Slovenia national champion Matej Mohoric
Slovenia national champion Matej Mohoric

Libourne, July 16: A day which started with a tender embrace between Eddy Merckx and Mark Cavendish – the two cycling greats past and present locked together on 34 Tour stage wins each – ended with an outsider causing an upset and moving to within 32 stage wins of the current record.

Two weeks after his first, Matej Mohoric’s second victory on this Tour of so many surprises came after what seemed to be a gilt-edged chance for Cavendish to break the record went begging.

Part of a six-man break that formed shortly after the start of the 207km ride from Mourenx, Mohoric put in his decisive attack with 25km remaining after a thrilling counter-move at the halfway point saw a stellar group of 20 riders form on the front before a yawning gap established between them and the peloton.

With fast finishers Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) all in the mix, Mohoric was not leaving anything for chance as he kicked clear to avoid having to contest any sprint. Without any Bahrain Victorious teammates to fall back on, Mohoric pushed a big gear as he dropped his fellow escapees once the attacks came in thick and fast in the rolling vineyards outside Bordeaux.

Mohoric celebrated his second stage win – a third on the bounce for Slovenia, and a fifth in total for the small Central European nation – by putting a finger to his mouth followed by a zip-shut motion. It was a response to the rumours of foul play that surfaced after the Bahrain Victorious team hotel was raided by police in the early hours of Thursday morning ahead of Stage 18 – a stage in which Mohoric was also part of the early break before being caught on the Col du Tourmalet.

Nine riders in pursuit were unable to ride with any cohesion, with a resigned Laporte eventually pipping Denmark’s Casper Pedersen (Team DSM) for second place at 58 seconds. Dutchman Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) and Germany’s Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe), the Stage 12 winner, completed the top five before the remainder of the breakaway came home in dribs and drabs.

The UAE Team Emirates train of yellow jersey Tadej Pogacar led the peloton over the line almost 21 minutes in arrears after the peloton sat up once the counter-attack joined the original break with 100km remaining. There was no change in the general classification with Slovenia’s Pogacar – himself a winner of three stages on this Tour – retaining his 5’45” lead over Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) in the standings ahead of Saturday’s 30km individual time trial.

HOW THE STAGE WAS WON

An early crash shortly after the start split the peloton and disrupted the chase as six riders formed the day’s break off the front, with Mohoric joining Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo), Jonas Rutsch (EF Education-Nippo), Simon Clarke (Qhubeka-NextHash), Georg Zimmermann (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) and Franck Bonnamour (B&B Hotels p/b KTM) in the move.

The Alpecin-Fenix team of Belgian sprinter Jasper Philipsen came to the front to lead the chase and managed to keep the gap below four minutes before a second crash caught out, most notably, top 10 riders Enric Mas (Movistar), Wilko Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis).

With 152km remaining, Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) managed to close the gap by three points on Cavendish in the green jersey standings after the two competed for scraps in the intermediate sprint in the wake of the break. And it was the immediate aftermath of the sprint – as the riders exited a large roundabout and moved onto a dual carriage way stretched out in a long line – where the turning point of the stage came.

Splits formed off the front after some aggressive racing from Trek-Segafredo, with a final move by Stuyven and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Politt eventually seeing a 20-man move go clear of the pack with 130km remaining.

This sparked a frantic chase from the teams who had missed out – most notably Ineos Grenadiers and Israel Start-Up Nation, the latter hoping to set up German veteran Andre Greipel for a win on his 39th birthday.

With the unlikely sight of Chris Froome in domestique duty on the front of the peloton, the gap for the 20-man chase group came down to just 20 seconds before splits saw Astana duo Dmitriy Gruzdev and Omar Fraile dropped along with Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroen) and all three Movistar riders in the move – Alejandro Valverde, Ivan Garcia and Jorge Arcas.

Condensed to within one kilometre on a long stretch of tree-lined road, the race was on a knife-edge with the six original leaders now just 30 seconds clear of the 14 pursuers and the pack a further 35 seconds back.

But once the two breaks joined, the gap slowly grew until the elastic snapped. And once Israel Start-Up Nation threw in the towel, no other team was prepared to commit to the chase and the initiative went to the 20 men up the road.

The presence of Italian sprinter Ballerini in the break was enough for Cavendish’s Deceuninck-QuickStep team to put off their pursuit of toppling Merckx’s record until the final stage into Paris. And it was Ballerini who was one of the most active riders as the stage entered its business end with 50km remaining.

Stuyven, the Milan-Sanremo winner, was also on the nose of many attacks as Trek looked to take advantage of their numerical advantage – the Belgian and Frenchman Bernard acting as foil for their sprinter, Edward Theuns.

Politt, the French livewire Bonnamour and the German Rutsch were all in the thick of it as Laporte – seeking a first victory for Cofidis since 2008 – put in a couple of testers off the front. But once the break split in two after a stinging uphill ramp through the vineyards, it was Mohoric who put his head down and rode clear.

Experience shows us that once the Slovenian is given a gap, he’s a hard man to bring to heel. And so it proved. Twenty seconds soon stretched to 45 as rider after rider failed to close the gap behind, a nine-man move eventually giving up the ghost with 8km remaining.

Mohoric has time to pull off some silky skills as he bunny-hopped across road furniture and continued his ride towards glory. Such was his advantage as he entered the final kilometre, the 26-year-old was able to punch the air and celebrate with his directeur sportif before sending out a signal to Bahrain Victorious’s detractors as he crossed the line to take a quite brilliant win.

The Tour continues on Saturday with the 30.8km time trial to Saint-Emilion where Mohoric’s countryman Pogacar can not only take his fourth win – and Slovenia’s sixth – of the Tour, but also stretch his lead above the six-minute mark ahead of Sunday’s showdown on the Champs-Elysees, where Cavendish will be favourite to break the record he couldn’t touch on Friday.

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