Even a Boring Tour Stage Ends Up Fascinating

Stage Five of the 2020 Tour was only interesting for the most dedicated fans. Not a single attack lasted more than a kilometer over the course of the entire 183-kilometer stage from Gap to Privas.

It wasn’t because the pace was brutally high—the pace was a bit over 40 kilometers per hour for the distance—but the parcours was descending for much of the stage, starting at about 1000 meters and finishing at about 500.

It wasn’t because yesterday’s stage was particularly hard. While Stage Four had six categorized climbs, it was still relatively short, at 157km, and 66 riders finished within five minutes of the stage victor, with the grupetto coming in 134 places back. And while Thursday’s Stage Six finishes up a mountain, it’s pretty flat for 160 of the 191km from Le Teil to Mont Aigoual. And the next stage, from Millau to Lavaur looks like a relatively easy profile for the 168km.

It also can’t be said that the wind was a factor. While there was some wind, it was rarely more than 20kph, and there was only about one moment when it looked like a split might occur.

Further, the sole intermediate sprint was early in the day, after a mostly downhill run for almost fifty kilometers. And the two mountain points on offer were pretty much gifted to the current KoM leader, Benoit Cosnefroy of AG2R; all he had to do was show up.

Riders from stage-hunting teams, those with no real hope to win the overall, or a jersey or team competition, typically are the aggressors on days like today. We should have expected CCC, Israel-Start Up Nation, Lotto-Soudal, Mitchelton-Scott, NTT, Total-Direct Energie, and B&B Hotels to be the aggressors. However, CCC, Lotto-Soudal, NTT, and B&B all have sprinters who probably fancied their chances, so maybe they put all their eggs in the sprint basket. The Bora-Hansgrohe squad was expected to work for Sagan to get him into a break early, so he could take points at the intermediate sprint, then back off so he could also sprint for the stage win.

Maybe they were expecting the wind to play a bigger factor. Maybe there was some kind of slow-down agreement in the peloton.

For whatever reason, there was a failure to launch. and Wout Van Aert, after riding as a domestique for the past four days, slotted in and won a technical sprint the way Peter Sagan used to win. that’s a story in itself, but it was overshadowed.

Wondering about the strategic thinking of the various riders and teams and marveling at Van Aert’s versatlity, however, was pre-empted by rules being broken and then enforced.

Race leader Julian Alaphilippe lost the lead because he was assessed a time penalty for taking a drink off a soigneur with 17km to go, inside the 20km to go limit for such assistance.

The 20-second penalty dropped Alaphilippe to 16th overall, and put second-placed Adam Yates of Michelton-Scott in the lead.

Now, everyone can argue about whether it was the right thing to do. Suddenly, the stage is fascinating. His team director took responsibility for the error. The team manager was pissed off.

I think that in general, the rule is a fair one. It strikes me that it is aimed at the best-resourced teams who can have countless staff members spread along the course making sure their riders are sated and fed and thus an edge on the competition. And the rule was rightfully enforced in 2013 when race leader Chris Froome bonked in the closing kilometers of a mountain stage. He was penalized for taking food, but it saved his Tour.

And the change is also good for the race. Alaphilippe has claimed he came to the Tour hunting for stages, and now we’ll see if that’s true. Likewise, so did Yates and his team. They, however, are now holding the lead going into a hard stage with a mountain top finish. As they’re in search of a new sponsor, I expect they’ll accept this gift and try to defend the race lead.

This makes the race more exciting, as the Mitchelton-Scott team doesn’t seem to have the riders to grind away for kilometers at the front. I expect they’ll try to put a rider, probably Esteban Chaves, in an early break and have Yates ride up to that rider at the end, while the new heavy hitter Jumbo-Visma will try to control much of the stage, and they’ll be challenged at the end by Ineos-Grenadiers.

And, all the while Alaphilippe will be looking to snatch time bonus seconds on the last classified climb and at the finish line. He and his team will be trying to conserve energy for a late push to both put him back in the lead and win the stage.

Stage Six also has the benefit of Peter Sagan, the man who has basically owned the green Points jersey for the past eight

Tours, just got bumped out by Sam Bennett. He needs to start chipping away at Bennett’s lead, and that means he’ll probably be working hard to get into an early break tomorrow, as the points sprint is about 125km in.

Even a boring stage can look fascinating in the rear view mirror.

Can’t wait for tomorrow.


JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France, which is available both as an eBook and audiobook.


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