BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet launched a surprise solo attack from a breakaway 17 kilometers from the end of the hilly fifth stage of the 2016 Tour de France, securing his second career stage win and also winning the race leader’s yellow jersey.
“It feels great. It’s a dream come true,” Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews. “I was happy with the stage win last year but now to have a stage win and the yellow jersey, it’s once in a lifetime and I’m going enjoy it as much as possible tomorrow.”
The Belgian BMC rider gained five minutes on most of the General Classification contenders, most of whom crossed the finish line in a bunch. Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador appeared to be riding in pain, and twice fell off the back of the peloton, but managed to lose only 15 seconds on the stage.
Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali fell well behind, but he had been claiming all along that he was only riding to support team leader Fabio Are, and was looking ahead to the Rio Olympics.
A dozen serious GC contenders are grouped from fifth to sixteenth, 5:17 behind Van Avermaet, including Sky’s Chris Froome, BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Astana’s Fabio Aru, and Ag2R’s Roman Bardet. This group can be counted as having no deficit, because ther riders ahead of them: Etixx-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, are all likely to lose time in the Pyrenees and Alps.
Overall favorite Chris Froome of Team Sky told Cyclingnews, “There were some tricky climbs and dangerous descents. From our point of view we’re happy with that, happy to stay out of trouble. One day down.
“It wasn’t in our interest [to put a rider up the road], it was more about keeping out of trouble. The big GC days are still to come. Today was selective but not a big showdown.
“I was surprised by Vincenzo [Nibali]; I’d have expected him to come here with his A game. With Alberto [Contador] that’s quite normal after the couple of big crashes that he’s had. No one wants to see that, myself included. I’d rather gain time in the mountains, not because he’s suffering with injury.”
Van Avermaet’s team mate Richie Porte, who lost two minutes to a flat tire in Stage Two, managed to gain back 15 seconds, but is still 1:45 behind the rest of the GC favorites.
First Challenging Climbs
Stage Five, 216 km from Limoges to Le Lioran, included six categorized climbs including a pair of Cat 2s in the final 30 km and a Cat 3 topping out three km from the finish, with a one-km uphill finish. None of the hills were by themselves that formidable, but the pace of the race through the final few dozen kilometers shredded the peloton.
The stage started with a nine-rider breakaway, which took half an hour to form and didn’t stay together long. Most of the riders weren’t committed to a stage win; they were in the break to get publicity for their teams or to be up the road to help an attacking team mate later in the stage. Two risders, however, were in the break to get things done: Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt wanted to capture the best climber’s polka-dotted jersey, and BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet wanted to win the stage and the maillot jaune.
An hour after getting clear, the break broke up as Van Avermaet, De Gendt, and Astana’s Andriy Grivko attacked and in less than ten minutes opened a 30-second gap over the rest of the attackers.
The GC teams ignored the breakaway until, with 65 km left in the stage, the three leaders had 15 minutes on the peloton. Tinkoff refused to defend the yellow jersey; Peter Sagan was already falling back, his burly body unsuited to the steeper climbs. Sky led for a while, but with no sense of urgency. Finally Movistar decided to take action, cutting the lead in half in 20 kms of hard riding. it wasn’t clear if they had planned to contest the stage and had let ti get away; in any case, the pace the Spanish team set shattered the peloton. When Movistar tired some, Sky took over again and pushed on, cutting the peloton to about 30 riders by the second Cat 2 climb.
Alberto Contador was one of the first GC riders to drop off the back on the first Cat 2 climb. he fought his way back to the front, but got dropped again on the final Cat 3 ascent. Contador, one of the sport’s premier climbers, was not showing weak legs, but rather a battered body. He could be seen to be leaning to the right on his bike, favoring the side of his body which bore the brunt of two crashes in the first two stages of the Tour. He never surrendered, fighting back to lose only 15 seconds by the finish, but one has to wonder how quickly he can heal: Stages Eight and Nine contain some very serious climbs, and if the Tinkoff team leader is not ready to ride hard, he might well fall too far behind to be a contender.
Polka-Dots for De Gendt, Yellow for Van Avermaet
Meanwhile, up front, Grivko was just out for the ride; he wasn’t taking turns at the front. The Astana rider faded away 32 km out, exhausted by the first Cat 2 ascent.
Van Avermaet asked De Gendt how many points he needed to win the jersey, and let the Lotto rider crest the climbs first until he succeeded. Then with 17 km to go, the BMC rider rocketed away, riding strongly to preserve a five-minute gap over the rest of the race.
Van Avermaet led his team to victory in the team time trial (Stage Nine) in the 2015 Tour de France,and took his first individual stage win in Stage 13. He had never worn the overall race leader’s jersey … but he may keep that jersey very long.
190.5KM Stage Six, 190 km from Arpajon-sur-Cère to Montauban, will likely end in a sprint. Stage Seven, 162.5 km from L’Isle-Jourdain to Lac de Payolle, climbs the Cat One Col d’Aspin in the final 20 km. This climb could be the site for a lot of attacks, but probably not many from the GC contenders; that group will be saving their legs for Stages Eight and Nine.
Stage Eight is a leg-breaker. It opens with the Hors Categorie Col du Tourmalet, followed by the Cat 2 Hourquette d’Ancizan, the Cat 1 Col de Val Louron-Azet, and the the Cat 1 Col de Peyresourde. This is a stage likely to be won by a breakaway or an attack launched on one of the final two climbs; the Col de Peyresourde seems most likely, as the road runs from the peak downhill to the finish line.
If Van Avermaet wants to hold onto yellow here, he will need to cover a lot of moves, and his team, which is focusing on a GC win for either Tejay Van garderen or Richie Porte, won’t be willing to burn itself out to keep the jersey. Van Avermaet might have to sacrifice himself—and the jersey—to help his team leaders stay in contention.
Stage Nine is equally insane—and this stage should see a real GC contenders’ brawl. The 185-km stage from Vielha Val d’Aran to Andorre Arcalis includes five categorized climb, finishing atop the Hors Categoorie Andorre Arcalis.
This climb should be the first GC showdown. Because it is a mountaintop finish, whoever wins the climb keeps the time—a strong descender can’t clam back a lost minute on a descent as one could in Stage Eight. NBC Sports Network commentators Bob Roll and Chris Vande Velde both said they expect Team Sky to use its textbook strategy here: blasting up the last three hills at so high a pace that no one can launch a successful attack, then sending Chris Froome on to seal the deal when the rest of the squad is exhausted.
This strategy would work exceptionally well in this case, and Monday is the 2016 Tour’s first rest day. Team Sky can afford to burn itself out; they won’t be needed again until Stage 12, which ends with a climb up legendary Mont Ventoux.
With this set of stages ahead, it is unlikely that BMC will expend a single drop of sweat trying to defend the yellow jersey; the team will need absolutely all of its energy to face off against Sky in the high mountains.