TDF Stage 5 Recap: Major GC Shake Up on La Planche des Belles Filles

A big victory on the first real climb reshapes the Yellow Jersey race, and a little more about Peter Sagan

The risks are what make cycling a bike race, and no, I’m not talking about Sagan just yet. Today’s attack was the highlight of the Tour so far; an incredible attack by Italian champion Fabio Aru, earning him the stage victory on a climb into the Vosges mountains. With 2.4km left, Aru sprinted out of an elite pack of GC riders, gaining 26 seconds on rival Chris Froome, and winning the stage.

Aru didn’t look back until he was clear, and although they chased, the rest of the GC cracked one-by-one, with only Dan Martin coming clean for a second place finish 16 seconds later, followed by Froome and Richie Porte, the two rivals sharing a 20 second deficit behind Aru.

If anyone had hopes left for Nairo Quintana or Alberto Contador, I bet they’ll concede them now. It’s a long race, but Quintana and Contador couldn’t keep up with the chase effort, falling back behind Simon Yates and Rigoberto Uran. The older Contador lost 26 seconds overall, and Quintana came even further behind at 34. Just behind was former race leader Geraint Thomas, who lost 40 seconds and the overall lead.

The real challenge today began at 152 kilometers at the base of La Planche des Belles Filles

Froome was expected to win this stage for sentimental reasons at least. His very first tour stage was won here in the first appearance of La Planche, five years ago, and he was expected to recreate the feat and take the yellow jersey today.

He did take the overall lead, even though he came in third, because he’s gained enough time to surpass teammate Thomas. It’s an interesting reversal of the 2012 finale, when then support rider Froome won but saw Sky’s previous leader, Bradley Wiggins, don the yellow jersey.

This is the third visit to La Planche, which last appeared in 2014. The unexpected winner that year, Aru’s predecessor as Italian champion, Vincenzo Nibali, regained the overall lead and would go on to win the Tour after his own daring attack. Aru is currently in third, but has established himself as a solid contender, and seems a worthy successor to Nibali, known as the Shark of Messina.

That’s incredible, but what about Belgian breaks?

Just what has gotten into those guys? Today it was a move by “Little Tommy” Voeckler, a 38 year old adult Frenchman who, bizarrely, is referred to as “Little Tommy” by long-time commentators Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin. Voeckler rose to prominence during the Lance Armstrong era, and will be retiring from the Tour this year after a long run of daring breakaway attempts and endearingly impish behavior.

Philippe Gilbert, a 35 year old Belgian rider, joined Voeckler and friends, but they didn’t seem likely to get away until Gilbert’s countryman, Thomas De Gendt, bridged up and set tempo. Among the group was another Belgian, Jan Bakelants, a former yellow jersey winner criticized last week for sexist remarks about the podium girls, the women who appear at the end of each stage. Bakelants has apologized, and the incident has renewed calls to end the practice.

Excuse me, did you say “Podium girls”?

At the end of each stage, two women attired in dresses styled after the competition jerseys kiss the winner of the corresponding classification. Adding insult to injury, these adult women are referred to as girls, not women. Let’s end the long over-due debate by stopping this antiquated and sexist practice.

It looks like a frat room poster, but it represents the biggest cycling event worldwide

The practice clearly doesn’t belong at cycling’s marquee event, particularly considering the total exclusion of women professionals from the race. Women managers had to fight simply to ride in their own team cars, even in the ‘80s, and women cyclists do not receive fair representation in a comparable race.

Want to guess how many professional women’s events end with a kiss from the Podium boys? Let’s abolish this dated custom and reinstate the cancelled women’s race with more appropriate prizes, honors, and coverage.

Hear hear! Back to that break?

The break established itself and went, eluding a half-hearted attempt by first BMC, then Movistar, Sky, and Katush, each trying to send a man with the escapees. That would be a traditional tactic if the leaders were worried about the break, but they weren’t, so the riders were recalled. BMC took over the peloton pace and slowly reeled the break in over the next 140km, until just Gilbert and Bakelants remained ahead.

