Echelons!

Today at the Tour: After crosswinds shuffle the deck, the peloton pauses

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Generally, when people use the phrase “the winds of change,” they’re speaking metaphorically.

After nine and half days of racing at the Tour de France, the winds of change blew quite literally on the peloton Monday, shaking up the general classification just 35km before the first rest day was set to begin.

On the open roads into Albi, with crosswinds buffeting the peloton, EF Education First went to the front and lit the fuse. Unfortunately for the American team, the bomb went off in their hands, and they were out of position while Ineos, Bora-Hansgrohe, Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma emerged at the front when the smoke cleared.

The net result was that GC contenders Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte, Jakob Fuglsang, and Thibaut Pinot all lost 1:40 to rivals Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Nairo Quintana, Steven Kruijswijk, Enric Mas, and Adam Yates. The crosswinds giveth, and the crosswinds taketh away.

It was a more significant time gap than seen after the Stage 2 team time trial or the Stage 6 summit finish at la Planche des Belles Filles, a moment that will have clear consequences on the outcome of this race. It also served as a harsh reminder that GC days are more than time trials and summit finishes, that everything can change in an instant. And hallelujah for that.

Wout van Aert’s stage win in Albi — ahead of established sprinters like Elia Viviani, Caleb Ewan, Michael Matthews, and Peter Sagan — was a final, unexpected jolt of excitement that seemed appropriate after 10 days of racing that saw its share of shakeups before any high mountains or an individual time trial.

And on Tuesday, after crosswinds shuffled the deck, the Tour de France paused to rest, to look back, and to look ahead.

The star of the first 10 days has been, without question, Julian Alaphilippe. The most decorated rider of the spring classics season has been the most electrifying rider of the Tour de France, soloing to a stage victory in Épernay , fighting (albeit unsuccessfully) to defend the jersey on la Planche des Belles Filles, and then attacking alongside compatriot Thibaut Pinot to reclaim the jersey in Saint-Étienne.

“It’s way beyond anything I imagined,” Alaphilippe said at a rest-day press conference Tuesday. “My Tour is already a success. Anything that happens now is a bonus.”

Julian Alaphilippe went on the attack in the final kilometer Stage 6, finishing at la Planche des Belles Filles, but was unable to defend his maillot jaune; he got it back two days later, at Saint-Étienne.

While in the maillot jaune, Alaphilippe also played a role in Viviani’s successful lead-out train on Stage 4 into Nancy, and helped drive the echelons on Stage 10 into Albi, where Viviani was just beaten to the line by van Aert. In total he has spent five days in yellow, including the all-important national holiday, and he will likely spend one more, and perhaps two more, as the race leader before the Stage 13 time trial in Pau.

“I am happy to be doing a sprinter’s stage [Wednesday] with the yellow jersey and that should give me another day in yellow as long as there isn’t a glitch,” he said. “But I know that the Pyrenees are coming and the time trial. I know that it is not my strong point but I have improved and worked hard on it. I am not going to challenge the best time trialists but I will give everything as usual. With this type of course and with the yellow jersey on my back, if I still have it, I hope to spring a surprise.”

And that’s just fine for Team Ineos, which could not be sitting in a better position. The team still has all eight of its riders, while its two GC leaders, Thomas and Bernal, sit second and third overall. The longer Alaphilippe stays in yellow and Deceuninck-Quick Step defend the jersey, the better for Ineos, saving them from the effort which now feels inevitable.

Though Thomas leads the virtual classification among GC contenders, followed by his teammate, it’s been a rollercoaster for the defending champion. He went down in a crash at the end of the opening stage in Brussels. He bounced back to help drive Ineos to a second-place finish in the Stage 2 team time trial. He made a statement on la Planche des Belles Filles, catching and passing Alaphilippe in the final 200 meters to finish as the best-placed GC contender, taking a handful of seconds.

He crashed again, this time in the final 15km of Stage 8 into Saint-Étienne, landing on teammate Gianni Moscon’s bike, yet fought back to finish with the main bunch. And he was perfectly positioned at the front when the race exploded in the crosswinds on Stage 10, taking significant time on several key GC rivals.

Knowing that several GC rivals had been caught out, Ineos set a hard pace at the front of the lead group on Stage 10.

After 10 days of racing, among the GC contenders, Thomas leads Bernal by four seconds, Kruijswijk by 15 seconds, Emanuel Buchmann by 33 seconds, Mas by 34 seconds, Yates by 34 seconds, and Quintana by 52 seconds. Every other GC contender is more than a minute behind the Welshman, and that gap is only likely to grow after the Stage 13 time trial.

