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Even when things go a bit wrong for Jumbo-Visma, they seem to go right. At least for now.
Saturday’s foray into the Pyrenees saw a key Jumbo domestique, Sepp Kuss, drop off the back early, and the team’s GC plan B, Tom Dumoulin, slide down the overall. It saw Primoz Roglic chase repeated attacks, largely alone, and lose time to one very important rival.
The Port de Balès and the Peyresourde, tackled in quick succession, proved that there is no team in this race strong enough to control every day. Jumbo-Visma is not infallible. It also proved that Roglic, at least for now, doesn’t need them to be.
It’s telling that our definition of an off day for the Tour’s dominant team has shifted so. Telling that an isolated leader is now such a rare occurrence as to merit comment. Today was how it should be: teams set up the battle, but the battle itself is waged between those racing for the Tour itself. It is not a clash of the domestiques, not a test of consistent pace, but a high-stakes game of accelerations and decelerations, to be won by the smartest and the strongest.
Nonetheless, Jumbo is playing the game as it has been played for three decades now, and in that context today was not perfect.
“Maybe it didn’t work out 100 percent as we wanted, with Tom losing some time, but in the end, we are still in the place we wanted to be,” said Jumbo’s sports director Grischa Niermann.
Jumbo-Visma set out to “shake the tree,” as George Bennett put it, on the Port de Balès. Even with Kuss gone, it was more than capable of doing so. Robert Gesink led first, handing things off to the omni-terrain talents of Wout van Aert with just under three kilometers to the summit.
The damage was significant. Thibaut Pinot struggled, surrounded by teammates and pats on the back well down the HC climb. By the top, Adam Yates’ yellow jersey had only Esteban Chaves for help. Egan Bernal was down to just Richard Carapaz. Julian Alaphilippe whipped around the group’s tail.
The onslaught continued into the Peyresourde, the final difficult climb of the day. Bennett took over, and then Tom Dumoulin, dropping the group from 30-some hopefuls to just 10 over the course of one long, hard pull.
This is when the first cracks appeared. Dumoulin, his job not done, closed a gap to the wildly optimistic Alaphilippe, and then had to quickly close another to Tadej Pogacar. It was the end of the Dutchman’s time at the front and the end of his time as a co-leader of the team. He finished over two minutes back.
Dumoulin knew the moment was coming; he’d come over the race radio and told the team he wasn’t feeling on top form, and had no intention of riding for 10th. The message was clear: All-in for Primoz.
His absence left Roglic isolated. The Slovenian didn’t seem to mind.
It took three tries on the slopes of the Peyresourde, but Pogacar finally found distance. Roglic, who covered the first two with help of Nairo Quintana, either let him go or had to let him go. Only he knows.
“It’s true there was a hard tempo, but it’s the first mountain stage and there’s still a lot to come,” Roglic said in his now well-known undramatic style.
The final kilometers up the Peyresourde were a reminder that the Tour de l’Ain is not the Tour de France. The dominating strength Jumbo showed in the tune-up races ahead of the Tour simply wasn’t there on Saturday.
It was also evidence that Primoz Roglic doesn’t need a big team to maintain some semblance of control over the race. Roglic, alone, mostly held the race together. Adversaries smelled blood, but only one rider could draw any.
Pogacar now must be seen as a major threat to Roglic’s run at yellow. He took 40 seconds after his trio of attacks. Put Nairo Quintana on that list, too, though he looked less dominant. And possibly the very comfortable-looking Rigoberto Uràn. And of course, Egan Bernal, who waited to show his strength until the tail end of last year’s Tour.
If that was an off day for Jumbo-Visma, within the context of what we know they can do, then those rivals have a difficult task ahead of them.