"So was it a normal day at the Tour de France," as Sean Kelly suggested it was shaping up to be early on in today’s stage? If your reference point is the Tour we’ve been watching for the past nine days then, yes, you could probably call it normal.
If, however, you still think we should contextualise events within our experience of the last decade or more of racing then no, it was decidedly not a "normal" day at the office.
The case for normal might include the fact that we had a breakaway winner, battles for points and polka dots, and a largely neutralised GC battle. We’ve seen those things many times before, haven’t we? The case against should present as evidence a debutant stage winner in Ben O'Connor who gained six minutes in the general classification, who had spells in the virtual lead and leapt from thirteenth to second overall, and is an Australian who beat two Colombians at altitude in some of the grimmest weather we’ve seen in years.
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Then there’s race leader Tadej Pogacar who, after soloing into yellow yesterday, still had enough in his legs to casually put another thirty seconds into his so-called rivals. We should also mention that a rider nominally known as a sprinter finished third atop the highest mountain at this year’s race. Call it a wash? There are certainly a lot of riders who could do with one.
The first and only true Alpine stage began with the spectre of absence looming over it. First there was the news that Primoz Roglic was prepared to suffer no more, and had withdrawn from the race. Not long later Alpecin-Fenix announced that Mathieu van der Poel, who had worn the yellow jersey for five stages including yesterday’s, was heading home to prepare for the Olympics.
Sadly missed, both, but the Tour de France rolls on.
At the drop of Christian Prudhomme’s flag, the battle began in earnest. Although that should perhaps be battles, as it would be a day with several storylines, all of which were an effort to keep up with. First we had the king of the mountains competition. An early second category climb, the Cote de Domancy, drew a few lightweights to the fore. Pierre Latour took the top five points while, in a harbinger of a scrap to come, Nairo Quintana and Mike Woods claimed 1 and 2 respectively.
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Ten kilometres later, at Praz-sur-Arly, came the intermediate sprint. Having long dispensed with Mark Cavendish, Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli saw it as an opportunity to make up ground. Neither wanted to give any away to the other, either, and their own contest was taken to the barriers, with Colbrelli taking maximum points.
That was it for Matthews, who slipped back to his colleagues in the autobus, while Colbrelli pushed on with the day’s break. And it soon became likely that it would be the breakaway’s day.
A large group of riders - too large, as it turned out - containing some serious stage-contenders, formed on the lower slopes of the Category 1, Col de Saises. Looking to defend his lead in the King of the Mountains competition, Wout Poels, headed out alone. His effort drew out several other riders, including Nairo Quintana who came close to Poels at the top of the climb, but not close enough to prevent him from taking maximum points.
Along with Poels and Quintana, Ben O'Connor, Lucas Hamilton, Sergio Higuita and Mike Woods formed a new, elite selection from which the stage win, and perhaps more, seemed increasingly likely to come.
Back down the road conditions seemed to be coming into play. A few riders, such as Alaphilippe, fell back, while others, Nans Peters and Tim Merlier, abandoned. Sonny Colbrelli, defying the impression we had of him as a sprinter, pushed on. As did the riders at the front.
The only classification thought not to be in play at the start of the stage, not in any meaningful way, was the general classification. Yet as the Quintana group’s lead over the peloton grew, it looked increasingly like there may be another narrative to keep track of.
After dropping Woods, Poels and Hamilton, over the Col du Pre, Ben O’Connor - best-placed at just over eight minutes down - joined up with the two Colombians - both of whom had their own reasons to ride. Quintana wanted the polka dots, and he would have them, while Higuita had his sights on a first Tour de France stage win.
Not that O’Connor wasn’t interested in that himself, but if there were spoils to be had, better to share them as equally as possible, than for them all to come away with nothing. "Conditions were atrocious” said O’Connor after the finish. They might have been - they definitely were, in fact - but they were not so bad as to cause him any major problems.
While more seasoned pros were slipping into their scuba gear, as their legs refused to function in any meaningful way, his were pinging. He and Higuita were able to dispense with Quintana in the valley, but at the start of the long road up to Tignes, the smart money still said he was playing for second place.
'It's mindblowing' O'Connor reacts to Stage 9 win
Surely the Colombian would be better suited to the climb than the youngster from Perth? Once again, the Tour de France defied everything we thought we knew. O’Connor attacked Higuita with 17km to go - far sooner than seemed sensible. Yet instead of popping, he quickly built what was clearly a stage-winning lead, and was even able to bring the yellow jersey back into play.
Though team efforts from Ineos Grenadier and UAE Emirates meant its top spot would just elude him, as well as the stage win, O’Connor was able to park himself confidently on the GC’s podium.
Was he ever worried, after breaking clear of his breakaway rivals, that he might not take the stage victory?
"I was scared that Tadej was going to explode from the group behind and chase me down,” he replied. Such is the threat that Pogacar poses to those around him, and even those some distance down the road. And from the peloton the maillot jaune showed why they should be afraid. A late attack from Richard Carapaz was closed down with ease, before Pogacar carried on to add another thirty seconds to his advantage.
What a rider. What a week. What a Tour.
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