The Tour de France took on a different character today, as the race saw its first big climbs, giving riders a taste of what to expect from the mountains later in the race. The GC riders and climbers relished the chance to stretch their legs, with last year’s Maillot à Pois winner, Rafał Majka, keeping his head and claiming a top ten spot in the overall classification, and Emanuel Buchmann finishing well in 22nd position on the stage.
While there had been some categorised climbs over the first three road stages of the Tour, today saw the finale take place on a first category climb – la Planche des Belles Filles – the first proper climb of this year’s race. The 5.9km climb wouldn’t challenge the climbing specialists, but there was a sting in the tail – a brutal 20% ramp to the finish. That, along with sharp sections hitting 13%, meant this climb is where the GC race would really start to hot up, and would likely see a change in the wearer of the Maillot Jaune at the end of the day.
Today was always going to be a day where the GC contenders and climbers were going to show their ambition – having spent the first three road stages sitting back while the sprint teams controlled the race. As soon as the flag dropped, a break formed, with some strong riders in their midst. While the finale was tough, the rest of the parcours was challenging, and the group of eight would have to traverse an undulating route that would really put the hurt in their legs – but with some GC contenders in this group, the peloton would be keeping an eye on them. The break’s gap never exceeded 2:30 over the day, but on the final climb, any advantage could be pivotal.
As the day’s 160.5km slowly ticked down, the escapees thinned in number, having lost two with 50km to go, and by the time the break hit the foot of the final climb, there were only five – with two of these having attacked, making a bold attempt at to take the stage. Spurred into action, the peloton brought the gap down from two minutes to just thirty-five seconds, and with just 4km to go, it was all back together – just as the efforts of the climb really started to show in the bunch. BORA-hansgrohe’s Rafał Majka was riding strong, staying with the GC contenders. When his rivals began to attack each other in their fight for the Yellow Jersey, Rafał kept his head and took care not to go into the red, finishing in twelfth position, propelling him to a top ten GC spot.
The Polish BORA-hansgrohe rider rode a strong race, but was clear that he thought the best was yet to come. “I felt good when I got into a rhythm, but I didn’t have the punchiness to stay with the GC contenders when they started attacking. I think my legs will become better throughout this Tour. There are stages still to come that will suit my climbing style better, so all in all we’re in a good place and are going to aim to improve in the other mountain stages now.”
Finishing in 22nd position today, a little over thirty seconds after Rafał, Emanuel Buchmann impressed with his ride today. “I struggled a little with the heat today. It was the first really hot day and it was also the first mountain finish, so it was a good test of my form. I didn’t feel as good as I did at the Dauphiné, but I think this was just a bad day for me. The stage didn’t really suit my style, so we’re going to wait for the weekend and see if I feel better then. My objective is still to try something, so we’ll wait and see what opportunities come up.”
BORA-hansgrohe’s Head Sports Director, Enrico Poitschke, knew that today’s stage was going to be challenging – with both the climb and the heat being a factor. “We expected a difficult day, because it was the first hard test and also the first hot day. We didn’t lose too much time, so we are OK, and more or less the day was as we expected. Rafa is still in a good position for the GC.”
After the exciting terrain of today, it’s back to a flatter parcours tomorrow. Two fourth category climbs dot the route, but it’s the flat finish where the action will happen after 216km of racing. Some twists and turns will complicate things in the run to the line, and the going will be far from easy for those looking to contest the win.
photo credit: ©BORA-hansgrohe / Stiehl Photography