Wout van Aert can barely be contained. As if three second places, a stage win and an already decisive-looking lead in the green jersey after five days were not enough, he rode an aggressive stage six and spent a lot of time off the front of the race. It is not the job of the yellow jersey to police and also set off attacks on a largely flat stage of the Tour de France, yet this is what he spent a large part of the first half of the race to Longwy doing.
The context of Van Aert’s stage is, firstly, that series of high placings in the first four stages of the race; and secondly, the fact that he spent the last hour of yesterday’s cobbled stage rescuing Jonas Vingegaard’s Tour, instead of adding to that series of high placings. Van Aert’s ride over the cobbles in the service of his leader was a little obscured by the bad luck that had struck his team during the stage. The headline after stage five was that Tadej Pogačar had put 13 seconds into many of his rivals, but it perhaps should have been that in a virtual pursuit match between Wout van Aert and Pogačar, the Belgian had pulled back over half a minute on the Slovenian in the final half hour.
Perhaps Van Aert just needed to get that out of his system on the road to Longwy. He attacked or counter-attacked nine separate times as the race ebbed and flowed in its first 90 minutes; the 10th attack, with Israel-Premier Tech’s Jakob Fuglsang and Trek-Segafredo’s Quinn Simmons, turned out to be the one that stuck. Fuglsang drifted off the back some time later; the 11th attack, a barely perceptible upping of the pace by Van Aert with 30km to go, saw him simply ride Simmons off his wheel with 30km left.
And for a while, Van Aert rode on alone, a splash of bright yellow blurring past golden fields of summer wheat and dark green forests. The wide-open landscape of France is the only thing that has been able to dwarf the Belgian in the last few days; even then, as the television cameras panned out and showed Van Aert in his isolation off the front of the race, he looked less like a tiny figure on a bike and more like the centre of the cycling universe. He’d won bunch sprints, a mountain stage, a time trial and a solo break on a puncheurs’ finish at the Tour in the past. Why not a long solo break?
(Van Aert being the centre of the universe is an apt image. When I wrote that he could barely be contained, I wasn’t just referring to his rivals, but also to his team. There’s a lot of racing still to come, but Jonas Vingegaard will find it harder to win the Tour while Van Aert is spending so much time and effort doing his own thing.)
Tadej Pogačar is even harder to contain than Wout van Aert. The Slovenian won the stage in a sprint, though it was more of an attack that dropped all the other GC favourites and best uphill sprinters than a traditional sprint. There had been no question of hiding and then unleashing his power on the finishing hill - he’d already made one searing acceleration over the top of the category-three Côte de Pulventeux with five kilometres to go, but the second attack, on the finishing straight in Longwy, was more devastating. He couldn’t help himself in either circumstance. The strategy, insofar as there is one, is to be much, much stronger than anybody else and to pedal harder than them. The likelihood is that what happened on the short, shallow ascent to the finish today will be multiplied and magnified on the longer, steeper ascents of the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees. The Ineos Grenadiers sit in an interesting position with riders in fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth behind the new race leader Pogačar, but it will take something extraordinary for any of them to finish ahead of him.
The stage to Longwy, the longest in the 2022 Tour, said a lot about the way the Tour is raced these days, and about what the modern Tour is and means. It was absolute bedlam for 80km, with attack after attack after attack. The presumption was that the break could go all the way to the end; paradoxically, this presumption was what killed that possibility - every dangerous move was chased down by riders who wanted to be part of it, which ensured that it did not succeed. It’s no wonder that the riders are on their knees by the time the mountain stages even start in modern Tours. It’s been true for many years that there are no easy days at the Tour de France, but these days, there are just hard stages and impossibly intense stages like today’s.
There’s another consequence of the race being so hard. The Tour is increasingly becoming an event where only the very elite riders thrive, and it tends to be the same faces - real stars of the sport - day after day. It used to be the case that the occasional obscure rider could have his day in the sun and win a stage: think of riders like Massimo Podenzana, Mauro Ribeiro, Marco Lietti, Jan Nevens, Jean-Claude Colotti and their like, who won stages at the Tour in the early 1990s. These were riders who got their Tour stage, and precious little else over the course of their careers. So far this Tour, the prominent figures have been Magnus Cort, current King of the Mountains and present in the breaks every day from stage two to stage five, Van Aert, with his string of high places, four days in yellow and solo break to Longwy, and Pogačar, with his stage win, yellow jersey and attack on the cobbled stage. Plus, of course, the stage winners, all of whom are either classics winners or previous Grand Tour stage winners. (Cort has also already won seven Grand Tour stages in his career.)
Of course, these are all riders who are making the most of being talented individuals on good form. This time last year, it was all Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and… Tadej Pogačar. But it’s also true that last year, three riders - Van Aert, Pogačar and Cavendish - won 10 out of the 11 stages between them. The spoils this year have also so far been shared between few riders, and it’s getting hard for the others to break through.