The best thing about bike racing is that sometimes the cleverest rider can beat the strongest. Sometimes the most bloody-minded rider can beat the strongest. And sometimes even the luckiest rider can beat the strongest. If we wanted the strongest rider always to win, we’d have 21 stages of time trials.
EF Education EasyPost rider Magnus Cort was all three of these things in somehow, miraculously, winning stage 10 of the 2022 Tour de France at the Altiport in Megève. The runway at Megève Altiport is so short that pilots need training and a special licence in order to use it safely, so it’s ironic that it also doubles as possibly the draggiest, most interminable finishing straight in cycling. It took so long for the four riders who entered it first to ride up it that they were caught by a chasing group that had looked definitively out of the running, on the back of which sat a shattered-looking Magnus Cort.
In the slow-motion sprint to the line, Benjamin Thomas of Cofidis unwisely led out. Bahrain Victorious rider Luis Léon Sánchez jumped past him with 300 to go; BikeExchange-Jayco’s Nick Schultz did the same to the Spaniard with 200 to go. Then Magnus Cort agonisingly sprinted up to the finish alongside the Australian and just managed to get his wheel in front over the line.
Middle mountain stages like stage 10 are the best and worst of the Tour. Over the last few years, the GC riders have treated them as a day off, save for occasional finishing sprints. Understandably so in the case of the Megève stage - with the Col du Granon and Alpe d’Huez stages in the offing, stage 10 was badly timed for GC action. It’s also true that the first week and a bit of the Tour, up to the first rest day, was raced incredibly hard. The two Danish sprint stages were relatively low-key but there was significant movement from the peloton every subsequent day: Jumbo-Visma and Van Aert’s attack into Calais, the cobbles of stage five, the very hard finish and sprint win by Tadej Pogačar in Longwy, La Super Planche des Belles Filles, Lausanne, where the peloton chased down the break for another Van Aert win. Apart from La Super Planche des Belles Filles, these were largely flat or rolling; it’s only once the Tour hit the middle mountains, which is tougher on paper than these earlier stages but crucially raced a lot less intensely by the peloton and GC riders, that things settled down.
The result of this trend, which has held true in the last five Tours at least, is that the best racing is happening in the breaks on these stages. And so it was with stage 10 into Megève. With 25 riders in the break, no team counting more than two riders and no really obviously strong climbers, the outcome was very hard to predict.
EF-EasyPost knew that in the last two or three Tours, riders who have got into the break and then taken the initiative to attack early have often won. You only have to look back to Sunday’s stage in Châtel for the last example: Bob Jungels went with 65km to go, and put a lot of effort into distancing the pursuit early. This time around, EF’s Alberto Bettiol made the early attempt; by the time he was finally closed down on the final climb, there were a lot fewer than 25 riders left.
The race at the front kept changing shape, with a lot of attacking and counterattacking which resulted in a stalemate of 12 riders, none of whom looked capable of getting away. The only team with numbers was Bahrain Victorious, who had both Luis Léon Sánchez and Fred Wright, and when Sánchez attacked in the final four kilometres, nobody initially followed, and when they tried, Wright diligently closed them down.
But Sánchez faltered, and Schultz and Matteo Jorgensen closed him down with two kilometres to go, with Dylan van Baarle painfully joining them under the flamme rouge. Van Baarle went straight past them, and was painfully closed down in turn, which is when the leading quartet started looking at each other.
Cort had been dropped several times on the climb, and he was last in line as Benjamin Thomas closed down and then went past the leading quartet in the final 400 metres. He and his team had ridden cleverly with their strategy of putting Bettiol up the road, he’d had a bit of luck that the leading quartet had slowed so dramatically and he had the sheer bloody mindedness to hang on as the others made their final efforts. It was the combination of all these factors that saw him win. He’d hardly been in front at all from the bottom of the final climb to the top, but he was in front for the single moment that counted.