It’s not overstating things to say that Thomas is in the driver’s seat; it’s now his Tour to lose. Meanwhile Bernal has now moved into the best young rider’s white jersey, which he will almost certainly not surrender for the remainder of the race.

“It’s been excellent,” Thomas said at the Team Ineos press conference Tuesday. “Things are really starting to heat up. The parcours has had a lot to do with it, with tricky hills placed near the end of stages. Alaphilippe being so aggressive has made a difference. It’s been a great 10 days, and would have been even better if we were just a couple of seconds behind Alaphilippe, instead of over a minute. But Alaphilippe is not necessarily a [GC] contender. By the second rest day we’ll know a lot more, and if he has increased his advantage, we’ll be a lot more concerned.”

And while Kruijswijk hasn’t been viewed as a five-star favorite, given the golden Tour that his Jumbo-Visma team is having, Thomas will want to keep a close eye on the redhead from Nuenen. Not only is the Dutchman now his closest GC rival, he’s riding on a team that has already won four stages, the Stage 2 team time trial and three sprint finishes with three different sprinters — Mike Teunissen in Brussels on Stage 1, Dylan Groenewegen in Chalon-sur-Saône on Stage 7, and van Aert in Albi on Stage 10.

Steven Kruijswijk, Wout van Aert, and Dylan Groenewegen celebrated Jumbo-Visma’s victory in the team time trial on Stage 2 in Brussels.

A top-10 Grand Tour finisher six times in his career, including the last three he’s started, Kruijswijk is now in a very good position to contend for the podium as the race reaches the Pyrenees and then the Alps.

“So far, it’s a pretty good classification for me,” Kruijswijk said at the Jumbo-Visma press conference Tuesday. “But I also know we are only at the first rest day. It’s better to be high up in the top 10. We saw what happened yesterday. You can easily lose some seconds, or even minutes, on days [when] you don’t expect it. I’m pretty happy with the standings how they are now. I’m confident about what’s coming next, it’s even better-suited for me.”

And while Jumbo-Visma has been able to persevere through missteps — Groenewegen crashed on the opening stage, and George Bennett was coming back from the team car after grabbing bottles when the peloton split on Stage 10 —  EF Education First has simply tripped all over itself over the past three days.

The EF team came to the Tour with three proven GC riders in Rigoberto Uran, Mike Woods, and Tejay van Garderen. While none were considered big favorites, all three have registered top-10 Grand Tour finishes, with Uran placing second behind Chris Froome at the 2017 Tour.

And the squad rode well in the team time trial, finishing sixth, and just eight seconds behind Team Ineos. But it’s been mostly a downward spiral since then.

Van Garderen tanked on la Planche des Belles Filles, losing eight minutes. The next day, he crashed in the opening kilometers just outside the start town of Belfort, when he hit a traffic island, causing him to fall heavily on his hand, face, and knees. He finished the stage, but was forced to abandon prior to Stage 8 day after x-rays revealed a broken thumb.

The finale of Stage 8 saw Woods lose his rear wheel inside the final 15km, taking down Moscon and Thomas and disrupting the entire Ineos team; Woods escaped injury, but lost his chance to vie for the stage win, and kissed his top-10 spot on GC goodbye when a mechanical saw him lose nearly 14 minutes.

With crosswinds buffeting the peloton, EF Education First went to the front and lit the fuse. Unfortunately for the American team, the bomb went off in their hands, and they were out of position when the smoke cleared.

And then, of course, there was Stage 10. The EF team had the right idea in the crosswinds, amassing at the front first. However their injection of pace caused a reaction from GC and sprint teams such as Ineos, Bora-Hansgrohe, Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma. Before long, they were out of position. Then, several of their riders went the long way around a roundabout just as the peloton was splintering, and Uran was on the wrong side of the split. The winds of change had blown, metaphorically and quite literally.

“They hesitated, and they lost the moment,” said EF sport director Charly Wegelius. “They got into what we call the washing machine, and nobody wants to be there. It all goes extremely fast in a moment like that. And they lost the moment. And then it was all gone.”

Ultimately, the Colombian would be one of the GC contenders to lose almost two minutes, and he’s now 13th overall, 2:06 behind Thomas. When Uran finished second to Froome in 2017, it was by a margin of just 54 seconds.

Given all that, it’s not hard to understand why EF and Uran didn’t hold a press conference on the rest day.

Yes, the race has only reached its first rest day. Yes, the big mountains are looming. Yes, it can all go extremely fast, in a moment. But as we’ve already seen, the Tour de France is also a race where momentum can swing in either direction, and success can be a shield.

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