So, we’re almost at the halfway point in the Tour de France. 10 days of racing has produced 10 different winners, three different leaders and Kiwi who – until yesterday – was in with a serious shout of taking the maillot jaune.
All in all I’ve been really pleased with how this year’s Tour de France has gone. It’s been surprising, unpredictable and . . . open! That’s the beautiful thing about this year’s Tour; the lack of dominance shown in the GC battle. Team Ineos sit poised to strike and you get the sense that they surely will, but Steven Kruijswijk of Jumbo-Visma, Emanuel Buchmann of BORA-Hansgrohe, Enric Mas of Deceuninck-Quick Step, Adam Yates of Mitchelton-SCOTT, Nairo Quintana of Movistar and Dan Martin of UAE Team Emirates are all within a minute of Thomas and Bernal.
There is the sense that in the hunt for yellow by the time the race reaches Paris anything really could happen. Heck, the fact that Richie Porte has made it beyond stage 8 for the first time in three Tours de France is a plus in itself! Thus far, besides a crash that briefly wounded Jakob Fuglsang, none of the big contenders have really faced any bad luck situations that have taken them out of the Tour. It’s refreshing, it’s engaging, it’s intriguing and I like the way the Tour is unfolding this year. Everyone is there or thereabouts, and while the individual time trial will open up the cracks in the GC standings a little more, the stacked nature of the mountain stages ahead mean that even if a rider should end stage 13 two or three minutes adrift of yellow all will not be lost.
The biggest cheer we must naturally reserve for George. Bennett has been superb from the drop of the flag in stage 1; and his position overall, 27th at 11.01 minutes behind Alaphilippe, absolutely does not do justice to the manner in which he’s executed his race thus far. If anything Bennett has been the victim of team tactics which from the outside looking in are surely questionable. Getting your best climbing lieutenant to pull hard on the first stage that was all about the sprinters was a surprising move, but George did it and did it very well; ultimately leading to a surprise stage winner in Mike Teunissen.
Since then he’s punched above his weight consistently; to the point where it looked like Jumbo-Visma had him set up as a very good plan B for the GC. He wasn’t going to be a rider that Jumbo-Visma were going to rely on in the TTT, and yet he was there to the end to move up to 5th overall and celebrate a stage win with mates as they took the team time trial title. From there it appeared that George and Steven Kruijswijk were largely keeping their powder dry as the team’s two big options at the top of the standings. George climbed brilliantly in stage 6 to La Planche des Belles Filles to put time into a large number of GC contenders; even Kruijswijk, and we dreamed that maybe New Zealand could have a first yellow jersey wearer.
Then stage 10 happened. Jumbo-Visma have been brilliant in this year’s Tour de France, four stage wins with three different riders and a TTT win to boot; but yesterday’s win for the sensational Wout Van Aert overlooks very questionable tactical decision making that ended up costing George Bennett and potentially the entire team very dearly.
Whether by instruction or by his own voluntary decision (or by radio wires being crossed and a weird technical glitch ensuing), George went back to the team car to fetch bidons with less than 40km to go. That in itself is an interesting move, sending your best-placed GC rider to do the spade work rather than any of the other six riders much further down the standings. Before the stage began the next best placed rider beyond Bennett and Kruijswijk was Laurens De Plus at 24 minutes.
What happened next was head-in-hands-shaking-head stuff. The crosswinds struck, and as you’d expect, the likes of Deceuninck-Quick Step and Team Ineos – who have really established themselves as masters of peloton control in crosswinds – had an absolute field day. But George was left alone, completely alone, and for several kilometres as the gaps opened and opened; the Kiwi climber was left as a solo chaser before finally gaining contact with the grupetto who crossed the line 9.41mins behind Van Aert and a handful of the big GC names who’d capitalised on the situation brilliantly.
Now, there may have been one or two things going on. Jumbo-Visma may have decided to save their stronger, faster-on-flat-roads men to lead out either Groenewegen or – as it turned out – Van Aert; thus George was sent to do the bidon trip. Maybe they still see their best option as pursuing stage wins alone, maybe there’s actually not a whole lot of faith in their GC campaign; something I don’t believe is the case. And maybe it was just an honest accident with technology to blame.
Whatever the reason for what went on yesterday it was a tactical blunder. Two GC options has now become just one; and while Steven Kruijswijk is unquestionably a great rider this is the Tour de France. Anything can happen, a puncture halfway up the last big mountain of the day, a mechanical problem just as Team Ineos light up the last 20km, a crash (just ask Paddy Bevin), or a simple off-day. Kruijswijk finished fifth in last year’s Tour but his previous best was 15th four years prior.
As for George, he can carry on with business as anticipated pre-Tour. He knew he was there to work for Kruijswijk and he will continue to do so. The silver lining in terms of opportunities for George is that he may find that he has slightly more freedom to infiltrate a breakaway being a lot further down the general classification; but that will all depend on how present Kruijswijk needs him at crucial points in the next few mountain stages. The team have shown so far that they’re quite motivated to get into breakaways as well as pursue GC position so hopefully George will get some of that breakaway freedom too.
In spite of the fact that yesterday was a bit of a red-faced moment for Jumbo-Visma, it may still transpire that they may get away with the mistake. Only time will tell.