direct Energie have since failed to score a single point and it was fellow Pro-Continental “Wild Card” team Fortuneo-Samsic who clawed back some of their deficit to Direct Energie and Wanty Groupe-Goubert on stage 11.

This was yet another frustrating example of the prestigious Armchairtifosi.com competition being subject to the vagaries of live TV. I had designated the sprint point to be halfway up the Col du Pre (half-distance of the stage) but, at that moment, the cameras had switched back to the peloton where Valverde was launching an attack. When they went back to the break the 3 riders from Fortuneo were massed at the front, à la Team Sky, with Elie Gesbert leading Amael Moinard and Warren Barguil – the commentators wrongly assumed it had something to do with protecting Barguil in his bid for KoM points, but we know differently; Fortuneo moved up to 2nd in the team standings for my competition.

So to today’s dramatic stage to Alpe d’Huez which saw the likeable Geraint Thomas, who always manages to give the impression of being a bloke who just enjoys being out on his bike, extend his overall lead in gutsy style. He became the first-ever rider to win at the Alpe in yellow and he deserves the chance to become GB’s 3rd individual TdF winner, a prospect which would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. With Wiggins’s win in  2012, and Froome’s 4-timer, it is only Vincenzo Nibali (2014) who has broken the recent  British domination of the race, so it was particularly galling to see him crash out after a collision with a police motorbike in the last 4km. How he was able to chase back to within 20s of Froome, Thomas et al, when he was later diagnosed to have suffered a cracked vertebra is, frankly, mind-boggling, especially when considered alongside the play-acting antics of the footballers at the World Cup.

Rolland Takes the Points at Les Lacets

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Les Lacets de Montvernier –  can you look at this picture and not imagine riding up it?

The Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprint on stage 12 honoured the inclusion of the spectacular Lacets de Montvernier, the stunningly scenic 3.4km climb that threads its way up a mountain in the middle of nowhere and looks like a theme-park ride. It was Pierre Rolland (EF Drapac-Cannondale), former lieutenant to Tommy Voeckler at Europcar (now Direct Energie) and one-time next-great-hope of French cycling, who led the way. He was clear of Alaphilippe, one of the current hopes (with Bardet and the side-lined Pinot) who have been saddled with that title, and all that goes with it as France struggles to find the next winner of its own great race; Les Bleus have lifted the World Cup twice since Bernard Hinault’s 5th and final Tour win in 1985.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS STANDINGS AFTER STAGE 12

1st-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL(FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 2nd-Yoann Offredo(FR)(WAnty Groupe-Goubert) 5pts;  eq.3rd- Jerome Cousin(FR) and Fabien Grellier(FR) (both Direct Energie) 4 pts; 7 riders equal 5th on 3 pts

TEAMS – DIRECT ENERGIE 18pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd- Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11 pts; 4th-Quick Step Floors 5 pts

Kruijswijk gets close at Alpe d’Huez…but not close enough

Today’s dramatic stage that finished atop Alpe d’Huez saw a fantastic win for Britain’s Geraint Thomas, the first rider to win this stage in the maillot jaune. He extended his overall lead and left the question as to who is really leading Team Sky unanswered. It may not be answered until after next week’s stages in the Pyrenees and the time trial.

The iconic climb to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, was first included in the Tour in 1952, when the stage was won by the legendary Fausto Coppi. The fastest (possibly chemically-enhanced) ascent of the climb was by Marco Pantani, who clocked 37m 35s in 1997.

 

 

Think of Coppi and Pantani and you think of Bianchi – the oldest bike brand in the world and, with their distinctive celeste frames, perhaps the most easily recognisable. Today Bianchi supply bikes to the Dutch-based Lotto N.L.-Jumbo team who scored two stage wins last week thanks to their sprint sensation Dylan van Groenewegen. He was forced to abandon the race after sustaining injuries in Sunday’s stage over the cobbles to Roubaix, his badly broken Bianchi a sorry sight to anyone with aesthetic sensibilities.

For much of today’s stage, it looked as if there would be another rider winning on the Italian brand, as Lotto’s team leader, Steven Kruisjwijk struck out from the original breakaway group with fully 60km to go. He took a 6 minute lead onto the Alpe – Kruijswijk is a proper climber, whose prowess in the mountains saw him leading the2016 Giro d’Italia until the final weekend, and for more than half the 15km climb it looked like it would be not only enough for him to win the stage, but also take the overall lead from Thomas. It was not to be. Kruijswijk began to tire as Bernal led Thomas and Froome back after attacks by Bardet and Quintana, and he was caught with just over 3 km to go. An honourable defeat and at least he had the honour of leading through “Dutch Corner”, the bend near the church where the Dutch fans congregate (rumours are that some of them arrive and start on the Heineken in April) to noisily greet their heroes, though it has been 29 years since  a Dutch rider won at the Alpe.

