Words by Nick Bull | Photos by SWpix.com
There’s a really noticeable conflict that rages within Bauke Mollema. What the Dutchman lacks in style when he’s riding aggressively on a bike, he makes up for in the substance of those truly spectacular performances he has produced seemingly once or twice a year throughout his career.
As he soloed to win Saturday’s Tour de France stage in Quillan from a long-range attack, Mollema’s open-mouthed, tongue out, square-hipped dancer style only disappeared as he started celebrating 1,300 metres from the line. This was as much a dominant victory – he finished 1:04 ahead of runner-up Patrick Konrad (BORA-hansgrohe) and 12 other breakaway riders – as it was a needed one: Trek-Segafredo’s last triumph in the Tour came three years ago.
“Oh, it’s super nice,” said Mollema. “It’s amazing to win a stage again. It was a nice group, [with] a lot of strong guys, [but] a few guys were not really turning. I was feeling good so I just thought ‘let’s go from far’. I was feeling good and I had the confidence that I could ride alone and keep going for a long time. Normally I can pace myself pretty well. It was a hard final but I’m super happy I made it.”
Today’s parcours looked perfectly suited to a breakaway, and yet it took 85 lively kilometres before the race-winning move – instigated by Wout Poels (Team Bahrain Victorious) and Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-Quick Step) on the lower slopes of the category two Col de Montségur climb – began to take shape. Even then, it took Mollema’s chase group another 13 kilometres to bridge across.
The placement of the Col de Saint-Louis climb (4.7 kilometres long, 7.4% average gradient), the top of which came 16.9 kilometres from the finish, was the obvious launchpad for attacks. Instead, Mollema reached its summit with a minute gap, having accelerated on the descent of the Côte de Galinagues a little over 40 kilometres out. “He’s a great rider – he used his experience today,” said Sergio Higuita (EF Education Nippo), who finished third. “We’ve seen that before in many races. When I saw it was him who was attacking I knew it was a danger.”
Admittedly, things were more sedate in the peloton, even with the presence of Cofidis rider Guillaume Martin in the front group. The Frenchman has jumped to second overall and now lies 4:04 behind race leader Tadej Pogačar. “I enjoyed every moment of it,” said the maillot jaune, as he moved another day nearer to Paris. Nonetheless, this stage continued the recent trend of medium mountain stages at the Tour being must-watch television.
Who can forget Thomas De Gendt’s solo victory and the brilliant Julian Alaphilippe attack, which resulted in him reclaiming the yellow jersey after a two-up time trial into the finish with Thibaut Pinot, that illuminated stage eight of the 2019 race into Saint Etienne? That day’s 200-kilometre route featured seven categorised climbs, none of which ranked higher than second category.
There was stage two in and around Nice last year, which included one full and one partial ascent of Col d’Eze in the final 45 kilometres. Cue another Alaphilippe headline performance there, too. While a lot of the pre-race talk regarding the seventh stage of the 2021 Tour between Vierzon and Le Creusot centred around its length, L’Équipe’s frontpage headline of UN AIR DE CLASSIQUE that morning proved accurate. As it stands, it is the best stage of this edition, in part due to the inclusion of the Signal d’Uchon climb in the closing kilometres.
The Tour’s race director Christian Prudhomme has previously spoken highly of medium mountain stages. At the launch of the 2019 Tour he said: “Our desire is not to make things harder but to vary things. Medium mountains [are] where the race will be harder to control.” Asked what his highlights of last year’s race were, Prudhomme described the stages into Lavaur, Lyon and Champagnole, all of which featured intermediate terrain, as “great”. But cycling’s funding model, in which local authorities pay to host stages, will always impact where races go. There’s a reason why any article detailing somebody’s dream Tour de France route will only ever amount to as much. The history and appeal of the legendary mountains will also be hard to resist, too.
What happened in Saturday’s stage and, more so, during the enthralling day of racing to Le Creusot last Friday, is not proof that medium mountain stages are guaranteed thrillers. Both were helped somewhat by their positioning in the race – both lying immediately before the first true Alpine and Pyrenean stages – and following some particularly gruelling days of racing. Were more of this type of stage to be included at the expense of true mountain stages, it’s possible that the unpopular suffocating tactics, often undertaken by the team of the yellow jersey wearer, would simply be deployed more aggressively in them. Pogačar’s UAE-Team Emirates train may have broken down upon leaving the station on stage seven; today’s performance reiterated that they’ve learned from their mistakes that day.
Nonetheless, stage 14 had plenty going for it. Mollema’s early attack may have lessened the importance of the day’s final climb, the Col de Saint-Louis, but it allowed the France Télévisions director to show it off in all its glory to a worldwide audience. Reminiscent of Sa Calobra in Mallorca, its quirky viaduct bend and challenging-but-not-severe characteristics surely mean that the Tour will return to climb it for only the second time in race history before too long. The stage also reignited the King of the Mountains competition, which is now being led by Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation). The Canadian’s chances of topping the standings into Monday’s second rest day may depend on how much his crash on the Galinagues descent shortly before Mollema attacked takes out of him tomorrow.
Naturally, Mollema’s win means that Trek-Segafredo can rest a little easier now. A race that had heralded nine top-10 finishes in 13 stages was transformed into something resembling a success in the space of four hours and 16 minutes. But arguably the biggest winner was the intermediate terrain: how many of the race’s next four stages in the high mountains will be as good as this one?