Taking the lead was a bold move on a stage where Froome was expected to attack. Conventional wisdom holds that Team Sky are grown in cloning vats on an island off the coast of Great Britain. Their performance supports the view. BMC director Jim Ochowicz has insisted that it’s not true, declaring his squad stronger, but this remains to be seen. BMC collapsed on the last day of the crucial pre-Tour test event, the Criterium du Dauphine, leaving Richie Porte far from victory.

BMC finally abandoned the lead at the base of the climb, and I wonder if it was a tactical move meant to manipulate Sky into working hard at the toughest section of the stage. They did, and quickly caught Bakelants and Gilbert, though the second man earned most combative for his efforts.

I expected BMC to launch Porte after controlling the pace, and maybe that was the plan. We don’t know, because just before an attack would come, Aru made his move. Sky did not look capable of responding. They peeled off one-by-one as Aru pushed on, and left Froome on his own with rivals Porte and Martin. Contrast this with 2015, where Froome kept a teammate nearly every second of the race, and it’s looking like Sky might be off peak.

Kudos to Froome though, for a gutsier racing style in his solo counter-attack. Hopefully we’ll see more of this side of Froome, similar to his form last year, when he raced with less glances at the power meter and a little more daring.

You promised us some Peter

You’re right, and here it is. Andre Greipel has apologized for his harsh comments yesterday, and the world of cycling almost universally agrees that his disqualification was too harsh. It’s great to see Greipel make amends, even if I’m still grieving over the loss of Sagan and Mark Cavendish.

At the professional level, commentators have noted that Sagan did break the only official rule of sprinting by veering, but few mention stage winner Arnaud Demare, who cut a strange Z figure across the front of the bunch. Both men broke the official rule, but only one was punished, or even mentioned, and it’s worth noting that the first offense is typically punished with a small points deduction.

It seems clear that bad luck put Sagan and Cavendish on a collision course, and the former is being made a scapegoat. It’s a tragedy all around. Record-challenging Cavendish goes home and loses a year toward his goals, and the fans lose the very capable Sagan. The point deduction would have been a reasonable and appropriate punishment, while the disqualification has simply removed one of the most exciting and dynamic riders from the race.

One misconception that deserves clearing up is the official reason Sagan was penalized. Many fans seem to think he was punished for “the elbow”, and have argued that he didn’t strike Cav. In fact, UCI stated that the punishment was for veering, with no mention of elbows. You and I can argue that it’s a harsh, unfair call, but let’s not misstate the UCI position. If we can imagine for a second that UCI cares about our complaints, we can see the value in being factually correct as we protest this move.

At least the GC competition looks a little better, right?

Absolutely. It was exciting to see Aru in such fine form, and it raises hopes for a real showdown between GC contenders. Most surprising was Sky’s apparent weakness on the slope; it’s not normal for them to leave Froome alone with a pack of contenders.

To be fair, I wouldn’t stay with my leader up that climb either. Let him work for it if he wants the jersey so much.

What happens tomorrow?

Tune in tomorrow for another excessively long sprint stage, riding from Vesoul to Troyes. After a day of survival, we’ll see another duel on the line. With Sagan and Cavendish out, it looks like it could be anyone. I tend to favor Marcel Kittel, but on re-watching the finale yesterday, I’m wondering if the big German isn’t in trouble.

He missed the final sprint seemingly because his team had a minor crash, but it’s looking like his team crashed because they slowed down to wait for him. He’s not anywhere in sight just before they piled up, and seems to have fallen somewhere behind Team Sky on the approach to the sprint.

Maybe it was just mechanical troubles, or maybe he’s off his form. I’ll be looking for signs on the intermediate sprint tomorrow, and watching Demare carefully for a repeat of his two victories on stage four.

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