You wait two and a half years for an edition of Paris-Roubaix, and then three come along at once. Following its post-lockdown return last October for a novel autumn time edition in the rain, and its return to the usual April slot this spring, yesterday we were treated to yet another helping, as the Tour de France visited the cobbled roads of the Hell of the North.
The cloud of dust being kicked up by the peloton amid the dry, summertime conditions and the huge convoy of accompanying traffic created a scene that at times resembled a shot from a Mad Max film more than it did a bike race, and the carnage and drama was worthy of an instalment of the action franchise.
Pogačar stamps authority on the race
Easing his way through the chaos was one Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who, as has so often been the case in the early years of his career, came out on top against all of his GC rivals. Following on from his revelatory ride at the Tour of Flanders this spring, he once again looked astonishingly strong over the cobblestones, and for all the talk of the weakness of his UAE Team Emirates team leaving him vulnerable for this stage, especially in light of Jumbo-Visma’s ambush on stage four, he actually wound up gaining time on them rather than vice versa.
It’s not that UAE Team Emirates were able to offer him any support on the cobbles — indeed, he was isolated for most of the stage, highlighting how although their line-up is bolstered in terms of climbing talent this year, it’s not at all well-rounded. It’s just that it simply didn’t matter, as Pogačar was able to single-handedly surf wheels at the front of the peloton over the cobbled sectors, and then fly away from the bunch along with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) on sector three, 19km from the finish.
Jumbo-Visma’s strength-in-depth keep yellow jersey dream alive
That Pogačar’s gains were ultimately limited to 13 seconds over Jonas Vingegaard and most of the other GC contenders was down to just how strong Jumbo-Visma were. The Dutch squad ensured an absolute nightmare in terms of luck, but still had the strength and wherewithal to manage the situation and rescue their yellow jersey hopes — if not necessarily for Primož Roglič, who lost a potentially fatal two minutes after bizarrely crashing into an errant hay bale, then at least for Vingegaard.
The image of Vingegaard and three of his Jumbo-Visma teammates playing musical chairs with each others’ bikes after the Dane’s puncture and unsatisfying bike changes might have looked like it captured a team’s race unravelling, but what it also showed was the team’s race-saving strength in numbers. They had so many options that even when Roglič crashed soon later, they were able to send Tiesj Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck back to assist him, yet leave Vingegaard sufficiently supported by Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte.
Van Aert’s ride in particular was an epic one. Having looked out of sorts following a crash of his own earlier in the day (an incident which marked the beginning of Jumbo-Visma’s cursed day), he recouped his strength to pace the group and drag Vingegaard from out of the precipice of GC oblivion. Upon catching a group containing GC threats Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Nairo Quintana (Arkéa–Samsic), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), Van Aert kept going until Pogačar was only a matter of seconds ahead.
In doing so he also prolonged his own stint in the yellow jersey, just reward for another sublime effort for the team.
Roglič’s hopes appear in tatters
The real upshot from stage five was therefore not Pogačar seizing control of the race, but rather Roglič possibly falling out of contention.
As hard as Benoot and Van Hooydonck rode for him, there was only so much they could do for the luckless Slovenian, who even had to pop his shoulder back in after dislocating it at his fall.
Roglič ultimately arrived at the finish 1-55 behind the Van Aert-motored Vingegaard group, which contained the majority of other GC contenders: Adam Yates, Geraint Thomas, Dani Martínez (all Ineos Grenadiers), Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Romain Bardet (DSM), Nario Quintana (Arkéa–Samsic), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Enric Mas (Movistar).
They subsequently all end the day within 1-02 of Pogačar, and still very much in contention, while Roglič lies a less surmountable-looking 2-17.
Roglič’s presence in the group behind may also have factored into GC teams like Ineos Grenadiers’ decision to only offer partial support for Jumbo-Visma in the group chasing Pogačar. Catching Pogačar would have meant Jumbo-Visma ceasing to ride in order to give Roglič a chance of catching up, and as much as they would not have wanted to lose ground on the defending champion, they will also have relished gaining time on the other Slovenian GC star. The fact they wound up losing mere seconds to Pogačar and gaining whole minutes on Roglič vindicates their approach.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering all the drama, there weren’t many other victims in the GC race beyond Roglič. Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) was the only one to abandon following a crash, making it two successive Tour DNFs for the Australian, while Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën) ceded 3-08 to the group of favourites.
The way a mere mechanical was enough for O’Connor to eventually lose so much time demonstrated just how much worse it could have been for Vingegaard without the support of teammates, while also begging the question: what if Pogačar had himself been held up at some point; say, when Mikaël Cherel (Ag2r Citroën) swerved in front of him going over a speedbump earlier in the day? Would the lack of support available from his team have meant that he’d have lost a similar amount of time?
The fact is though that he didn’t, and so the hoped for Pog v Rog contest that so many of us longed to witness at this year’s Tour looks like it might be off. But Pogačar versus a Jumbo-Visma line-up helmed by Jonas Vingegaard remains very much on, and, injuries permitting, Roglič still might have a big part to play in support of the Dane. The battle for the yellow jersey is far from over.