Studies have shown that extreme heat can affect mental performance. In fact, hot weather has been linked to reduced cognitive function and judgement errors. As the peloton baked in the 40 degree heat on the roads of the Massif Central on stage 10 of the Tour de France, pouring ice down their jerseys and grabbing bidons wherever they could, it seemed like the effects of the burning sun were having more than just a physical impact. Actions of teams got stranger and stranger as the stage rolled on, amounting to one of the craziest and most entertaining days that this race has seen so far.
And who else better to kick it off than Tadej Pogačar, the man who seems to be reluctant to follow any of the traditional rules of Grand Tour racing? Everyone knew it was going to be a hectic start – the peloton would race up the third category Col de la Moréno climb as soon as the flag dropped and it was prime terrain for forming a breakaway – but few expected it to be the UAE Team Emirates rider sitting second on the general classification lighting things up.
With 152km to go, Pogačar’s white jersey could be seen flying off the front of an already fractured group, and when Pog goes, Jonas Vingegaard has simply no choice but to follow. With that, all of a sudden, in a stage that was supposed to be nailed-on for a breakaway, the two gangly GC contenders were off the front, Pogačar without even a teammate alongside him. Their group was reeled back in eventually, but why did Pogačar make his move in the first place? To prove his strength? To make Vingegaard chase? Just for a bit of fun? Delirium in the heat of the day? It left more questions than answers.
But that was not to be the only head-scratching part of this savagely tough stage to Issoire. After a long, long fight, the breakaway finally established itself and pulled out a gap of three minutes to the peloton. It seemed like they would duke it out for the victory. That was, until Alpecin-Deceuninck appeared at the front of the peloton. Mathieu van der Poel began to chase hard with 50km to go and we were all left wondering what on earth Alpecin were up to. It would be a big ask to reel the break back in, and they didn’t really have a rider to contest the win left in the group. On commentary, Carlton Kirby asked Sean Kelly what the team’s plan was. “That, I can’t answer,” Kelly replied, baffled. To be honest, neither can we.
And then, things took an even more unexpected turn. Van der Poel ended up chipping off the front of the main peloton, and who was on his wheel? None other than Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert – cyclo-cross déjà vu, anyone? While it gets full marks for entertainment value, this two-up move to bridge across to the front of the race was ultimately pointless for both riders – the gap was too big to close and they had very little chance of making it. When the peloton swallowed them up again a few kilometres down the road, Van der Poel and Van Aert both went straight through it to the back of the bunch, alongside the rest of the Alpecin-Deceuninck squad. What was it all for?
Finally, as the race rolled towards the finish line – a comforting sight for many riders who had struggled through the brutal conditions – there was another puzzle thrown up for us to solve. It wasn’t the usual train of Jumbo-Visma leading the peloton to the finish line, but instead the red jerseys of the Ineos Grenadiers. They came to the front with 30km to go, seemingly in a sudden panic about Pello Bilbao of Bahrain-Victorious being three minutes up the road (a threat to Carlos Rodriguez’s GC position). It made sense, to an extent, but the British squad had known about Bilbao being in the break for the last four hours – why wait until the final one to begin to try and pull him back? In the end, the work of the Grenadiers made little difference and the Spaniard still moved up two places overall after the stage.
But with all of the strangeness that occurred in France today, the sublime came with it too. Pello Bilbao’s eventual win from the breakaway was the culmination of an intense day of racing, and it feels like there was no one better to win arguably the hardest stage of this Tour de France so far than the Bahrain-Victorious rider. Bilbao dedicated his win to his teammate Gino Mäder, who tragically passed away at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks ago. In honour of Mäder – a rider who was extremely passionate about environmental causes – for each person Bilbao beats at this year’s race, he will donate to Basos Elkartea, a charity working to protect local forests in Busturialdea. When he wins a stage, he doubles the donation as a tribute to his friend, and to support a cause Mäder felt so strongly about.
So while we might puzzle over the tactics of some teams, or wonder why sports directors made the decisions they did, the most important thing that we all know the answer to after today’s stage is why Pello Bilbao had to win; why he rode so hard to cross the finish line first; why the baking heat didn’t matter and why he looked to bounce over the climbs with such ease and finesse. “For Gino,” he said to his teammates as they congratulated him over the line. And that’s what matters.