Three wins in 19 stages – does this Tour de France mark the end of the pure bunch sprinter?

As racing becomes harder to control and more riders can do it all, are the fast men running out of chances to win?

After Dylan Groenewegen won the second bunch sprint of the Tour de France in Sønderborg on stage three, the fast men in this year’s peloton had to ride over 2000 kilometres for their next shot at a win. It finally came on stage 15 to Carcassonne which was won by Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Deceuninck in a scrappy, messy sprint. Before that stage, the sprinters had hauled themselves over the Col du Granon and Alpe d’Huez, as well as suffered through brutal, punchy stages which were destined for a breakaway win.

Once stage 15 was out of the way, there were three, savage Pyrenean stages that the sprinters had to contend with if they hoped to reach stage 19 where flatter roads awaited. It was no simple matter for the riders, many of whom weigh close to 80 kilogrammes. Images of Fabio Jakobsen as he crossed the finish line of stage 17 – a stage with over 3000 metres of altitude gain – with just 15 seconds to spare before being outside of the time limit circulated on social media as many applauded the Belgian’s efforts. The Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl rider couldn’t stand up at the top of the final Peyragudes climb. He had to be caught by his soigneurs and teammates as he collapsed by the barriers just beyond the finish line.

Fabio Jakobsen after stage 17 (Image: Getty)

That Herculean effort was all for another chance to sprint in Cahors two days later. It was a relatively flat stage, with just two fourth category climbs to contend with. The sprinters teams kept the four-man breakaway on a tight leash, rarely allowing the gap to tip over the one minute mark. Teams like Lotto-Soudal and Alpecin-Decuninick rode on the front. It was a brutal day on the pedals for those with a sprinter in their ranks as they fought to rein in attacks that were being launched left, right and centre in the closing 40 kilometres of the stage.

After all that work, the breakaway was in sight as the storming peloton reached the final kilometre. Alpecin-Decuninck’s Jasper Philipsen was in prime position to sprint, delivered perfectly through the precarious series of roundabouts by his reliable teammates. He was on the drops with tunnel vision engaged as he bounded towards the chequered flag, he could almost taste the sweetness of victory.

But someone ruined it for Philipsen and for all the other fast men who were still in the bunch at this point – think Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Dylan Groenewegen (Team BikeExchange) and Alberto Dainese (Team DSM). After their teams had been riding on the front all day, in just one, short and powerful attack, Jumbo-Visma’s Christophe Laporte got a gap on the bunch and took the stage win by multiple bike lengths ahead of a dejected Philipsen.

The Frenchman put his hands on his head in disbelief as he crossed the finish line. He couldn’t believe he’d done it. But should he, or any of us, have been so surprised?

Jasper Philipsen after stage 19 (Image: Getty)

This has been a Tour de France full of unexpected outcomes. Wout van Aert has been winning solo on stages we thought were destined to be a sprint, Tom Pidcock, the mountain bike world champion, took victory atop Alpe d’Huez. Michael Matthews dropped everyone on a steep climb to win stage 14 to Mende on his own. Christophe Laporte, a powerhouse who we associate with tough Belgian classics, time trials and long solo breakaways, attacked the sprinters and went for a long one.

It begs the question, is it time to stop associating riders with particular types of stages altogether? If there’s one thing this Tour de France has taught us, it’s that the peloton is changing and there is less and less room to specialise. It’s been the Tour of the all-rounder, those who can climb, sprint, ride the cobbles and do everything in between. 

The route design of the 2022 Tour de France has played a part in this, too. There have only been two completely flat stages and they both took place during the opening weekend in Denmark. The final pan-flat day will be on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but, with how this year’s Tour has been going, I wouldn’t bet on a bunch finish as a certainty there, either.

As a fan, these attacking, ruthless, brutal stages have been a joy to watch. Gone are the days of switching the TV on with 10 kilometres to go on a flat stage to see the main drama of the day, instead, we’ve seen fireworks since the flag has dropped. It’s been relentless, it’s been instinctive, pure bike racing, and it’s accumulated to what has been one of the most exciting Tours de France in recent history. 

But the sprinters, I imagine, haven’t enjoyed things quite as much. Will the likes of Fabio Jakobsen and Caleb Ewan need to start to try new things in order to get their opportunities to win? Can they keep relying on the same tactics of sitting in the bunch and blaming their teammates if the breakaway makes it to the line? It’s time for the pure sprinters to evolve with a changing sport. 

You could say that the Tour de France route planners should consider adding more pan-flat stages to the race to give the sprinters more chances and to keep those classic Tour de France bunch sprints that have become a big part of the race’s identity alive.

But, as a fan of the sport, I vote for the former. This new type of racing has had my eyes glued to the TV for almost three weeks straight. It made me unable to leave my sofa, shouting at the screen, feeling excitement, heartbreak and everything in between. I will wave a happy goodbye to long flat stages where the peloton cruises along for 150 kilometres until they ramp it up to the sprint to the line, and I thank the riders who have attacked and animated this race. If the pure fast men want to keep on winning in the Tour de France, it’s time to move with the times and think of fresh ways to get victories in a new era of cycling.

Cover image: Agence Zoom/Pete Goding

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