Just when you thought that you knew what was coming, the Tour de France has this unnerving habit of surprising us.
After a string of placid – some may say boring – days, stage 7 should have been another straightforward sprint stage ahead of a Pyrenean double header this weekend. The riders thought so, but the weather clearly had different plans and the Vent d’Autan swept through the peloton as it travelled from Millau to Lavaur.
There is a certain sense of excitement that bubbles up in a cycling fan at the prospect of echelons. The first sight of a diagonal line cutting through the peloton has us sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see what chaos ensues. An echelon has the capability of turning what could be a formulaic day on the bike into a relentless fight for the right wheel.
Knowledge is king and there’s a skill to taking advantage of crosswinds, but luck can also play its part. Though, there are some that seem to be unluckier than others when the wind blows. Mark Cavendish once described the sensation of trying to make an echelon akin to falling through ice. “You have five seconds to make it or it’s all over”. Let a wheel slip with 100 kilometres to go and your day could be over in an instant. Even if you do make it, a mechanical could spell disaster as nobody is going to let up and wait for you.
En route to Lavaur, there were those that managed to escape the bitter cold of the ice, but others saw their general classification hopes move a little further away from their grasp or disappear entirely.
The damage came in two parts on stage 7, with the biggest blow (all puns intended) dealt in the final 30 kilometres. Wout van Aert navigated them perfectly to nail his second win of the week, a pretty fine effort given he was expecting to be working for Primoz Roglic and not for a victory. With Roglic safely in the leading group of 41, the red carpet was laid out for the Belgian and he didn’t pass up the chance.
While most of the big contenders did make it through with their dreams intact, there was a second group of dashed hopes that rolled across the line some 1:21 behind the delighted Van Aert.
Tadej Pogacar, who had been nestled in third place after a solid showing early in the week, led this band of forlorn into the finish. The Slovenian had to relent his white young rider’s jersey to Egan Bernal, who had survived the earlier onslaught unscathed. While the loss is not overwhelming, given that there are still two weeks and a whole load of altitude metres to come, Pogacar has an uphill struggle ahead of him.
Trek-Segafredo will also be licking their wounds as the race heads into the Pyrenees after both of their title contenders arrived in Lavaur in the company of Pogacar. Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema had been pretty invisible throughout the opening stages of the Tour de France but were in a prime position overall ahead the big mountains.
Meanwhile, any questions over whether Richard Carapaz would challenge Bernal’s position as Ineos leader seem answered after the Ecuadorian punctured in the final 20 kilometres. He too would reach the line in the Pogacar group. Ineos clearly had intentions of keeping Carapaz in contention overall and sacrificed the always trusty Jonathan Castroviejo, but the multiple national time trial champion could not salvage the cause.
Perhaps the biggest victim of the Vent d’Autan, however, was Daniel Martinez, who missed the cut when the wind kicked in right at the start of the day. The EF Pro Cycling rider didn’t stand a chance and gave away more than 14 minutes to the leading group, added to the four minutes he had already lost earlier in the week.
The Tour de France has this ability to lull is into a false sense of security as if we might know what to expect of it or what it will do. Sometimes this is the case, but it is foolish to rely on predictability because it is an unforgiving race that can cut you down when you least expect it.