There are different ways to win a cycling race, but it’s not often that a stage of the Tour de France is won like that, stealthily, in plain sight: un coup du kilometer, as the French say. Frenchman Victor Lafay attacked once in the final throes but was quickly caught, so maybe no one believed him when he tried again – certainly no one did enough to stop him.
Upon arriving in San Sebastián, where thousands of fans had waited patiently in the rain, Lafay pedaled furiously away from the elite group, who looked around to ask who would be chasing. By the time they had made their decision, Lafay had taken the last bend on the waterfront alone and clung to his life, carried by adrenaline and hope, and by the deafening clapping of hands against the palisades. . As he crawled to the line, Wout van Aert chased him like a wounded animal, but it was too late. Lafay threw up his hands; Van Aert punched his handlebars.
It was a historic day for French cycling. Cofidis have been around for 26 years and haven’t won a Tour stage for 15 years, a brave but generally desperate team, usually closer to the red lantern than the yellow jersey. Eventually, this streak was cut short, in the most unexpected way. After Van Aert pulled himself up the difficult Jaizkibel climb, the stage was still his to lose against a group of lightweight climbers, but Lafay is well known in the peloton for his unpredictable pushes and one of them paid off in spectacular fashion here, earning his first Tour stage win.
Tadej Pogacar finished third, and quietly it was the perfect start to this Tour for the two-time champion, who is looking to reclaim his crown from Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingaard. Pogacar beat Vingaard at the top of the Jaizkibel to gain eight bonus seconds, then gained another four on the finish. United Arab Emirates team-mate Adam Yates retains the yellow jersey, but Pogacar is now 11 seconds behind Vingaard in the overall standings after just two rounds, and every second could count in this well-balanced rivalry.
So two steps less, two small victories for UAE Emirates. If the race continues like this, Vingaard could possibly need a knockout in the Alps.
The organizers would have hoped for fireworks in the last hills and that’s how the day went. Three riders cleared on an early breakaway, including American Neilson Powless (EF Education), who picked up enough King of the Mountains points on the early climbs to keep the polka dot jersey for another day. Powless was finally swallowed up by the peloton on the final ascent, demanding Jaizkibel used in the San Sebastián Classic.
From there, UAE Emirates and Jayco-Alula, working for their leader Simon Yates, tried to keep the pace high and get rid of fast finishers. Most of the time they were successful, with the exception of Van Aert, a man who defies convention, and his presence meant that whoever remained in this elite group of 24 frontrunners could not afford to sit still. and wait for a sprint finish.
Basque runner Pello Bilbao attacked but was quickly caught – the Basque Country would not get that precious home win. Ineos’ Tom Pidcock and Danish champion Mattias Skjelmose also failed in their solo breakout attempts.
Then came Lafay, whose first effort was quickly halted. But his second was perfectly timed, both in the moment – as the others seemed to gather for a sprint – and in the distance to the line, far enough to momentarily confuse his rivals but just within range before his legs don’t give way. He crossed the finish almost in slow motion compared to Van Aert and Pogacar closing in, but he had set his eyes on the line and never looked back.
Vingaard was not far behind, along with the rest of the leading pack. There are just 20 riders within a minute of the yellow jersey and they include British riders Pidcock and Simon and Adam Yates – the latter has kept the yellow jersey and is likely to retain it at least until the high Pyrenees climb in the middle. of the next week.
Later, much later, Mark Cavendish returned home surrounded by a group of assistants from Astana and a few other stragglers. Tomorrow is another day: the peloton crosses the border into France where a flat finish awaits the sprinters to battle it out. There, Cavendish will have plans for a historic 35th stage victory – a shot of around 50m would suit him just fine.