No more gifts. If Tadej Pogačar is to win the Tour de France at his first attempt - which would make him the first to do so since Fignon in ‘83 - he’s going to have to do it by distancing him on the road. The four bonus seconds he trimmed from the lead of Primož Roglič on Sunday look likely to be the last his compatriot will let him have, as the Jumbo Visma team now seem more than content to allow all future breaks to embiggen and disappear down the road.
Which puts four stages up for grabs. And that’s just one of the reasons the Stage 16 escape was the most sought-after we’ve seen so far.
Remarkably, by the second rest day of the 2020 Tour, not one of the competitions was completely sewn up - not even the Movistar... sorry, we mean Team Prize. Which meant as of yesterday morning there were a plenty of points to play for and seconds worth seeking.
Fifteen stages through last year’s Tour Tim Wellens was looking resplendent in polka dots and held a lead of 14 over Thibaut Pinot in second. A healthy gap but not a huge one, compared to this year it would look like a mountain in itself. At the start of the same stage this year, the entire top ten were only separated by one more than that.
Likewise the maillot vert (and if you’re a writer with an aversion for repetition, it isn’t half helpful for cycling’s vocabulary to contain a an array of French phrases it’s perfectly appropriate to casually toss into a sentence) is a more competitive race than we’ve enjoyed in a decade. It might still only be a three horser, but that’s deux chevaux more than it usually is. While it’s still perfectly possible Peter will have the last laugh, as of today he was wearing the same kit as his team-mates.
You might argue that the young rider jersey is all but Pogačar’s, given how indefatigable he has seemed so far, but even that contest is closer than it’s been at this point in proceedings since 2017. This time last year Egan Bernal had 13 minutes in hand and could have stopped for an helado if he hadn't had the small matter of the maillot jaune to attend to. It would only take one bad day for Pogačar or one very good one from Enric Mas to see those 2 minutes 35 disappear. Remember, the Slovenian has never been here before.
All of the above meant almost every team had riders champing at the proverbial to get up the road, the moment a COVID-free Christian Prudhomme dropped his flag at KM0. We ended up with a whopping 35 riders in the first break before the intermediate sprint. None of which were Sam Bennett or Peter Sagan but one of which was Matteo Trentin, who proceeded to take a maximum of twenty points and reduce his deficit from Mr Sagan to just twelve. The former were left with nought but hashtag GrupettoLife.
On the bigger hills came the winnowing - and we really prefer “winnow” to “whittle” - as the race for the stage and for mountains points began in earnest. Once away on his own Pierre Rolland - see today’s Top Banana - could have gotten greedy but he knew what he wanted. Alaphilippe tried but was once again let down by his legs. Ineos had three strong, experienced riders present in the showdown and for a while it looked like theirs to lose. They lost it.
Instead of Richard Carpaz punching his way to a fourth win in a Grand Tour, it was Bora’s Lennard Kämna who snatched his first.
We find ourselves in the unusual position of talking about the biggest team in the sport needing a stage to salvage something from the Tour de France. The other competitions might be as wide open as ever for most teams, but that’s all they have left to play for.