Following Monday’s Stage 3 team time trial, BMC Racing emerged not only as stage winners but also leading the general classification — with two riders.
Greg Van Avermaet claimed the maillot jaune, tied on time with American Tejay van Garderen. The decider? Stage placings on the first two days. Van Avermaet was 24th on Stage 1, while van Garderen was 55th, for a difference of 31 placings. On Stage 2, Van Avermaet was 15th and van Garderen was 52nd, for a difference of 37 placings.
Combined, Van Avermaet started Stage 4 wearing yellow with a 68-stage placings lead over his teammate.
Four-and-a-half hours later, Van Avermaet finished 16th on the stage, won by Fernando Gaviria ahead of Peter Sagan, while van Garderen finished 49th — the placings differential growing to 101.
Wednesday will mark Van Avermaet’s fifth career day in the maillot jaune, following his three days in yellow in 2016.
Van Garderen has never worn yellow, coming closest in 2015 when he sat second overall behind Chris Froome from Stage 9 through 13.
And though van Garderen has been slotted in a domestique role for Richie Porte, the question has been raised — will van Garderen have a chance to don the maillot jaune, even for a day? And what would that scenario look like?
It’s possible Van Garderen could take time, and the jersey, in the mountains, which begin on Stage 10, from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand. But first, he’ll need to get through Stage 9, from Arras Citadelle to Roubaix, and its 15 cobblestone sectors. Considering van Garderen has never raced Paris-Roubaix, and Van Avermaet won the Queen of the Classics in 2017, it’s fair to assume they will not be on equal time when they reach the finish line just outside of the Roubaix velodrome.
In order for van Garderen to wear yellow at any point before the peloton reaches the cobblestones on Stage 9, he would need to either regain 101 stage placings from Van Avermaet, or take time from his teammate, potentially scooping up late-race bonus seconds available near each stage finish through Stage 9.
Stage 5, for example, has five categorized climbs, with the last, Côte de la montagne de Locronan, topping out 23km from the finish. The bonus seconds (three, two, and one) are available at 11.8km from the finish.
For Van Garderen to take yellow, the breakaway either needs to be caught before the bonus line, or the breakaway needs to be no more than two riders, and the peloton essentially needs to “gift” the final bonus position to van Garderen, as he’s no sprinter. It’s not a likely scenario, but it’s not impossible, either.
Either way it would need to be orchestrated, and approved, by the BMC Racing Team.
So could it happen?
There is precedent for trading the yellow jersey from one rider on a team to another. In 2013, Simon Gerrans wore yellow for two days after Orica-GreenEdge won the team time trial in Nice, but the Australian sat up for the bunch sprint in Montpellier to gift the jersey to his teammate Daryl Impey. It was a demonstration of friendship and sportsmanship, but it certainly was not expected nor required.
“Daryl was a huge part of me getting the jersey so I thought it was a nice gesture to be able to pass it on to him now,” Gerrans said. “He was an integral part of the team’s time trial. I thought it was only fitting that he could spend a day or two in the jersey as well.”
As it so happens, Gerrans is now on BMC Racing.
However Van Avermaet, Porte, and van Garderen are in a very different situation than Gerrans and Impey were. The future of the BMC Racing Team is uncertain as no title sponsor for 2019 and beyond has been announced. Porte is reportedly headed to Trek-Segafredo in 2019, while van Garderen has been linked to EF Education First-Drapac. Van Avermaet has been shopping for a new contract, however a Cyclingnews report published Tuesday states that he has not yet found any takers for his requested two-year deal and an annual €1M salary.
This level of uncertainty within a team can create a situation where riders are less inclined to sacrifice for one another, instead focusing on individual results. That may or may not have been evident when Van Avermaet appeared to sprint around van Garderen in the closing metres of the team time trial, from back to front, assuring there would be no time gaps between them.
That didn’t appear to be the case on Stage 4, however, as van Garderen could be seen riding at the front of the peloton alongside teammates Patrick Bevin and Michael Schär, contributing to the chase of the daylong breakaway.
Asked by CyclingTips after the stage to comment on the maillot jaune, van Garderen walked away abruptly, without comment — not exactly the actions of someone unbothered by the situation. A subsequent email to the team’s press officer requesting comment from van Garderen was not answered.
The last time an American wore the yellow jersey was Floyd Landis, in 2006, though we all know how that ended up. George Hincapie and Dave Zabriskie have also worn yellow, in 2005 and 2006, though, like Landis and Lance Armstrong, those results were retroactively stripped for doping. If you go to the official history books, whatever that means, the only American to wear yellow was Greg LeMond, who last wore yellow in 1991.
Based on Van Avermaet’s comments before and after Stage 4 regarding BMC’s team strategy, it doesn’t sound like there is any intention to see the maillot jaune swap shoulders within the team. The Belgian’s answers have been focused on defending his yellow jersey as long as possible, and on protecting Porte for his GC battle in the weeks to come.
“The guys did a really good job to protect Richie and me,” Van Avermaet said following Stage 4. “They were always on the front and we spent a lot of energy in the wind but as we saw, anything can happen and by staying up at the front we were in the safe zone. We protected ourselves and with no time loss, it was a perfect day.”
“I think tomorrow will be another hard stage. It will be important to stay in front and stay safe but in the end, I think we can do more in the final. I will try to be up there and I would like to make a good result. I’ve enjoyed my day in yellow but I also came here to try and get a stage win and I think tomorrow is my first big opportunity. A win in yellow would be even more incredible.”
And with that, it seems as though van Garderen wearing yellow, at least with Van Avermaet’s blessing, will be equally incredible.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers will be writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.