The general classification battle at the Tour de France is a race of endurance. The winner at the end of three weeks will be the rider who has timed their effort to perfection, never spending too many pennies when they aren’t needed, doing enough, but just enough. Every small amount of energy expenditure matters, and one error of judgement can be the difference between standing in yellow on the podium in Paris or leaving the race with the bitter taste of disappointment. No one knows all of this better than defending Tour champions Jumbo-Visma, which begs the question: what on earth were they doing during stage 12 of this year's race?
The fight for the breakaway as the peloton rolled out from Roanne today was extremely brutal – it took over 80 kilometres of racing for an eventual group to go clear. As the front of the race fractured time and time again, the back of it did too – riders were being shelled out of the group as quickly as they were chipping off the front and the peloton’s washing machine effect was on its fastest spin cycle. Ordinarily, this would be a nightmarish situation for the team defending yellow, who would prefer to be in control of who is going with the breakaway. Today, however, it was the team of the race leader instigating the chaos.
In flashes of black and yellow, the likes of Wout van Aert, Tiesj Benoot and Wilco Kelderman were flying up the road, starting attacks themselves and closing down those of others. The eyes of those of us watching the mayhem unfold on television widened even further, however, when even the yellow jersey wearer Jonas Vingegaard began to put digs in himself, chasing down the attacks of fellow GC contenders like Simon Yates, with, of course Tadej Pogačar vigilantly tight on his wheel. The pandemonium continued as the kilometres ticked by, so much so that it became impossible to tear ourselves away from the racing action. This was entertainment.
It is hard to even imagine races like this in Tours gone by – compare the metronomic and specific trains of Team Sky to today, when the two key favourites to win the race overall were prepared to light things up in the opening kilometres of a stage which should have just been a transitional one for the GC men. It looked like it was every rider for themselves and the tactics of Jumbo were head-scratching for even the most seasoned of cycling pundits.
Speaking to GCN after the stage, Jumbo-Visma sports director Merijn Zeeman said that Jumbo were keen to have a breakaway go up the road, ideally with one of their riders in it, in order to ensure that bonus seconds at the top of the climb and at the finish were taken away from Pogačar, who is hot on Vinegegaard’s heels in the GC. This makes the tactics of the Dutch team make some kind of sense, but it still seems like they went about it in a way that made it far harder for themselves than it needed to be. Normally, a team like Jumbo-Visma would try to let the break go early on and then proceed to block the road to prevent it getting out of control, rather than put riders in it themselves. In their offensive racing, they even dropped Vingegaard’s super-domestique and GC back-up Sepp Kuss (Kuss managed to regain contact with the main group, but it was a dangerous moment for the American.) So why did they do it? Are they feeling the pressure of how finely poised the GC is at the very top? Is this the Tadej Pogačar effect?
It's true that the UAE Team Emirates rider seems to be getting under the skin of Jumbo-Visma, he’s so close to Vingegaard on GC that they have simply no leeway and no chance to be complacent. He’s proven on multiple occasions that he is faster than Vingegaard in sprints for bonus seconds, and on the last mountain stage he came up the strongest of the two riders. He’s never been afraid to attack or race aggressively, especially when he gets a sniff of the weakness of others, and it looks like this is making Jumbo-Visma nervous. Today was a far cry from the controlled, measured approach we saw from the team in yellow earlier in the race and instead, they were starting to look a little stressed and scrappy.
In fact, UAE Team Emirates arguably came out of today’s stage in a stronger position than Jumbo-Visma: they had to do far less work, all Pogačar was doing in those wild opening hours to today’s stage was following Vingegaard’s wheel, while the Dane frantically chased everything that was disappearing up the road ahead of him. There were moments when UAE were represented at the front of the race better than Jumbo, having six riders in the first group while Jumbo only had five. Tomorrow's stage suits Pogačar too, with just one hard effort on the Grand Colombier at the end of the day. The Slovenian will be feeling confident as he recovers this evening.
In the end, was Jumbo-Visma’s assault on stage 12 of the Tour de France a great spectacle? Hell yes. Was it sensible racing? Maybe not.