Arras to Roubaix: C’est Magnifique Mais Ce N’est Pas Le Tour

“Now the real racing can begin,” said Chris Froome in a rest-day interview for ITV4 – he was referring to the impending 3 tough days in the Alps, which are certain to reshuffle the GC standings after the traditional 1st week of long flat stages and sprint finishes, rather than decrying the quirky mini Paris-Roubaix that was Sunday’s 9th stage. This stage, with more cobbled kilometres than ever before, had been feared by the teams, eagerly anticipated by the fans and built up by the media as the race’s first real showdown. In the end its significance was minimal, apart from the abandonment of Richie Porte, whose crash came well before the first secteur of pavé. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a gripping spectacle, with more fallers than the Grand National, leading riders having to chase back after getting delayed in the mayhem, and Romain Bardet suffering more punctures than most riders get in a year. But the bad luck was pretty evenly distributed and, apart from Rigoberto Uran, who lost 1m28s, all the GC hopes finished within a few seconds of each other. It was a bit like a glorious 5 day Test match,  with double-century scoring batsmen and hat-trick-taking bowlers, that ends in an honourable draw.

Degenkolb’s Emotional Return to the Podium

Once Greg van Avermaet, Yves Lampaert and John Degenkolb had built an unassailable lead in the closing 10kms the pressure was off. Van Avermaet stretched his overall advantage to 43 seconds, but he will surely lose all that, and more besides, as soon as the Alps are tackled. Credit must be given to Degenkolb – a previous winner of the Paris-Roubaix and long seen as Germany’s successor to Greipel and Kittel, this was his first win in a World Tour event since taking a stage of the 2015 Vuelta, and his career had looked finished after that horrendous training crash in Spain in Jan 2016 when a driver took out his whole team and he nearly lost a finger.

Should There be Cobbles at Le Tour?

The day was a terrific spectacle but is there really a place for cobbles in Le Tour? The potential for disaster is ever-present, putting not only the team leaders at risk, but also meaning that they could lose the services of key domestiques. When the peloton is stretched into a long line by the cobbles, team cars are delayed and the damage that could be done to a rider’s GC aspirations is potentially huge. In the Paris-Roubaix itself a rider who punctures and can’t get back to the front knows that his day is over, but that’s all it is – one day – whereas in a Grand Tour it’s all about limiting time loss. Luck plays its part in the Tour, as in all cycling and all sport, but it should not be the deciding factor.

Direct Energie’s Domination Continues

Tour de France
Direct Energie to the fore as the break tackles yet another secteur of  pave

I am beginning to suspect that Direct Energie are targeting the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition – perhaps Jean-Rene Bernardeau is a follower of this blog. 3 of their riders infiltrated the 10 man break that stayed clear for about as long as expected and points scorers Lilian Calmejane and Damien Gaudin (separated by Sunweb’s Chad Haga) were the 4th & 5th members of the squad to notch up points. As the cameras switched back to the peloton where Moscon and Froome did synchronised falling and Van Avermaet demonstrated the cyclo-cross skills that all Belgians are born with, it was Gaudin who led the break off the cobbles at the end of secteur 8 (and then went on ahead with Janse van Rensburg). 

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Damien Gaudin is interviewed at the start in Arras

Gaudin: A for Effort

Gaudin is a 31yo native of Maine-et-Loire who has spent most of his career at Direct Energie or its predecessors. He had attracted my attention, and gained my sympathy, when a luckless 3rd in Le Samyn, run in the horrendous weather two days before “the Beast from the East” swept in from Siberia. He was in a 3 man break, but his companions were Quick Step’s Gilbert and Terpstra, who took it in turns to attack and then sit on as he chased them down. It was like watching those old gangster movies where one baddie holds the good guy by his arms and the other one beats him up. Undaunted, Gaudin picked himself off the floor and a few weeks later headed off to Brittany to defend his title in the Tro Bro Leon, a race run over farm tracks. He was repeatedly dropped from the lead group but plugged on and set off in a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, pursuit of solo winner Christophe Laporte. He is clearly at home on the roster of Direct Energie.  On 18 pts they lead Wanty Groupe-Goubert by 7 pts in the team standings, while Sylvain Chavanel retains the Chateau D’Ax jersey – it would not be a stretch of the imagination to see him (or Calmejane) going on a long-range offensive in the Alps to score more points.