There aren’t many Grand Tour stages that are required viewing from start to finish. As little scope as organisers have to influence the way a route is raced, they do their best to schedule such stages for the weekend, when TV audiences' attentions are likely at their longest. It almost never works out.
Perversely, and this is based more on a hunch than a peer-reviewed, scientific study, the actual unmissable stages tend to fall on Fridays.
Stage 19 of last year’s Tour de France, the one that was curtailed by a landslide, was a Friday. As did the corresponding day of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. David Millar’s victory from the breakaway in 2012 happened on a Friday also. And those are just the first few that spring to mind.
Is it possible we’re simply cherry picking examples to support an ill-considered thesis? Who’s to say.
If it’s true, though, it’s as if the gods of cycling are cocking a snook in the direction of the casual viewer, because it's obviously to the advantage of the professional cycling watcher. You’d think so, anyway. More than one member of the Rouleur team was sandwich shopping in the London Bridge branch of M&S at the moment Chris Froome took flight and Simon Yates went backwards.
Anyway, the point is, yesterday was a Friday, the (on-paper) profile was pretty innocuous, yet if you ducked out for lunch you almost certainly missed something.
It’s not that crosswinds were completely unexpected - it was the Massif Central after all - but there can’t have been many who predicted them to both blow the expected stage contenders out the back and decimate the general classification (and yes we do know that technically means to kill one in every ten.)
Hard as it was not to feel for those who whose GC challenges took a hit - Pogačar, Landa and Porte were the day’s biggest victims, along with Esteban Chaves and Bauke Mollema - it would be harder still not to delight in the way the day was won. And not to be a little bit in love with the rider wot won it.
Wout van Aert’s first victory three days ago in Privas was not just permitted by the team, it was planned for. Yesterday was all about opportunism, improvisation and ingenuity. No rider in the race has less of a lead-out than the Belgian.
“There is Dumoulin at the front. Interesting that Wout van Aert was on his wheel there,” observed Eurosport’s Rob Hatch, as the head of the race passed under the 4km to go bridge. Still, WVA didn't really joined the battle for the stage until a kilometre later, after ensuring Primoz Roglic was safely home.
Van Aert was well positioned in the finale and even better positioned as he lifted his arms to the heavens well before the line. “I timed my sprint perfectly, I think,” he told Seb Piquet afterwards.
After his first victory in this race two days ago, the best rider in the world promised that for the rest of it he would be focused on the team’s general classification priorities. Fool us once, Wout. Fool us once.