Unlikely young hopefuls and wily veterans lock into tight battle for Tour de France podium
Tightly coiled battle for the podium develops as rookies with nothing to lose tussle with established GC riders harboring high expectations.
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Tadej Pogačar may appear bulletproof, but the Tour de France is far from over.
The defending champion again distanced his GC rivals with a late attack on the road into Tignes on Sunday’s ninth stage, but the race is still young and a tightly-coiled battle for the podium is developing behind him.
Tour de France rookies Ben O’Connor and Jonas Vingegaard are elbowing alongside established veterans Rigoberto Urán and Wilco Kelderman in a scrap for podium positions. Richard Carapaz is showing no signs of giving up and Ineos Grenadiers looks bullish.
And if this Tour has shown us anything after the opening nine stages, it’s that anything can happen, despite Pogačar’s commanding lead.
Here’s how the top of the GC looks after the Alpine weekender:
- Tadej Pogačar: Yellow jersey
- Ben O’Connor: +2:01
- Rigoberto Urán +5:18
- Jonas Vingegaard +5:32
- Richard Carapaz: +5:33
- Enric Mas: +5:47
- Wilco Kelderman: +5:58
- Alexey Lutsenko: +6:12
So what’s at play for those tussling behind Pogačar? Let’s take a look:
Career-shaping opportunity for O’Connor
Tour de France debutant Ben O’Connor struck gold Sunday.
The Aussie punched into the day’s break with an eye on the GC and came out with a stage win and a massive vault up to second on GC.
With a string of strong rides at the recent Giros d’Italia and a handful of stage race top-10s, O’Connor has the pedigree to push for the podium. However, his Ag2r-Citroën team didn’t bring a gang of climbers to the Tour as it predominantly focussed on stage wins.
Aurelien Paret-Peintre will provide strong support in the mountains, but O’Connor’s time of being within range of yellow may be brief with Pogačar and UAE Emirates again looking imperious on the roads into Tignes.
Gagner sur le Tour. 💛
A victory on the Tour.💛#TDF2021 l #AG2RCITROËNTEAM #RoulonsAutrement #RideDifferently l @LeTour l © ASO pic.twitter.com/aGStzg4iby
— AG2R CITROËN TEAM (@AG2RCITROENTEAM) July 4, 2021
“Ben is a precious boy who has shown great things in tough races like the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné. We knew his qualities as a rider, stage winner last year on the Giro, we discovered a strong man who should shine for his debut on the Tour,” said Vincent Laveneau ahead of the Tour.
Leveneau and O’Connor have nothing to lose now the Aussie has clocked the home team a stage win.
The 25-year-old O’Connor has a three-minute advantage over nearest-rival Rigoberto Urán and 12 stages in which to defend it. The young Aussie will head into the second half of the Tour all-guns-blazing.
GC pedigree pushes for the podium
Richard Carapaz and Ineos Grenadiers aren’t going to give up trying with so many days remaining to Paris.
For Carapaz, anything less than a podium will be a disappointment after winning the 2019 Giro d’Italia and placing second at last year’s Vuelta.
Ineos Grenadiers pushed Pogačar in the final kilometers of Sunday’s stage only for the yellow jersey to again crush Carapaz’s efforts to pull back time. The team knows the defending champ is near-impenetrable, but is intent on looking for a weakness nonetheless.
“I think he [Pogačar] is certainly the strongest rider in the race but there’s a very long way to go. As we’ve seen so far, all sorts of things are happening this year,” Ineos Grenadiers boss Dave Brailsford told Wielerflits on Saturday.
“We have already seen top favorites such as Geraint Thomas and Primoz Roglič drop out of the standings … Pogačar dominates now, but that doesn’t mean nothing can happen to him. We just have to keep fighting for our position.”
It's seventh for @RichardCarapazM who tried to animate the closing stages to make some gains on the GC group.
He's now fifth overall heading into the rest day #TDF2021 pic.twitter.com/pEXKBjeLtQ
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 4, 2021
Like Carapaz, established GC-guys Rigoberto Urán and Wilco Kelderman are unlikely to sit back and defend for a top-5. Both Urán and Kelderman have grand tour top-3s in the bag and finishing off the podium may not be the result they were hoping for.
Kelderman lost a handful of seconds in the final flurries of accelerations Sunday but remains just 40 seconds from Urán, who has characteristically flown quietly onto the podium.
Bora-Hansgrohe and EF Education Nippo both have the firepower and the knowhow to aim for the podium and will push all the way home to Paris.
Climbing mountains, climbing the GC. Rigoberto Urán moves up to 3rd overall after a strong showing on the Tour de France’s longest climb of the year💪🇨🇴
Now, who’s ready for tomorrow’s rest day? pic.twitter.com/ctXXsYHAH1
— EF Pro Cycling (@EFprocycling) July 4, 2021
Enric Mas will be eyeing a repeat – or better – of his fifth place at last year’s Tour. The great Spanish hope is well-positioned in sixth overall and has a spritely Alejandro Valverde to lend him a wheel and decades of experience.
For Mas, this Tour also offers him the opportunity to assert himself at the top of the Movistar pecking order. New recruit Miguel Angel Lopez is way off the pace and perennial GC-outsider Marc Soler has abandoned. Mas will be eyeing both a top result and top future billing with “The Blues.”
Caught between stage-hunting and a GC gamble
Jonas Vingegaard is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Jumbo-Visma indicated that it’s in the Tour for stage wins after Primož Roglič abandoned Sunday morning, and that Vingegaard will not be going for GC.
“For Jonas, it is his first Tour de France. He is given time to learn and gain experience,” sport director Merijn Zeeman said Saturday.
“We have a long-term plan with him. This is a very welcome experience for him in that plan. In the future we will set higher goals for Jonas in the Tour de France, but that will not be for this year.”
However, with the young Dane now up in fourth and just 15 seconds from the podium, the Dutch squad may have to reassess its options for the second time.
Jumbo-Visma is on the ropes after the abandons of Roglič and Robert Gesink, but it’s hard to see Vingegaard happily losing time in a bid to hunt for stages. Like O’Connor, he has nothing to lose.
Jonas Vingegaard crossed the line in Tignes as number seven, among the other GC riders.
Well done, Jonas! 👏🏻
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) July 4, 2021