The Tour de France organisation will commemorate the late Jacques Chirac with a finish outside the museum that bears his name in Sarran on stage 12, but the race’s visits to the fiefdom of the former president of France will be forever linked with the tumultuous summer of 1998 and Richard Virenque’s tearful press conference in the backroom of Chez Guillou in the aftermath of Festina’s expulsion.
Despite the sword of Damocles perched above four teams in the wake of the battery of COVID-19 tests on the first rest day, however, there seems to be little immediate prospect of such melodrama on this year’s visit to the Corrèze.
Instead, the longest stage of the Tour appears – at least at first glance – to be something of a transitional day that should offer a chance for the early break to go the distance, while yellow jersey Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and his fellow GC contenders hold fire with an eye to Thursday’s testing finale at Puy Mary.
The early break has gone the distance just twice so far on this Tour – at Mont Aigoual on stage 6 and at Loudenvielle on the first day in the Pyrenees – but men like Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) will surely have highlighted Thursday’s stage in their road books. It was notable, too, that Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) sat up in the finale in Poitiers on Wednesday after clocking off from his shift in the service of Sam Bennett.
Alaphilippe’s teammate holds the green jersey, and the race for the points classification will undoubtedly have an impact on the composition of the early break and whether it goes clear at all. The day’s intermediate sprint comes in Le Dorat after 51km, and it will be yet another battleground in a struggle that swung dramatically in Bennett’s favour when Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was relegated from second place on stage 11.
Sagan has won the green jersey seven times in eight attempts, largely by picking up points in the parts his fellow fast men can’t reach, but even as the Tour reaches midway, he is quickly running out of road to recoup his 68-point deficit.
On stage 7, Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team set a blistering pace from the start to drop Bennett from the peloton ahead of the intermediate sprint, but this time around, there is no early climb to facilitate their task. Sagan’s prospects of being allowed to enter the early break seem slim, but he will surely look to pick up as many points as possible. The day’s would-be escapees, meanwhile, might have to wait until after the next instalment of the Bennett-Sagan match before being granted their day passes.
The road grows more rolling as the stage progresses, and the race heads towards the Corrèze department, where the heavy roads seem to lend themselves to a break of strongmen sallying clear and fighting among themselves for the stage honours.
The effervescent Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale) hasn’t yet passed up on the chance to chase king of the mountains points, and he will be drawn by the sprinkling of categorised climbs that follow the midway point of the stage. The fourth-category Côte de Saint-Martin-Terressus (1.5km at 8.8%) is followed by the fourth-category Côte d’Eybouleuf (2.8km at 5.2%) and the third-category Côte de la Croix du Pey (4.8km at 6%). The finale, meanwhile, features the rather more demanding second-category ascent of Suc au May (3.8km at 7.7%). The summit comes 25.5km from the finish and, importantly, there are time bonuses on offer at the top.
In a Tour of such tight margins, that detail might ordinarily serve to condemn the break’s chances of staying clear – Ineos Grenadiers leader Egan Bernal’s 21-second deficit to Roglic, after all, is composed entirely of time bonuses – but it seems unlikely that any GC team will have the motivation to commit to controlling the race on such a long stage, and on such unruly terrain.
It would clearly make no strategic sense for Ineos to shut down a break only to present the patently quicker Roglic with a chance to extend his advantage over Bernal, while Jumbo-Visma themselves know that they will have more arduous battles in the days that follow.
That said, the day is not entirely without interest for the GC men. The terrain remains rolling all the way to the finish, and the road climbs steadily – if not especially steeply – for the final five kilometres into Sarrans. An enterprising and alert podium contender with an attacking bent like Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) or Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) will be aware of the possibilities. Men like Roglic, Bernal and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) should be alive to the danger.
Another scenario, of course, is that Bora-Hansgrohe – now without a shot at the general classification – might put everything into trying to tee up Sagan for a reduced bunch sprint, both as a response to his disqualification on Wednesday and as a bid to breathe life into his green jersey challenge. In 2015 and 2017, for instance, similarly transitional stages to Rodez wound up playing host to sprint finishes, but it still seems hard to envisage the break being denied in Sarrans, especially if the move is of a similar calibre to the one that helped Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) to victory at Mont Aigoual last week.
With that in mind, it’s worth reiterating that Alaphilippe has breezily conceded minutes ever since his always hypothetical GC challenge ended on the Peyresourde on Saturday. Now more than 56 minutes off the yellow jersey, there should be no impediment to his entry into escapes from here to Paris, even if he suggested on Monday that his eye is drawn more to the Puy Mary and the final week in the Alps.
“I’m determined to try something, but where that will be, in the end in the legs will decide,” he said.
Already a stage winner and an ephemeral maillot jaune in week one, Alaphilippe’s Tour may be about to start all over again.