The 106th edition of the Tour de France is my seventh consecutive Tour in a technical role. Looking into the peloton from my angle this past week, I have been reminded that being a New Zealander in one of the big World Tour teams at Tour de France level is never as straight forward as it seems. For those who don’t know much about cycling, it may seem simple; get on your bike, race to the end and the first one across the line wins. However, teams are strategically comprised of riders with different qualities, all blended together at the Tour, to give the team the best possibility to achieve the outcome it sets before the race departs.
There is huge complexity in tailoring a team to succeed on any level, during the 21 stages of the Tour de France. The roster of a World Tour team will number between 25 and 30 riders and the eight riders on that roster who best fit the team’s ambitions for the Tour will make the start line. Teams are all registered in, or have associated nationalities, normally aligned with their key financial backer. In our case, the Mitchelton-Scott team is Australian, Patrick Bevin’s CCC team is Polish, Tom Scully’s team is American and George Bennett’s Jumbo-Visma is Dutch. So for a Kiwi to make a European pro-team’s TdF roster, it’s fair to say they have to be going at least as good as, if not better, than the riders of the nations that those teams are associated with. Simply put, for a Kiwi to get a start at the Tour is something really special and often their role ends up being primarily a supportive one, to another designated rider.
This brings me to our own George Bennett. After a great start by him and his team over the past week, my heart has gone out to him. He has come so close to donning the Maillot Jaune, yet not being the designated product of the team’s final equation has thwarted any attempts by him to actually snatch it. He has ridden so well so far - particularly on the first stage when I saw him having to do a lot of the work early on to control the race for his team sprinter, Dutch rider, Dylan Groenewegan. By Stage 5, George had still managed to maintain his eye on the Maillot Jaune, sitting just 25 seconds off the overall leader and heading into Stage 6 - the first mountain top finish of this year’s Tour to La Planche des Belles Filles, which typically suits George. It wasn’t unfathomable for him to take the yellow jersey; he has had top ten results in grand tours before. Yet once again he had to forgo his own opportunities to help the designated leader, Dutch rider, Steven Kruijswijk, for the overall classification. George showed his class and not only carried out his role but maintained his reach on the Maillot Jaune at 47 seconds down and, as it turned out, proved to be the better of his team on the final climb - however, an early break stole the yellow jersey off Alaphilippe’s back.
One of the inspiring aspects of cycling at this level is that it is a sport of sacrificial beauty and nabbing any outwardly perceived relevant result, requires a stoic commitment and selflessness from riders who themselves are highly capable. Any rider deviating from this role risks a lot in terms of reputation and respect from inner circles – in short, careers can be on the line. New Zealand fans can be proud that we have a selection of world class riders who are well respected, reliable and known for fitting in and getting the job done even at what might be perceived as ‘ our own expense’ from the outside. There is no doubt this altruistic work ethic runs a fine line in hamstringing oneself, but as fans we must keep the faith that the opportunity or chance will befall one of our riders along the route to Paris. As for George, he is still lying a few seconds ahead of the pure climbers, so the dream of a Kiwi in yellow is not all lost.
A general look back on the first week of the Tour paints a reasonably compliant picture with predictable outcomes in terms of stage winners. Thankfully, all the key players are still in the race with none of the typical carnage or dramas that usually affect the race playing out and, unlike some years, Ineos (formally Team Sky) have not stomped on the first mountain stage and taken a strangle hold from the get go. In fact, although he looked the strongest in the first mountain finish on Stage 6, last year’s winner, Gerraint Thomas, arrived to the bottom of the climb untypically without the full force of his normal power house team.
Unfortunately, Patrick Bevin didn’t see through the first week due to broken ribs, so here’s hoping he recovers quickly. I would not expect there to be any major shifts or moves from any of the big GC favourites over the coming week. The race heads from the east, on the German border, across to the south west to Pau next Friday, where we have the first and only individual time trial followed by a key stage on Saturday - finishing up the 19km climb to the top of the Tourmalet. These transition stages across the Massif Central might best be described as tax stages. They will not afford the contenders major gains, but they will come at a cost as the terrain is demanding and as the Tour de France always ensures, the intensity will be high. Limiting fatigue will be the key objective.
Words: Julian Dean
Photography: Chris Auld
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