Opinion: The cobbles were a day of wasted opportunity for EF Education-EasyPost

Strange tactics might have cost the team the yellow jersey and the stage win. What could have been?

Two riders in the break of the day. Tick. One of them close enough in the GC to have a chance of taking the yellow jersey. Tick. The other a fast finisher who could win from the break in a gallop the line. Tick. A strong Classics rider in the group behind who is ready to fight for the victory if the groups come back together. Tick. In one of the biggest stages of the Tour de France this year, EF Education-EasyPost looked to have got everything right, until things went very, very wrong.

“What are they doing here?” asked the commentators. “I’m totally puzzled.”

“Is Bettiol going to UAE Team Emirates next year?” said Robbie McEwen. “Because that’s not done. That’s so off.”

Pogačar says thank you very much, they were chatting earlier, I noticed the arm upon a shoulder as well. I can’t believe Bettiol would fry his team such as this, but that’s what he’s doing. What’s going on?” asked Carlton Kirby.

Their comments came as Alberto Bettiol, clad in EF-Education-EasyPost’s unmistakable bright pink kit, pulled the peloton along a 2.8km, four star cobbled sector with 28 kilometres of the stage remaining. On the Italian rider’s wheel sat two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, and just over one minute up the road were two of Bettiol’s teammates, Magnus Cort and Neilson Powless, working hard in the main breakaway of the day.

Bettiol swapped turns with Pogačar on a key cobbled sector (Image: Getty)

While it might not be written down on ink and paper, it’s perhaps the most known rule in cycling that if you have a teammate up the road, you do not contribute to the chase in the group behind. When a rider breaks this rule, it signifies a serious lack of cohesion and hints at some trouble behind the scenes of the team. 

Bettiol’s actions were made even worse by the fact his teammates in the group ahead had a chance of taking the yellow jersey from Wout van Aert who had dropped back to help his GC leaders back to the bunch after a series of crashes and mishaps for Jumbo-Visma. At the end of the stage, Powless was left just a mere 13 seconds away from wearing yellow in the biggest stage of the year. For a team which has been known to have to fight for sponsorship, this would have been a formidable result – potentially transformative to their season.

Perhaps we can write off Bettiol’s decision to chase the break as a tactical blunder. Maybe he thought he was stringing out the peloton behind to get rid of numbers from the other teams. We’ll never know what was going through the 28-year-old’s mind, and we’ll never know how much his move altered the time gaps at the end of stage. But it’s safe to say that it wasn’t a good look as the EF Education-EasyPost rider constantly checked his shoulder to see if Pogačar was on his wheel in a move that lacked class, cohesion and potentially cost his team the yellow jersey.

The break of the day (Image: Pauline Ballet/ASO)

But Bettiol isn’t the only one to blame for EF-Education EasyPost’s lost opportunities on stage five. The tactics of the riders in the breakaway up the road fighting for the stage win had me scratching my head, too. 

It’s clear that the plan was for Cort to work for Powless, with the aim of getting the American in yellow at the end of the day. The Danish rider did a colossal amount of work, pulling some Herculean turns on the front to keep the time gap steady. But was this really necessary?

Cort and Powless had four other riders in the breakaway with them, none of whom would have thrown away the chance of a stage win on the cobbles in the Tour by missing some turns. The breakaway was strong enough as it was, and Cort’s monster turns weren’t totally necessary.

They also put him out of contention at the finish after he started as one of the fastest sprinters in that group. Powless’s final, big turn on the front meant Cort was shot out of the back of the group on the run-in to the line, throwing away the numerical advantage the team had to play with in the final sprint.

Powless launched his sprint early, and was eventually chased down by Edvald Boasson Hagen in the final 300 metres before the line. Had Cort been sitting on the TotalEnergies rider's wheel, would Boasson Hagen have chased so hard? Could Powless have stayed away on the line? Or could Cort have profited from the work of the others and sprinted to the win himself?

Overall, I see a day of wasted chances for the team in pink. Bettiol’s questionable decisions could have cost them yellow, and the choices made by those in the break cost the team the stage win, too. One positive the team can take away from today is that they have a squad of very strong legs for the rest of the race, but they will need to work together to pull off something special.

As team manager Jonathan Vaughters himself pointed out, it’s all great drama for the upcoming Netflix documentary.

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