Teams with the talent to dominate the Tour de France and walk away with the yellow jersey usually go into the race with a distinct strategy. They can pick up a stage win or two during the first two weeks while keeping a close eye on their strongest challengers, and then overpower the field on the big climbs of the third week where the race is almost always won.
Or they can grab the yellow jersey when the shake-out of the race makes it possible, and then defend it over the duration of the race. Or a team can make a powerful statement of its intent and confidence early on, without necessarily holding the yellow jersey, to dare the competition to beat it.
The Dutch Jumbo-Visma team have obviously chosen the third strategy and they decided on stage 4, and the Category 1 climb to the summit of the Orcières-Merlette, to announce their intent. The ease with which race favourite Primož Roglič sprinted away from the field following a dizzyingly rapid run up the 7.1-km ascent – leaving last year’s winner Egan Bernal floundering in his wake – must have shaken the rest of the field.
But equally impressive was the work of team riders Wout van Aert and Sepp Kuss who set such a blistering pace while leading Roglič up the mountain that no one could attack during the climb and no rider had the legs to keep up with the Slovenian when he went for the win. Jumbo-Visma set out on the Tour’s first summit finish to make a statement, which declared: “We have the rider and we have the team. Try and stop us.”
Three days earlier, the 2020 Tour opened with a bang, literally, as bikes and riders crashed on the pavement in large number during the first stage because a rainstorm made the tarmac very hazardous. Here is a partial list of the riders who crashed during the first stage (some of them twice): Nairo Quintana, Caleb Ewan, George Bennett, Tom Dumoulin, Wout Poels, Mikel Landa, Sam Bennett, Pavel Sivakov, Julian Alaphilippe, Ilnur Zakarin, Andrey Amador, Richie Porte, Thibaut Pinot and Mikel Nieve.
The situation became so dangerous that the riders stopped racing altogether with about 65 km to go in the stage, continuing in a bunch at a safe pace, until they resumed racing with about 25 km to go. This tactic prompted former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins to call out the riders for lacking courage.
“Riders are willing to take more risks in order to get that win but it’s a tough sport and if you don’t like it, probably retire,” he said on Eurosport. What he didn’t say was that three riders – Rafael Valls, Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb – did retire from the Tour but because of injuries they’d sustained, not shame. Norway’s Alexander Kristoff was the surprise winner of the chaotic sprint to the finish.
On Sunday, last year’s most combative (and exciting) rider, France’s Julian Alaphilippe, was reunited with the yellow jersey, which he wore for 14 stages in 2019. It still fit. Always impressive on all but the toughest climbs, he surged clear on the final ascent of the Col des Quatre Chemin and wept as he dedicated the victory to his father who died in June.
Monday’s third stage was notable for another adamant statement made by Australian Caleb Ewan of Team Lotto Soudal who won the sprint to the finish line, into a strong headwind, with impressive authority. The sprinters who tried in vain to catch him, notably Sam Bennett of Deceuninck-QuickStep and NTT Pro Cycling’s Giacomo Nizzolo, will have to upgrade their strategy and their form if they want to come away with some stage wins.
After the drama of the first few stages, Wednesday’s fifth stage was a refreshing bore with no serious crashes and, surprisingly, no breakaways. But the stage was another triumph for Jumbo-Visma, as the remarkable van Aert – who seems to be able to do everything – won the sprint to the finish.
The end of the fifth stage saw Alaphilippe 4 seconds ahead of Britain’s Adam Yates, with Roglič a further 3 seconds behind. An illegal feed inside the final 20 km of the 5th stage has, however, unexpectedly transferred the yellow jersey to the hands of Yates. A water bottle taken from his support team member and a subsequent penalisation earned Alaphilippe an overall 16th position. Surprised but not exactly happy, Adam Yates changed into the yellow jersey and commented that this is not the way he would have liked to take it.
Seven-time ŠKODA Green Jersey winner Peter Sagan relinquished the green jersey to Ireland’s Bennett who may justifiably feel that he is only borrowing it.