This Tour de France has never quite settled down, and with three Pyrenean stages and a lumpy stage to Cahors to come, it’s probably safe to say that it won’t now. Even stage 15, a rolling and superheated traverse of the Languedoc to Carcassonne which was won in a bunch sprint by Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Deceuninck, was not straightforward.
Time was when three or four of the sprinters’ teams would control a stage like this, bring the break to heel in the last 10km and throw their fastmen into the finish for a bunch sprint. But this Tour de France has been unpredictable and unusual, and stage 15 was no exception. Wout van Aert, who has been an agent of chaos throughout the race, joined the early attack, then drifted back to the bunch. Jumbo-Visma lost Steven Kruijswijk to a crash (and also Primož Roglič, who didn’t start). The remainder of the break - Nils Politt and Mikkel Honoré - were brought back with 50km to go and Trek made the race extremely hard on the final third-category climb, dropping a lot of the sprinters. Over the top, Benjamin Thomas and Alexis Gougeard attacked; Thomas was only brought back with 500m to go.
And who better to win a 15th chaotic stage of a chaotic race than Jasper Philipsen, whose affectionate nickname when he rode for UAE Emirates, for the entropic nature of his suitcase and the easily identifiable nature of his seat on the bus (the one covered in clothes) was ‘Jasper Disaster’?
A lot of people in cycling - journalists, pundits, riders, managers, fans, everyone really - have been observing that a new generation of riders has been making things somewhat unpredictable and exciting in recent seasons. Whether it’s Tadej Pogačar winning Strade Bianche or attacking on the cobbles of stage 5, or Jumbo-Visma taking the Slovenian race leader apart on the Col du Galibier, or Tom Pidcock throwing himself down the Col du Galibier, or Wout van Aert doing Wout van Aert stuff, or Michael Matthews winning on Mende or Trek-Segafredo stretching the peloton out on the Côte des Cammazes, a new, anarchic spirit appears to be taking hold of the peloton. Julian Alaphilippe is not at this Tour de France, but it’s safe to say that he’d have absolutely thrived.
Teams are having to improvise a little more than they used to. Ineos Grenadiers, for example, did show a little of their old safety-first approach when they went to the front of stage 15 with 15km to go, to keep their two GC riders Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates out of trouble in a section of the race that was a little exposed. However their racing director Rod Ellingworth told Rouleur after the stage that they’re also ready to adapt to and embrace the chaos.
“It’s been like this for a couple of years,” he said. “You didn’t used to see the green jersey off the front of the race, or the yellow jersey attacking. It’s a different way of doing things. What I like about it is that Geraint is really adapting to it. When he won the Tour the racing was a bit more traditional, but he’s loving it here, because he’s a bike racer. We’re expanding our racing culture to challenge ourselves, which we’re enjoying doing, and not just in Grand Tours.”
Ellingworth said that it was the advent of riders like Wout van Aert and Pogačar that had shaken things up “Van Aert never sits still,” he said. “If you have somebody like him on your team you can really start to play around with stuff.”
It has been like this since the start of the race, or at least after the two bunch sprints in Denmark, which saw a relatively predictable pattern of racing, even if the huge crowds and aggressive performance of Magnus Cort gave race followers something to cheer. Wout van Aert dropped everybody on a punchy climb near Calais on stage four and won solo. The cobbles of stage five may not have opened huge gaps, but the racing was dynamic and ever-changing. Tadej Pogačar won the next two stages into Longwy and on La Super Planche des Belles Filles. Van Aert won a middle mountain stage into Lausanne. Bob Jungels attacked with 65km to go to win in Châtel. Magnus Cort won a hugely dynamic stage into Megève after looking like he was out of contention with just 500m to go. There was the Jumbo-Visma show on the Galibier and Granon, when Pogačar cracked. Pidcock on Alpe d’Huez. Mads Pedersen engineering a win from the break in Saint-Étienne when the sprinters’ teams tried their best to make it a bunch finish. Michael Matthews - a sprinter - had an impossible win in Mende in a brave solo effort and a scintillating battle with Alberto Bettiol. And stage 15, the first bunch sprint since day three, was nothing at all like most bunch sprint days.
However, it’s not a free-for-all. One reason the racing is so dynamic is that every team now has plans and ambitions for stages. When a team executes a plan, it has an effect on the rest of the peloton and the way the race turns out. For example, Michael Matthews’ win on Mende looked like a glorious and unpredictable victory against all odds, because the Australian has never shown stage-winning form on a climb as hard as that above Mende. But it was planned by his team. Team manager Matt White told Rouleur that once Matthews was in the break, they knew he had to get out in front of the race, and they knew that if he could, then the teams with numbers would have to chase, but with a lot of passengers, which would in turn take the sting out of the chase. It was unexpected to a lot of race followers, but easy to rationalise with the benefit of hindsight, and there was nothing accidental about it.
Similarly, Trek-Segafredo’s aggression on stage 15 was executing a plan to their own benefit. Mads Pedersen is one of the fastest sprinters when around 60 riders make it to the finish, but not when all the bunch sprinters are there. They rode extremely hard to get shot of the sprinters, and it injected an extra layer of unpredictability and excitement into the day, but it wasn’t to entertain, just to give themselves a chance of winning the stage.
All this has contributed to a vintage edition of the race, reminiscent of the classic 2019 race and very few others in the three decades before that. It may turn out that Jonas Vingegaard can defend his lead straightforwardly in the Pyrenees, which will give the final week a more uniform look. However, attacking spirits have been liberated, and no single team appears capable of putting them back in their box. And as Pogačar’s collapse on the Col du Granon showed, nobody can be sure of victory. As Ellingworth observed, “They can all crack.”