Team Ineos were happy to see the focus switch from Egan Bernal to Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France as Friday’s long, slow day in the saddle allowed time for the dust to settle on a dramatic first mountain stage of the race.
Dylan Groenewegen claimed a sprint victory in Chalon-sur-Saone but only after a 230km stage seven from Belfort which took the peloton – hardly keen to exert themselves after Thursday’s brutal day in the Vosges mountains and with the challenges of the Massif Central to come – more than six hours to tick off.
At the end of the day, there were no significant changes to the general classification which took its shape from the drama on La Planche des Belles Filles 24 hours earlier.
Giulio Ciccone retained the yellow jersey on a day when he celebrated signing a new two-year deal with Trek-Segafredo, six seconds clear of Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, but Thomas was back in the spotlight after his late surge on the climb invigorated his title defence.
The Welshman, best placed of the main contenders, turned a five-second deficit into a four-second advantage on Thursday. Small margins for sure, but given many – including Thomas – had expected the day to suit Bernal more, the change of narrative seemed to suit the team.
“What was reassuring yesterday was to see Geraint Thomas at this level,” said the team’s sporting director Nico Portal.
“It’s good for Egan, who has a lot of pressure around him, a lot of expectation from his public, especially in Colombia.”
Team principal Sir Dave Brailsford had talked up the 22-year-old Bernal in the build-up to the Tour – declaring him “ready” to contend – but by Friday was happy to see Thomas hog the limelight.
“I think maybe everyone is getting a bit carried away with Egan,” he said.
“People treat him and Geraint in the same way. And I think you have to treat Geraint as a 33-year-old. And you have to treat Egan as a 22-year-old, even if you know they are both very, very talented bike riders.
“You can feel yourself falling into that trap all the time, thinking because he’s so good that he’s got all this experience. He hasn’t. He has to spend time at this race. He has to spend time in those shoes.
“And he has to absorb it and get used to it. Then he can come back and say ‘OK, I know all about this race’.”
On Friday, Bernal and the rest of the peloton got to know about headwinds which only extended the longest stage of the Tour.
Wanty-Gobert’s Yoann Offredo and Cofidis’ Stephane Rossetto attacked from the flag and the good friends might have imagined they were out on a training ride as they were allowed to easily pull five minutes clear in the first 20 kilometres.
The peloton was barely ticking over behind, though the race finally came to life in the final 30 kilometres.
There was a moment of panic for Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin as the speed picked up ahead of the intermediate sprint, leaving them in a group distanced on the road before Quintana’s Movistar team sent a rescue force to pace them back.
Irishman Martin blamed TV motorbikes for the incident, which also caught out Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates.
“With a block headwind, every time the TV motorbike goes in front of the peloton the speed goes up,” the UAE Team Emirates rider said. “It is something else we have to face when we race the Tour.”
With the break hoovered up, the pack came barrelling into town, where Groenewegen – left limping by an opening stage crash – showed he was back on form with his fourth career Tour stage win, and a third of this race for Jumbo-Visma.
It came by mere millimetres from Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan, who is still awaiting a first taste of Tour success.
“Every time I sprint with Caleb it is very close,” Groenewegen said. “He is a really good sprinter but today I beat him and I am really happy with the job.
“The first day I crashed really hard. Today my team worked hard for me and we take the win and I am really happy.”
Dutch speed king Dylan Groenewegen edged an ultra-tight bunch sprint on Stage 7 of the Tour de France on Friday as Italy’s Giulio Ciccone retained the overall race lead.
Groenewegen beat Australia’s Caleb Ewan in a photo-finish to make up for the pain of falling on Stage 1 on the Brussels home straight.
Peter Sagan retained the sprinters’ points green jersey after finishing third.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas and his Ineos co-captain Egan Bernal finished safely in the pack.
Pure sprinter Groenewegen was left sat on his backside in Brussels when he had been red-hot favourite to win.
He was left to wonder what might have been as his team-mate Mike Teunissen won the opening stage and pulled on the overall leader’s yellow jersey.
On the longest stage of the Tour at 230km, the riders involved in the summit showdown the day before were in relaxed mood.
“I’m looking forwards to a quiet couple of stages now, we’re all really calm after a good day yesterday,” said 22-year-old Bernal ahead of the stage.
Television viewers were given a series of spectacular panoramas as the peloton, led by a beaming overall leader Ciccone, wound slowly out of the rolling hills of the Alsace with its storks and quaint villages of half-wooden houses.
But with an escape group zooming five minutes ahead after 80km, sprinter Elia Viviani’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step team cranked up the tempo on the flat plains of Burgundy, renowned for its wines and cuisine.
Stephane Rossetto of Cofidis and Yoann Offredo of Wanty-Gobert led from the start to 5km from home, before the peloton caught them to set up a sprint finish.
Geraint Thomas delivered a major statement of intent in the defence of his Tour de France crown as he pulled clear of young team-mate Egan Bernal on the final brutal slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles.
As Dylan Teuns won Stage 6 from the breakaway and young Italian Giulio Ciccone snatched the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Julian Alaphilippe, it was the sight of Thomas defying his own predictions and bursting clear of the main contenders at the last which caught the eye.
Much had been made of the five seconds Bernal picked up due to a momentary lapse from Thomas in the finale of Stage 3 in Epernay, and that gap was only expected to grow here as gradients hit 24 per cent and the surface turned to gravel.
Thomas spent Wednesday explaining why the stage did not suit him and pointing to Bernal as one of the favourites to profit, but the wily Welshman perhaps knew more than he was letting on.
“I was feeling good but I was unsure,” Thomas said. “I thought the steep climbs weren’t my cup of tea. I was expecting others – (Nairo) Quintana, Egan, (Adam) Yates – would jump up there. It was a decent day in the end.
“It is one of those climbs where you have to patient. When Alaphilippe went clear at 800 (metres to go), quite early, I had the confidence to let him go and ride my own temp and drive it all the way to the line from 350. I was starting to blow through. It is decent.”
Bahrain-Merida’s Teuns and Trek-Segafredo’s Ciccone were the last survivors of a 14-man breakaway on the 160.5km stage from Mulhouse, and both received rich rewards at the top of a climb which left many riders struggling to stand at the summit.
Teuns could celebrate a first career Tour victory while the 24-year-old Ciccone – a star of the Giro d’Italia in May as he took a stage win and the mountains classification – did just enough to take the yellow jersey by six seconds.
Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Alaphilippe did not give it up without a fight. Having stuck with the group of favourites all day, he attacked as the road turned to dust near the summit.
At first no-one reacted, but Thomas then found the reserves he needed to spring past the Frenchman, who slumped on to the barriers as soon as he crossed the line.
.@dylan_teuns wins the stage at la Planche des Belles Filles with a huge effort at the end! 🌟— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) 11 July 2019
Dylan Teuns s’impose au bout de l’effort à la Planche des Belles Filles ! 🌟#TDF2019 pic.twitter.com/pjhOJMn4Wl
The seconds Thomas has gained may not be massive – two on Thibaut Pinot, seven on Quintana and nine on a group including Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte and of course Bernal – but given the question marks over his form this was a clear answer.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates and UAE Team Emirates’ Dan Martin lost the wheels at the last, finishing 14 seconds behind Thomas.
Porte’s team-mate Ciccone now leads by six seconds from Alaphilippe, with Teuns up to third, 32 seconds down. Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett slots into fourth, two seconds ahead of Thomas who is 49 seconds off yellow.
In the Tour’s three previous visits to this mountain the man in yellow at the end of the day has worn it in Paris at the end of the race, but Thomas’ late dig suggests this edition has many more twists to come.