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SALON-DE-PROVENCE, France (CT) – Paris is looming and time is quickly running out. Just two stages remain in this year’s Tour de France and almost half of the teams in the race are desperately chasing their first stage win.
Victory in the sport’s biggest event his hugely important to sponsors, not least because the race is the most important and influential platform of the year. It has unsurpassed television coverage and also roadside fan attendance that no other event enjoys.
One of those who had been battling for a victory since day one was Team Dimension Data. This year’s Tour has been a vastly different experience for the South African team than that of twelve months earlier. Then, it clocked up five stage wins thanks to the four sprint successes of Mark Cavendish and the breakaway victory of Steve Cummings.
However, this time around, Cavendish crashed out early on and Cummings is still coming back to form after missing much of the early season.
The team went painfully close with Edvald Boasson Hagen on four previous occasions: on stage seven he lost out in a photo finish – believed to be the closest ever in Tour history – to Marcel Kittel. On stage 11 he finished third, crossing the line behind Kittel and Dylan Groenewegen (Team LottoNL-Jumbo).
He was third again three stages later when Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) beat him to the line in Rodez.
His frustration continued on Tuesday when Matthews – again – got the edge.
It seemed like he and the team were being teased by fate: what they searched for was dancing in front of them, fractionally out of reach.
However all that paled into insignificance on Friday. The Norwegian was part of the day’s large breakaway group and then attacked in the finale. He pushed ahead with Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb) and then dropped him, powering onwards alone.
He rolled across the line with arms aloft, ending a six-year wait for what is his third career Tour stage win.
As pleased as he was, Team Dimension Data Principal Douglas Ryder was even more jubilant. He is a more extraverted character than Boasson Hagen, and someone who was under a lot of pressure for his team to deliver.
The release of that pressure was very evident after the finish of the stage.
“I’m so relieved,” he exclaimed, chasing the moving throng of reporters who were surrounding his rider. “What a legend! What a great Tour de France.”
Expanding on his feelings, he said the result was huge for both Boasson Hagen and the squad.
“It is a big thing for Edvald. He hasn’t won in a few years. For his confidence, for his position in the team going forwards and of course for the team, to be the bridesmaid so many times and then to come out and win on today’s stage – which was super hard – you could see how motivated he was.
“It is just fantastic for the team and for Edvald.”
Boasson Hagen agreed, of course. Going so close four times beforehand made his success all the more sweet.
“I’m so happy. I’ve been so close so many times. I could have waited for the sprint, but I was feeling quite good, I felt I could win with one attack. I made a big gap and was able to cross the line alone.”
The memories of those near misses were fresh on his mind. “I didn’t have to have a photo finish … I’m really happy about that.”
However, as much as that team was delighted to finally get its win, many others will go home from France empty-handed.
Two chances left
In all just twelve of the 22 teams in the race have landed stage wins. QuickStep Floors is the most successful with Marcel Kittel’s five successes, closely followed by the combined total of four clocked up by Team Sunweb’s Michael Matthews and Warren Barguil.
Ten others have one stage win apiece, namely Team Sky (Geraint Thomas), Bora-hansgrohe (Peter Sagan), FDJ (Arnaud Démare), Astana (Fabio Aru), Direct Energie (Lilian Calmejane), Cannondale-Drapac (Rigoberto Uran), Ag2r La Mondiale (Romain Bardet), Trek-Segafredo (Bauke Mollema), LottoNL-Jumbo (Primož Roglic) and, as of Friday, Team Dimension Data.
Of those, all are WorldTour squads, bar Direct Energie.
Seven WorldTour teams and three Pro Continental outfits are aiming to break their duck on either Saturday or Sunday. Time is very much running out and most will go home empty-handed.
Those still hunting are Bahrain–Merida, BMC Racing Team, Team Katusha–Alpecin. Lotto–Soudal, Movistar Team, Orica–Scott and UAE Team Emirates, and the Pro Conti trio of Cofidis, Fortuneo–Oscaro and Wanty–Groupe Gobert.
Katusha-Alpecin will be desperately hoping that world champion Tony Martin can deliver in Saturday’s TT and, if that doesn’t work out, that Alexander Kristoff can improve on his second place of stage four.
Lotto-Soudal will pin its hopes on André Greipel, who has been victorious on the Champs Elysees in the past.
His teammate Thomas De Gendt was part of the breakaway with Boasson Hagen on Friday and eventually finished fifth.
He explained the importance of getting in the day’s move. “These are the last chances to get a stage win,” he accepted. “André [Greipel] already won two times on Champs Elysees so we know he is capable of winning there. But today was also a day that was possible.”
Because of that, giving it a shot was vital.
Ryder said that was the team strategy on Friday morning. “There was a lot of teams that hadn’t won anything — at least 50% of the teams — so, if there was a breakaway, it was really important to get into the move.”
Boasson Hagen did that and, hours later, was triumphant.
“It’s huge for us because when we win we know, and this race, with all of you here, the biggest media, the biggest exposure for the charity what we race for, the riders — it’s epic for us. It’s like a double positive for us. You want to win here.”
Ten teams in the race will very much agree with that. At least eight of those will go home empty handed, in terms of a stage, but that won’t stop them from trying. Over the Tour’s final weekend, they will go all out to turn things around and finally shake off the pressure.
After Friday’s stage, Boasson Hagen and Team Dimension Data are the template they will seek to emulate.
The winners thus far:
Stage 1: Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
Stage 2: Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors)
Stage 3: Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe)
Stage 4: Arnaud Démare (FDJ)
Stage 5: Fabio Aru (Astana)
Stage 6: Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors)
Stage 7: Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors)
Stage 8: Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie)
Stage 9: Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac)
Stage 10: Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors)
Stage 11: Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors)
Stage 12: Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Stage 13: Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb)
Stage 14: Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb)
Stage 15: Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafred)
Stage 16: Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb)
Stage 17: Primož Rogli? (LottoNL-Jumbo)
Stage 18: Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb)
Stage 19: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Dimension Data)