Matej Mohoric won the Tour de France’s longest stage, from Vierzon to Le Creusot, slipping clear of the day’s breakaway group to take his first stage victory in the Tour, as the overall race leader, Mathieu van der Poel, increased his lead to half a minute.
Mohoric, a Slovenian riding for Bahrain Victorious and already winner of a stage in the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia, moved clear and tackled the final descents and the last climb, of the Côte de la Gourloye, with aplomb, to seal the most prestigious win of his career.
Unexpectedly, yellow jersey wearer Van der Poel, of the Alpecin-Fenix team, stole into the decisive 30-rider breakaway to increase his overall lead on the eve of this weekend’s first mountain stages to Le Grand Bornand and Tignes.
“It was not my idea, but a lot of guys were going in the breakaway,” the Dutch rider said. “It was a bit boring in the beginning and all of a sudden, it was a big group and we were racing all day. I’m really happy to be keeping the jersey after today.”
Of the marathon 249-kilometre haul eastwards, he said: “It was very hard. I think a lot of guys were already tired before the climbs even started, it was just a brutal day. I haven’t witnessed that long a time on the bike, to race for so long on a bike, and in a Grand Tour. I haven’t ever seen this.”
For the four-times champion Chris Froome the sudden rise in temperatures, allied to the Tour’s longest stage for 21 years and his ongoing recovery from last weekend’s bad crash, made it a day to forget. He finished more than 18 minutes behind Mohoric.
Froome, of Israel Start-Up Nation, was not alone. Pre-race favourites Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers and the Jumbo-Visma leader, Primoz Roglic, still in pain from their earlier crashes, also battled to hang on in the closing kilometres.
Thomas, like Roglic, is struggling to recover from injuries sustained on stage three. “It was quite a big crash,” the 2018 Tour winner said, “and I think it’s easy to talk myself round and say: ’Oh, it’s OK, I’m OK, blah blah blah,’ but it takes a lot out of you, as you can see with Roglic as well.
But I tried. I didn’t want to go full, go 100%, but I tried to just pace it. But I’m suffering and hopefully I’ll start to feel better soon. But maybe not within the next two days.”
The 30-rider attack proved a high-quality move, an échappée royale, that included Van der Poel, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma, the 2014 Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali of Trek-Segafredo, green jersey wearer Mark Cavendish from Deceuninck Quick-Step, past stage winner and former Vuelta a España champion Simon Yates of Team Bike Exchange, plus other accomplished riders.
While the breakaway powered ahead, there was hesitancy in the peloton and the responsibility for the pursuit fell to Tadej Pogacar’s UAE Emirates team. The defending champion’s teammates laboured through the long, hot afternoon to keep Van der Poel and his companions in check, but enjoyed little help from either the Ineos Grenadiers or Jumbo-Visma teams. With the Italian veteran Nibali the best-placed overall of the team leaders among the attackers, the peloton finally stirred and picked up speed, some 70km from the finish.
“We hoped that UAE would have to ride all day, and they did,” Thomas said. As the chase entered the final 50km and approached a succession of short, sharp climbs, the breakaway’s seven-minute lead remained intact, as the gradients continued to take their toll on an exhausted peloton.
Three riders – Mohoric, Brent Van Moer of Lotto-Soudal and Nibali’s Trek Segafredo teammate Jasper Stuyven – finally moved clear of the breakaway, leaving the remnants of the group behind, to attack the stage’s toughest climb, the Signal d’Uchon, where Mohoric made his decisive move.