As the Tour de France approaches its final week, the race within this beautiful race increasingly comes out to play. Teams who haven’t won a stage yet are desperate to get in the breakaway. Riders defending ninth place on GC do mystifying amounts of chasing. Squads are made to do “the turn of shame” on the front after getting an earbashing from their DS. And, most commonly, the fight for the four classification jerseys dictates affairs.
Yesterday’s stage 14 between Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon saw a green jersey grapple. The day was enlivened by Bora-hansgrohe going loco at the front of the bunch over early medium mountains to drop incumbent Sam Bennett.
To use their wrestling names, it was The Wolf Pack versus, er, The Kitchen Clan, with The Cobblers (aka CCC) lending a hand to definitively keep him dropped.
The upshot of Sagan’s superior intermediate sprint placing and fourth place finish yesterday was reducing his deficit to 43 points. So, what’s that coming over the hill? Just maybe the start of an enthralling duel for the maillot vert. And how it is needed, the life nearly strangled out of the competition in the last decade by Sagan’s sheer brilliance.
For years, Peter the Great seemed to do it all single-handedly, freelancing in bunch sprints, insouciant ease and peerless versatility elsewhere making him a tour de force. Now, he is a proud but, dare we say it, slowly-fading king and the strength of his team is crucial.
Their unsubtle, high-pressure tactic could be replicated in a few of the forthcoming stages. Get rid of Bennett before an intermediate sprint and there’s a points bounty to be had. After all, Deceuninck have come mob-handed with flatland powerhouses whereas the Bora boys can climb - a case in point being Mani Buchmann, fourth in last year’s Tour, driving the pace yesterday.
Advantage Deceuninck for the first half of the Tour, now the pendulum may swing the other way. There’s no nailed-on sprint finish until Paris and a time cut that waits for no Irishman in the Alps. Sagan won’t cede power without an almighty battle.
However, it’s still advantage Bennett. About five years and nine hairstyles ago, Sagan got into punchy mountain breakaways with reckless abandon. (Remember that crazy descent into Gap in 2015? No. Just us, then). He’ll surely need to do similar to stand a chance.
Yesterday, the Slovak couldn’t keep it together single-handedly over the last hill into Lyon. When he and everyone else had run out of helpers, Sunweb’s stage-hunting street urchins piped up - “Please sir, can we have some more stages?” - and pickpocketed the peloton. Søren Kragh Andersen timed his solo to perfection after 1-2 moves from Benoot and Hirschi.
That was after a fierce four and a half hours of racing at 46km/h average. So much for a breather before today’s killer mountain stage. No more easy days before Paris: as was forecast pre-race, it really is going to be a brutal Tour.