The 19th century British prime minister Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, once said, “There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests,” and he might just as well have been talking about bike racing.
On the 2023 Tour de France’s gentle egress from the Alps, a largely flat 185km stage from Moûtiers to Bourg-en-Bresse, a four-man break managed to hold off the peloton despite never holding a lead of more than a minute and a half. Kasper Asgreen of Soudal–Quick-Step outsprinted Lotto-Dstny’s Pascal Eenkhoorn and Jonas Abrahamsen of Uno-X for the stage win; the fourth man, Eenkhoorn’s teammate Victor Campenaerts, was swallowed up by the charging peloton with 50m to go, and the first rider over the line from the bunch, Jasper Philipsen, was so close to the leading trio that he was credited with the same time.
Normally, a four-man break (which only became a quartet when Eenkhoorn bridged across a little over halfway through the stage) would not have much hope of holding off a chasing peloton at the Tour de France, especially as the lead went under a minute with 35km to go. However, bike racing is less formulaic than it used to be; also the third week of the Tour de France is not at all like the first week.
The alliances that held through the opening sprint stages – Alpecin-Deceuninck, Soudal–Quick-Step, Astana Qazaqstan, Jayco Alula, DSM-Firmenich, Lidl-Trek and Bahrain-Victorious all came with strong sprinters and the motivation to keep things together for them – have been eroded and changed as the race has developed. Cavendish and Jakobsen were hobbled by crashes, which meant two of the important allies of the sprinters, Soudal and Astana, were now enemies, with their own interests. Through stage 18, Alpecin, Jayco and Lidl worked to keep the break under control, but even the other sprinters’ teams seemed reluctant to contribute. Perhaps the fact that Jasper Philipsen has won all four bunch sprints in the Tour so far weakened the motivation of other teams to share in the work. Why pull the Belgian to a fifth victory?
The chasing peloton (Image by Charly Lopez/ASO)
The politics of the peloton have also shifted through the comparative successes and failures of each team. Before stage 18, a dozen teams still had not won a stage, though it was surprising on that front that not more tried to infiltrate the break of the day. EF Education-EasyPost, TotalEnergies, Arkéa-Samsic, Movistar, Astana and Groupama-FDJ were winless and sprinter-less through to stage 18, with four opportunities left. Three if you discount Paris.
The final complicating factor is that everybody is shattered, especially after the brutal queen stage of the race yesterday, over the Col de la Loze to Courchevel. It’s easy to suggest that riders should go into breaks, but by this point in the Tour, many are just surviving.
Bike races are won and lost in the temporary alliances that form over the course of the day. On stage 17, for example, the break contained Felix Gall of AG2R-Citroën, Simon Yates of Jayco Alula and Pello Bilbao of Bahrain-Victorious. It also contained Gall’s teammate Ben O’Connor, Yates’ teammate Chris Harper and Bilbao’s teammate Jack Haig. The success of the break would favour all three riders, despite all being close on GC and rivals for the top five or six in Paris. Yet O’Connor, Harper and Haig all traded pulls as if they were on the same team. Their leaders could sort it out later.
Stage 18 was equally won and lost in its alliances. At the front of the race, the manpower contained in the break was suboptimal – 184km is a long way to share the work between four riders, let alone three, as the break counted until Eenkhoorn arrived. However, the composition was better – Asgreen is a former winner of the Tour of Flanders and Campenaerts recently held the world Hour Record. Eenkhoorn and Abrahamsen have less illustrious palmarès, but neither are the kind of break fodder you find in the sprint stages in the first week of the Tour. What’s more, while Campenaerts was doing the majority of the work on the front, none of the others was shirking their responsibilities. It was a strong alliance of strong riders, with none of the gamesmanship, bluffing and politics of the breaks we saw during week two, which were often bigger and stronger, but usually fell apart under the weight of their own ambition and split up through non-cooperation. Lotto-Dstny also had two riders up there, which reduced friction, especially as Campenaerts was willing to work.
The four-man break in stage 18 (Image byPaulone Ballet/ASO)
Behind, the alliance was still a strong one: Alpecin, Jayco and Lidl-Trek. DSM started to contribute to the peloton’s pace. Bora helped out. Intermarché-Circus-Wanty came through very late, for Biniam Girmay, though they didn’t have much impact. The problem was that the sprinters’ teams kept burning through domestiques, and nobody was fresh. With 20km to go, the lead was 48 seconds, which the peloton halved in just five kilometres, and the break looked doomed.
However, the effort to take 24 seconds off the lead had burned a lot of riders, and the rate of reduction in the gap slowed. Five kilometres later, the gap was 22 seconds, and with eight to go, it went back out to 24. Fourteen seconds at five kilometres to go. Eleven seconds at four. Eight seconds at three. Also eight seconds at two to go, and six seconds under the flamme rouge. Campenaerts put in one last almighty turn in the hope that Eenkhoorn could sprint to the win, and the alliance of the leading quartet finally broke down with 200m to go as Abrahamsen, Eenkhoorn and Asgreen looked to their own interests.
Campenaerts, Eenkhoorn and Abrahamsen might regret putting so much into the day. On one hand, the enterprise was successful; on the other, only Asgreen’s name has gone into the history books, and the final result from their perspective was the same as if they’d sat in the bunch all day, only they’d spent more energy. However, they should also take inspiration from Lord Palmerston, who may have lost his position as Prime Minister in 1858, but came back to take it again in mid-1859.
*Cover image by Charly Lopez/ASO