RACE TACTICS REVIEW: TOUR DE FRANCE STAGE 12 – SUNWEB’S SHOW OF STRENGTH

by Nick Bull

Race analysis by Nick Bull | Main photo by SWpix.com


Continuing our look back at the 2020 season, as Sunweb prepares to become Team DSM, Nick Bull celebrates one of their finest wins, Marc Hirschi’s Tour de France stage victory at Sarrans. 

Competitive sport often has little regard for sentiment but, after Marc Hirschi’s near misses along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on day two and then an unsuccessful breakaway attempt en route to Laruns at the end of the opening week, his solo triumph in the town of Sarran 12 stages into this year’s Tour felt like a deserved redressing of that balance.

It was just over two months on from Team Sunweb raising eyebrows aplenty – not least from Michael Matthews himself – when they announced that they were leaving the former green jersey winner out of their Tour team. The decision to send Matthews to the Giro d’Italia instead of the Tour, coach Marc Reef told Wielerflits, gave them “the best chance of achieving [their] goals” across the remainder of this unusual season.

Miss him in France they did not. In truth, with a little more luck Sunweb could have won at least four stages by this point in this Tour. In addition to Hirschi’s two near-misses, sprinter Cees Bol wasn’t far off claiming the first yellow jersey of the race in Nice. He then had the misfortune to have to sprint against Wout van Aert in Privas after his team-mates delivered the only authentic sprint lead-out in the first half of the race.

Hirschi’s team-mates were integral to this victory, giving him an ideal platform from which he could attack on the Suc au May. The Sunweb springboard was so good that not even Julian Alaphilippe’s most combative performance since he beat Hirschi in Nice could thwart the Swiss today’s win. He remarked that his near miss in the Pyrenees four days earlier had actually given him more confidence and “extra power” because he knew that he couldn’t “finish on the podium three times”.


52.5KM TO GO

The day’s six-man breakaway group was still clear, but the efforts of BORA-hansgrohe and CCC saw their advantage cut from 1’56” down to just half a minute in the preceding 20 kilometres.  

For the first time in the stage, Sunweb’s lead-out train was visible at the head of the peloton as it approached the day’s third (of four) categorised climbs, the Côte de la Croix du Pey.


43.5KM TO GO

While only classified as a third-category climb, the Croix du Pey is more than steep enough (six percent average gradient) to attack on. Sunweb’s tactical masterclass began here in what was a pre-planned attack. Tiesj Benoot and Søren Kragh Andersen accelerated out of the peloton and caught the two breakaway survivors – Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Movistar’s Imanol Erviti – seemingly as quickly as they then dropped them. “We wanted to make it hard on the third category climb,” said team coach Matt Winston.

As you’d expect when a two-up move containing a former Strade Bianche winner (Benoot) accelerated into the distance, rival teams were quick to respond. Movistar’s Marc Soler blinked first, before Max Schachmann (BORA) and Alessandro De Marchi (CCC) attempted to pay back the pace-setting efforts of their teams throughout the stage by also answering the call of duty. More importantly for Sunweb’s ambitions, the GC teams were nonplussed by the action ahead.


42.3KM TO GO

Soler made it across to the two Sunweb riders while Schachmann and De Marchi continued to lurk five seconds behind. Incredibly, the latest attack from the peloton drew little interest despite the calibre of riders involved: Bob Jungels (Deceuninck) and Hirschi.

De Marchi began to fall back 1.6 kilometres from the top of the Croix du Pey. More surprisingly, Jungels did not stick around either. The chase group therefore lost two riders but gained another: B&B Hotels’ Quentin Pacher, who almost rode into the back of a press motorbike as he accelerated out of the peloton with his head down.

Soler rode away from Benoot and Kragh Andersen 350 metres from the top of climb; the Sunweb duo sensibly had slowed to allow the chase group to bridge across.


38.7KM TO GO

Soler was joined by the Sunweb trio, Schachmann and Pacher barely two kilometres from the top of the Côte de la Croix du Pey. The immediate concern for the breakaway was that their lead at the bottom of the Suc au May climb was just 15 seconds over a 13-rider chase group. At least the peloton, a further 30 seconds behind, did not get any closer to them before the finish.


28.3KM TO GO

Hirschi launched his stage-winning attack with 1.8 kilometres of the second-category Suc au May climb remaining. Benoot had already softened the breakaway up at the start of the climb, producing a 750-metre turn that left Pacher struggling.

After Kragh Andersen was unable to pick up Benoot’s pace, Soler attacked and quickly opened up a small advantage. Hirschi, Kragh Andersen and Schachmann remained within touching distance of the Spaniard 200 metres further up the climb when the BORA rider peeled off the front in an attempt to get the Sunweb duo to chase. Hirschi wasn’t playing ball and rode off alone. Within seconds he was the lone leader. He averaged 23.3km/h on the 3.8-kilometre, 7.7% average gradient climb.

At the top of the Sec au May he led Soler and Schachmann by 19 seconds and the peloton by 1’26”. However, with 25.5 kilometres remaining, Hirschi’s big problem looked like it could be Alaphilippe, who attacked from the peloton and bridged across to the chase group that initially formed on the Croix du Pey containing his Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mate Dries Devenyns.

They were barely half a minute behind at this point, although Sunweb’s tactical hand was enhanced by them placing Nicolas Roche in this move. The dropped Kragh Andersen also managed to stay with these chasers until the finish; he went on to take third to add further shine to Sunweb’s tactical masterplan.


9.7KM TO GO

Soler and Schachmann were caught by the Alaphilippe chase group, creating a 13-man chase group. While motivated by different, loftier objectives, it’s worth remembering that Hirschi’s hopes of winning Sunday’s stage were denied because Primož Roglič, Egan Bernal, Tadej Pogačar and Mikel Landa worked cohesively over the top of the Col de Marie Blanque and wiped out his advantage.

But on the roads of the Corrèze, the chasers provided a masterclass in how not to collaborate, as they pointlessly attacked each other. Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) started the nonsense, followed by Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels). Alaphilippe also attacked within the first two kilometres of the chase groups coming together. It was all pointless. Instead of 11 riders (Kragh Andersen and Roche wouldn’t contribute to chasing, remember) forming an alliance, Hirschi could continue his individual pursuit to the line, buoyed by the knowledge that his advantage remained steady at 45 seconds.


6.8KM TO GO

Rolland accelerated descending into Sarran, a move that was closed down by Roche. Alaphilippe tried kicking on a little incline but by now he had also burned all of his matches. Rolland did eventually ride clear from the chase group, but by then Hirschi was approaching the flamme rouge. The B&B Hotels rider held on to take second – a commendable result for a team making their Tour debut in 2020.

But the story of the day was Team Sunweb. Few riders will claim their maiden professional win as much panache as Hirschi did here. We’ve seen GC teams aplenty in recent years show their strength in the mountains, but you’d arguably have to go back to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff’s audacious raid on Fuente Dé that won Alberto Contador the 2012 Vuelta for a tactical performance as stunning as this. Sunweb coach Winston arguably summed it up most accurately: “After all our hard work in the stages before, it is really nice victory.”

The perfect memento of one of the most dramatic cycling seasons ever, our pop-up book Racing in the Time of Covid featuring writing from our website can be found here – the perfect Christmas gift…

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