Tour de France Stage 11 Recap: When is a Sprint Stage a Time Trial?

Despite crashes, today’s flat stage looked like any other; until Peter Sagan’s Polish time trialling teammate made a move

It looked like a re-do of yesterday. The peloton rolled along behind the organizer’s car, headed for the start line, and an attack launches just over the line as the race begins. Quickstep Floors and Lotto-Soudal led the peloton for Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel respectively, keeping the gap small and manageable.

I ate pancakes for breakfast this morning

The break had a familiar figure in Frederik Backaert, the Belgian rider from Wanty — Groupe Gobert. Joining him were Marco Marcato from UAE Team Emirates and Maciej Bodnar of Bora-Hansgrohe. Backaert has been in most of the breaks, but not yet won the most aggressive award; I thought for sure the jury would give it to him today.

But you were wrong

And I’ve never been happier about it, either! I don’t subscribe to the cynical claim that young riders break for TV time. I have faith in the impulsive optimism of youth, and I believe most of these young riders are hungry to win. The last few days haven’t really supported that theory, though, and today looked no different.

The trio were held at a small lead throughout the day, and they looked caught with nearly 30 kilometer left in the race. The teams of the sprinters were working harder than usual to chase this group down, despite none of them looking like a real challenge.

The break heading toward Pau © ASO/Pauline BALLET

And then Bodnar attacked!

As Backaert and Marcato sat back and soft pedalled, Bodnar went on an all-out offensive with 28 km to the finish. The move looked brave but stupid, with an all-star lead-out group giving chase. The time gap told a different story. Bodnar held them at a forty-second deficit over the next 18 kilometers.

Bodnar is a time trial specialist. Uncomfortable but invigorated, he sat on the nose of his saddle, in excess of 50 kilometers per hour. Behind him, the top time trialists in the world organized a chase. Jack Bauer, New Zealand champion, traded turns with Tony Martin, four-time world champion and seven-time German national champion.

No other stage has had anything like this. Bodnar rode flat-out, hunted by the greatest living time trialist. Over the next 4 kilometers, he’d lose ten seconds to the peloton, but a technical section saw him regain stability. The peloton simply couldn’t keep the same speed through the more narrow, curvy stretch. He’d already won the most aggressive award for the day, and now he was trying for the stage win.

After the 3 kilometer mark, he had a fifteen-second gap, possibly too little, too late. It’d be enough if this was the last kilometer, and I realized why the peloton tried to reel him in so early: if they’d waited any longer, they wouldn’t have had a chance.

Cycling is like a chess match

It’s not just about fitness and form. It’s also about knowing who is on the road, where they are, and what they can do. If this was the group from yesterday, you’d have seen the peloton casually catch them in the last 10 kilometers again. Not so for Bodnar, an impressive time trialist who was committed to earning a win for Peter Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe.

The team is looking to save their Tour de France, which looked utterly lost after the disqualification of Sagan and the abandonment of Rafal Majka, their general classification contender, after his stage nine crash. Bodnar might be their last chance to take home a stage win, and what a way to do it.

But he’s caught, right?

“Any slip up at the front and he’ll steal it — no, he’ll earn it!” — Commentator Robbie McEwen

The motorbikes pulled away as he passed under the 1 kilometer banner. Normally, this signifies an imminent catch; the time gaps, relayed by the motorbike, disappear, and the peloton absorbs the break. It seemed that they’d underestimated him, though, when he quickly increased his lead.

It wasn’t much; a few dozen meters according to the telemetry data, but it looked like Bodnar still had a chance. With 800, 700, 600 meters to go, he fought on, just off the front of the lead-out teams of the world’s greatest sprinters.

The graphics cut out after announcing 400 meters remaining, and then, finally, he surrendered. In the last 300 meters, Bodnar pulled to the left, out of the tight bunch and toward the back. He would not win this stage of the Tour de France, but for a few minutes, he turned a sprint into a thrilling time trial.

Does Marcel Kittel win?

Of course he does, and what a win it is again! Coming from the back, he just outrode Dylan Groenewegen, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Michael Matthews, who finished in that order. Poor Boasson Hagen never saw him coming, and raises his hand in triumph, despite coming in a clear third place. Kittel has won his fifth stage in one year; with three left, he could tie the record of eight stages in a single Tour, joining Charles Pélissier, Eddy Merckx, and Freddy Maertens.

There is no doubt that Marcel Kittel is the best sprinter in the world. I don’t know where Andre Greipel is, but he came in seventh today, an indicator that something is wrong with his form or health. McEwen and Matthew Keenan reaffirm their view that even if Sagan and Arnaud Demare continued, Kittel would win the most points in the green jersey competition. I agree; the course really favors a pure sprinter this year.

The formula this year has made for a more exciting points competition. I love seeing the puncheurs win hill stages and fight for flat sprints, but I think the green jersey is best on a pure sprinter. It certainly opens up the award to men who aren’t named Sagan, and at the very least, it gives sprinters a better target than stage wins. Some years, sprinters will abandon before the last mountain stages, making for a disappointing final field in the traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées.

“In those five bunch sprints I won, I never made a mistake. Today again I could jump from wheel to wheel. It’s nice to give the team a win again.” — Kittel after stage 11

Of course Kittel has it locked-in now, but I’m hopeful that we can see this formula next year and a more contentious fight for green throughout the Tour. The rest have a lot of catching up to do. Kittel says he has made no mistakes for his wins, but the truth is that he’s gone too late or too early or from too far back in every victory. There is no other sprinter today who could win if they’d attacked with his timing or positioning.

Any crashes today?

Of course. Jakob Fuglsang, fifth overall in the general classification, and his Astana teammate Dario Cataldo both crashed with others in the feed zone. It was a slow speed crash, which tend to cause worse injuries, because riders will ‘catch’ themselves with a hand. Cataldo broke his wrist and withdraws. Fuglsang injured his wrist, too, but seems to have recovered.

A second crash injured Arthur Vichot and took down Michael Matthews, Sunny Colbrelli, Yukiya Arashiro, and Romain Bardet, who sits in second overall. Bardet seems to have escaped serious injury, but I do not think Fuglsang was as lucky.

Let’s talk about tomorrow

I’ve been saying it, but I’ll say it again: Fabio Aru must attack tomorrow and win the stage. It is his only hope of winning the Tour de France. It’s similar to stage 5, which he won, and stage 18, which he also has to win. He’s out-climbed Froome before to a summit finish, and if he can make about three minutes over tomorrow and stage 18, he can win despite a sure loss of two minutes in the time trial on stage 20.

The pancakes are over

He’s not the only one planning something big. Froome coyly refused to answer a journalist when asked about an attack tomorrow, but Bardet called it his type of battle.

“Another uphill finish, I hope that we’ll see a great battle. We’ll do the best we can. It’s a marathon stage of 200 km, it’s the kind of stages I like.” — Romain Bardet on stage 12

Real quick, what happened with Nacer Bouhanni punching Bauer?

Bauer, who towers over 5'9" Bouhanni at 6'3", laughed about the off-target punch. Bouhanni cross-trains as a boxer but probably shouldn’t give up his cycling gig just yet. He was given a slap on the wrist, a 200 Swiss Franc fine. Some fans have compared it unfavorably to Sagan’s disqualification, but it seems clear that UCI has made a decision to punish outcomes over intentions. It wouldn’t be my call, but it makes sense, and I don’t think accusations of hypocrisy are going to change their minds.

Thanks for reading! I write about cycling and am currently blogging the 2017 Tour de France here on Medium.

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Did you read about Kittel’s fourth win yesterday? See the stage 10 recap, below!