A heroic display from the breakaway led to the stage win for one of the most popular men in cycling. Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal took the team’s first stage win of the race ahead of Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe; who reclaimed the yellow jersey.
Stage 8 of the Tour de France took the field on a 200km trek from Mâcon to Saint-Étienne. The stage was one of those that could be a banana skin stage if not given proper respect; and represented a genuine opportunity for a breakaway to strike. In the end four riders established themselves at the front of the race and it was a breakaway of four very, very accomplished riders. Ben King of Dimension Data, Alessandro De Marchi of CCC Team, Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal and Niki Terpstra of Total Direct Energie eventually formed the move of the day with the blessing of the peloton.
Originally the move was a three-up move of King, De Gendt and Terpstra, with Mads Wurtz Schmidt of Katusha-Alpecin coming very close to making it across but just not quite having that final kick to make it over. After he’d been caught De Marchi went with 192km to go; and with the break’s lead sitting at just under 40 seconds, De Marchi managed to make it across after a chase of 14km.
As a quartet the break’s lead over the peloton built handsomely as BORA-Hansgrohe and then Bahrain Merida assumed control of the peloton. Of all the breakaways so far, this one could easily be considered the most littered with talent as the gap went up to around the 5 minute mark. Each rider represented serious strength in depth, with a wealth of success in classics, stage races and grand tours between them.
The stage not only presented opportunities for a breakaway stage win, but also had seven categorised climbs at cat 2 and cat 3 level; offering plenty of KOM points. De Gendt immediately showed his intent as he mopped up maximum points to sit just behind teammate Tim Wellens in the standings.
As Movistar and then Trek-Segafredo made their way forward in the bunch the break’s lead gradually shrunk to under 4 minutes and it looked more likely that the breakaway would be caught early, that lead continued to shrink to 3 minutes with 100km to go.
Although Trek-Segafredo were at the front of the peloton, it was one rider each from Team Sunweb and Deceuninck-Quick Step who actually led the way, in the hope that Michael Matthews or Julian Alaphilippe might be able to attack later on and take the stage. But it was notable that the leader of the bunch was a bit of a revolving door, with Astana and Team Ineos then taking over and allowing the break’s lead to grow back out towards 4 minutes, but it was a breakaway that was halved as Terpstra and King dropped back; leaving De Marchi and De Gendt up ahead.
But two leaders became one after a crash took down De Marchi. With 59km to go the Italian was brought to a halt after slightly misjudging a sweeping left hand turn. Credit to De Marchi, he didn’t hit the deck and was able to relaunch a chase back to De Gendt who decided to sit up and wait. After a quick exchange of words the duo were back doing what they do best as Astana set the tempo. But at this point a stage win was beginning to look more and more possible with a 3.30min lead with 46km remaining.
That lead dropped to 2 minutes with 30km to go, keeping everyone guessing about whether the catch would be made or not. EF Education were giving support to the chase, but their support simply kept the race in a perfect balance of uncertainty as to whether the break or the bunch would supply the stage winner.
Approaching 16km to go the gap to the peloton was down to 1.10mins but a kilometre later there was almost panic in the peloton as Geraint Thomas of Team Ineos hit the deck along with Michael Woods. Thomas’ bike was wrecked but he was able to quickly remount, and with the support of three teammates he began chasing with the pack not quite at full flight. Meanwhile with 14km to go Thomas De Gendt decided that it was finally time to strike.
The Belgian made a powerful attack and De Marchi had no answer. It was beginning to look less likely that De Gendt could make it all the way though with Astana closing to within 55 seconds of the lone leader as De Gendt hit the steepest part of the nasty climb. He crested the climb with 34 seconds lead and just 12.4km to go. Behind him Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-Quick Step and Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot went on the offensive. Geraint Thomas had managed to regain contact with the peloton; but for both Pinot and Alaphilippe their move had all the possibilities of being a very smart tactical move up the GC standings and potentially into the maillot jaune for Alaphilippe.
De Gendt’s lead was sitting at about 17 seconds to Alaphilippe and Pinot with 8km to go; in what was progressively becoming a fascinating game of hot pursuit. Also interesting to note was Alaphilippe’s incredible strength through the corners compared to Pinot who did well to just hold his compatriot’s wheel. Meanwhile the lead of the peloton was a mixture of riders and teams, with Deceuninck-Quick Step near the front and frustrating the chase effort that still saw Ciccone in the main field.
With 6km to go De Gendt’s lead was back out from 11 seconds to 19 seconds to Alaphilippe and Pinot. The stage was very slowly looking like it might go to De Gendt as the race reached 3km to go. De Gendt was eyeballs out as he hit the final uphill drag prior to the finish line with a 37 second lead to the peloton and a 25 second lead over the chasing duo; but then once again that gap shrunk as the climb bit. With 2km to go and the hill crested, the lead had come down to just 8 seconds as a heart-in-your-mouth finale unfolded.
Pinot and Alaphilippe dug deep to try and make the catch, finally getting De Gendt within their sights with 1.3km to go. Alaphilippe once again took the lead through the final descent, with Pinot just about managing to hold on. De Gendt was looking behind him with 500m to go but he gradually began to realise that he would not be caught. Finally with just 50m to go a stunned De Gendt crossed the line as winner of stage 8 of the Tour de France.
Thibaut Pinot crossed the line in second place to pick up a little extra time with Alaphilippe third and delighted that he was back in the yellow jersey. Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan led the main field home that featured George Bennett.
Overall the result meant that Julian Alaphilippe moved back into the maillot jaune by 23 seconds to Giulio Ciccone. Thibaut Pinot moved up to third overall at 53 seconds, while George Bennett continued to hold fourth place overall at 1.10mins.
It was interesting to note that Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida and Michael Woods of EF Education First both suffered in the stage; with both riders losing significant time. The Italian dropped from 8th to 28th overall and is now 6.18mins behind Alaphilippe and almost completely out of contention for the win; although never count out Nibali. Michael Woods also lost significant time, dropping from 9th to 35th at 15.32mins.