What. A. Stage. So often grand tour racing seduces us with a promising parcours and riders full of intent. So often we’re let down as teams play it safe and we’re left with a race as predictable as a superhero movie at the local multiplex.
But not today! Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) took a superb solo win in Saint-Etienne, holding off a fast-charging Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep). The dashing Frenchman retakes the maillot jaune for Bastille Day, while Pinot has done his chances no harm whatsoever climbing to third on GC.
How it went down
As befits a stage of such stature, the early breakaway was full of firepower. De Gendt was joined by Niki Terpstra of Total Direct Energie, Alessandro De Marchi of CCC and Dimension Data’s Ben King. Along the way, De Gendt bagged himself the lion’s share of KOM points – it really was his day of domination.
At the Cote de la Croix de Part, around 60 kms from the finish, the “De” duo of De Marchi and De Gendt went off the front. The double “De”s worked well together, maintaining their advantage over the peloton. This was no mean feat as various teams with various motivations kept the speed high all afternoon. No matter how fast the chasing pack pushed it, they just couldn’t break the breakaway’s spirit.Embed from Getty Images
On the penultimate climb of the day, 14 kms from Saint-Etienne, stage 8, and indeed the entire Tour de France, came to life. De Gendt decided he’d had enough of his Italian companion. Almost simultaneously Alaphillippe decided it was time he got back that yellow jersey.Embed from Getty Images
The madness began. Ahead, the Belgian breakaway specialist dropped De Marchi with a huge surge of power. Behind, Alaphilippe sprang from the peloton, taking Thibaut Pinot with him. The pair seemed to erupt from the main group, a blaze of intensity and high cadence pedalling.
We were then treated to an enthralling finish. De Gendt powering towards the finish line. The French duo visibly giving every last ounce of energy they had to closing down the Belgian leader and distancing the rest of the peloton.
The main group looked spent and demoralised. Alaphilippe and Pinot looked like they could continue for a few more hours. It was a glorious watch as they flashed through the outskirts of Saint-Etienne, pedalling through the corners, taking the chances that only a once and future yellow jersey can make a rider take. We didn’t know how it would end until the last 500 kms.Embed from Getty Images
De Gendt held on for the win, Pinot took second and Alaphillppe came in third ready to pick up his new yellow top just in time for Bastille Day.
For a sport that often disappoints this seemed like a perfect resolution. De Gendt, Alaphilippe and Pinot are all rewarded for their efforts in different, but entirely fitting ways.
De Gendt said it like it was in the post-stage interview:
From 5’, our lead went down quickly to 3’30’’, but we didn’t pushed that much until the climb of the feed zone. That was the moment to get a bigger gap again. I almost crashed in a few corners but I made it. It hurts so much but it’s wonderful.
Rider of the RaceEmbed from Getty Images
It’s a personal pick but I’m giving it to Julian Alaphilippe. Sometimes when Thomas De Gendt wins from a breakaway it’s not that interesting to watch. I can admire his effort but…well, you’re just watching a bloke cycling quite fast.
The QuickStepper didn’t so much light up this stage as doused it in petrol and chucked a whole pack of matches on it. And once it was ablaze, he threw on a few firecrackers for good measure. He could have played it fairly safe and made a late move to try and get the seconds on Trek’s Giulio Ciccone. Instead, he decided to win it with panache and doubled down on that panache by bringing Monsieur Pinot along with him. So much Frenchness!
Not only did Alaphilippe give us the thrilling ‘will-they or won’t-they-catch-De Gendt’ finale, but we also watched him pull the yellow jersey off the young Trek rider’s shoulders and place it snugly back on his own.
“I had to attack and go full gas. I didn’t know the finale. I was just focused in the last kilometres and it went very fast. In the last 500 meters I thought it’s now or never, I just went full gas. It was difficult to be in a better situation than with Thibaut Pinot. Had I been alone, I would have gone flat out anyway but with him, I could recover a bit sometimes. I couldn’t dream of anything better than riding in yellow jersey on Bastille Day tomorrow.”
In an age of riding to power meters and hedging your bets, Julian Alaphilippe rides his own way. [Does he even know what how to hedge his bets? – ed] He wins by being brave and thoroughly deserves to be the star of the show as the race rolls out of Saint-Etienne tomorrow.
Meanwhile, back in the peloton …Embed from Getty Images
As predictable as Thomas de Gendt being in the break is Geraint Thomas being in the road. Nearly the entire Ineos team hit the deck during the closing kilometres, when EF’s Rusty Woods slide on the curve and they concertina-ed into each other. The wreckage wasn’t pretty but it seems no major damage was done.
For every winner, there is a loser. Trek’s Giulio Ciccone has plucked at the heartstrings while he’s been wearing yellow but he’s now 23 seconds adrift. His defense of the jersey was full of heart, but with no teammates with him and every GC man for himself, there really wasn’t much the young rider could do. [Considering his quote below, I don’t think this particular battle is over just yet .- ed]Embed from Getty Images
“It was a very hard stage. We did the maximum. I want to thank my teammates. It was a stage for Alaphilippe. It’s fair enough that he got the yellow jersey back. He did it with great determination. I was at the limit when he attacked. I hanged on all day. I’m happy with my condition. To ride a stage like this at the front means I’m going well. I’m satisfied with the way I handled the situation. It’s been something exceptional to have the opportunity to wear the yellow jersey for two days. We’ll see in the coming days, who knows, if there’s a way to create another surprise.”
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) came in over four minutes down and EF’s Michael Woods lost 14 minutes, both fall out of the GC top ten. To be fair, Woods was going well until he hit the deck. In a grand tour, sometimes the only luck you have is bad.
Finally, Yoann Offredo (Wanty) paid for yesterday’s breakaway efforts finishing nearly half an hour after de Gendt. Some days you’re the hammer…
Stage 8 – Top 5
1 Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) 5:0017
2 Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) +0:06
3 The marvellous Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) same time
4 Michael Mathews (Subweb) +0:26
5 Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) same time
General Classification – Top 10
1 Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) 34:17:59
2 Guilio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) +0:23
3 Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ_ +0:53
4 George Bennet (Jumbo-Visma) +1:10
5 Geraint Thomas (Ineos) +1:12
6 Egan Bernal (Ineos) +1:16
7 Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) +1:27
8 Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) +1:38
9 Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) +1:42
10 Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-hansgrohe) +1:45
All the Jerseys
Maillot Jaune: Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step)
Maillot Vert: Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe)
Maillot Blanc: Giulio Ciccone(Trek-Segafredo)
King of the Mountains: Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)
For the full race review, go to cyclingnews
Header image: Eurosport screengrab