The team used all that experience to pull off the victory with Marlen Reusser. They emerged from the penultimate gravel sector with a numerical advantage of the other teams, with Reusser accompanied by their GC leaders Demi Vollering and Ashleigh Moolman, and one of the stage favourites Lotte Kopecky.
Reusser then launched a solo attack 23km from the finish, forcing the other teams to chase while her GC leaders were towed along. And the Swiss rider’s notoriously powerful time trial engine was enough to see her power all the way to the finish, reaching the line a whole 1-24 ahead of a small chasing group containing Évita Muzic (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope), Alena Amialiusik (Canyon-SRAM) and Veronica Ewers (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), to take her first victory since signing for SD Worx this season.
It was an expertly executed ploy to take the glory on the stage, for sure — but did the team miss out on a chance to gain significant ground in the longer-term race for the yellow jersey?
There was one moment in particular where they might have chosen to really attack their GC rivals, but instead opted to hold back. The riders had just completed the fourth and final gravel sector, and the group of favourites had been whittled down to just 13 riders, three of them representing SD Worx: Vollering, Moolman and Kopecky. Missing from that group were two of the race’s top contenders for GC, Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), both of whom had been caught out in the chaos of the previous sector and had been delayed by mechanicals.
However, rather than move to the front of the group and set a fast pace, this trio instead followed wheels. No other teams took the initiative either, and the pace slowed, allowing Ellen van Dijk to bring her team leader Borghini back into the group, with Van Vleuten also latching back on.
The decision was no doubt made as Reusser was already up the road, and would have been unquestionably the right tactical decision in a classic, where the sole prize on offer for everyone riding is to win the race that day. But in a stage race there is the overall picture of the GC to take into account, and in this context SD Worx targeted a short-term gain rather than a long-term one. The team might celebrate tonight, but if a resurgent Van Vleuten or Borghini wind up denying one of Vollering overall victory, they may ultimately regret not riding more aggressively today.
SD Worx’s approach was shared by the whole peloton, all of whom prioritised survival over trying to make gains. The result was a defensive race in which attacks from the GC riders were rare, with the action occurring at the back of the peloton rather than out the front.
These gravel roads were iIn particularly rough condition, and punctures, mechanicals and bike changes were a constant occurrence (even if crashes were, thankfully, kept to a minimum). As well as Borghini and Van Vleuten on the fourth section, both Cecille Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ -SUEZ-Futuroscope) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) required bike changes on the third sector after the rough roads had caused mechanicals.
Crucially, Ludwig had teammates to assist her, with Vittoria Guazzini handing over her bike and Marie Le Net helping to pace her, while Niewiadoma was also able to latch on to a chasing group that made it back. But even had they been isolated, they might still have been OK thanks to the favourites’ cautiousness. Every time the riders reached the end of a gravelled stretch, there was a slowing down, allowing those caught out plenty of time to recoup and re-join.
The only real attacks that did come from out of the peloton were from others, like Reusser, who were chasing the stage win rather than gains on GC. Évita Muzic, Alena Amialiusik and Veronica Ewers all set off individually before forming a chase group behind Reusser, with the highest on GC among them being Ewers down at 3-11.
There were several accelerations from a typically restless Niewiadoma on the final sector, and at the end of it she had opened up a small gap to the others along with Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service). As the three riders occupying the podium spots at the top of GC, the fact they were managed, however briefly, to gap the rest suggests they are indeed currently the strongest in the race. But they were quickly brought back by the other favourites, and no time gains were made.
So for all the predicted GC drama and massive time gaps, the top ten overall remains pretty much as you were, as all of the GC contenders finished in a group of 20-odd riders about 1-40 behind Reusser.
All, that is, apart from one. Mavi García (UAE Team ADQ) endured the kind of nightmare day that every one of the riders would have been dreading, first needing a bike change on the penultimate sector; then having another mechanical having made it to the front on the next sector, then, in a horrible moment, being clipped by her own team car and hitting the deck.
She still had the fortitude to keep riding, making it to the finish 3-11 in arrears, but the damage had been done and she slips from sixth to eleventh overall.
Even in a conservative peloton where the kind of bold statement-making attacks we were expecting never came into fruition, there was always going to be at least one top GC favourite fall out of contention in such hazardous conditions — unfortunately for García, that rider was her.