If I told you before the stage to name me one team that would thrive today in cross winds, who would it be? My guess is you would name either Lotto Soudal or Quick-Step. And that would be my pick too. Yet, when the winds blew and the gaps began to form, Quick-Step where missing.
Dan Martin, their best placed rider on the general classification (5th at 1’12”) was left exposed. A climber by nature he isn’t built for this and needed his team more than ever. Heck, they have been absent in the high mountains so now seemed like a good time to show up for him. But where was Quick-Step? Philippe Gilbert didn’t start the stage citing illness, but the rest were off the back. Way off the back. Protecting the green jersey of Marcel Kittel instead.
Kittel has racked up five wins at this Tour so far, and today had been hoping for number six. In doing so he would all but seal the green jersey competition. With that in mind his only remaining rival, Michael Matthews, hatched a plan. With his Subweb team they would try drop Kittel on the early rolling roads.
It worked. Sunweb rode a superb race for Matthews all day long. Sagan may be gone as the thorn in the side of the big sprinters, but Matthews is filling the void with style. Full intermediate sprint and finishing sprint points were now available to him. Quick-Step dropped back to help Kittel but when the cross-winds blew and echelons formed, Kittel was done and Martin in trouble. And by the time the stage had finished and Matthews took the stage win, Martin, left with only one team mate, had lost 51 seconds.
His nearest rivals had all made the crucial split. The major move came with only 15km to go when Sky, by way of Michal Kwiatkowski, hit the front and the echelon formed. We don’t see cross-winds often, but when we do they create chaos, even this late in a stage. And time and again Chris Froome seems to benefit. He may look down often when he rides, but his head is up when it matters and he reads a race well. Martin may only be two minutes behind him, but all things considered, Froome got rid of one more rival today. The list of contenders down to five, if you include Mikel Landa. Another high placed rider who dropped away was George Bennett. The Kiwi had started the day in 12th but under the weather, got dropped early and had to abandon. A shame given how well has has raced; at times animating the GC group as the others looked to one another. And had he maintained his placing to Paris, Bennett would have had the highest ever placing by a New Zelander on the Tour.
But the race goes on. Cross winds where what many had hoped for in the first week of this Tour. They didn’t arrive and those flat stages went the way of the sprinters. Or should I say, Kittel. Now the tide is changing and his green jersey lead, despite all those stage wins, is down to 29 points over Matthews. The Australian took back 50 points today alone. Quick Step in thinking too much of another stage win for Kittel, neglected Martin. It shows the dangers of trying to win two jerseys. Sky knew this in 2012 and focused on Bradley Wiggins leaving Mark Cavendish to his own devices. It proved the correct decision though Cavendish would leave Sky at the end of that season.
The high Alps arrive tomorrow. Matthews will try get in early moves to snap up more points against Kittel before letting the yellow jersey battle take over. And over the next two days I expect that contenders list to reduce further. The four behind Froome will have to attack him with the stage 19 time-trial in mind. Someone like Dan Martin, with less to lose now can try from further out in the hopes they will let him go. And if not he stands positioned to pull the race apart. Martin may be out of contention now, thanks in part to the upcoming time-trail, but he can still have a big say.
What a Tour we are seeing and what a Tour still to come.