Le Tour Stage 7: The Perception of Control Collapses

A marathon transition stage serves up nearly non-stop action while giving clues to things to come

The seventh stage of the 2021 Tour de France was a marathon 250-kilometer slog over flat-to-rolling terrain, which is almost always a recipe for an absolute snooze-fest of a race.

But lucky for us, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert can’t sit still and decided to turn the race on its head by ripping a 29-rider breakaway off the front of the peloton after 40kms of racing. The break, full of powerhouse star riders, was too much for Tadej Pogacar’s fragile UAE team to handle, and the gap quickly ballooned to close to seven minutes, which set up the mid-stage possibility of Van Aert riding away with buckets of time and potentially setting him up for a Cinderella run to overall victory.

However, the break lost momentum when Matej Mohorič broke away from the breakaway with 87km-to-go, and slowly and methodically dismantled his unlucky companions until he was the last man standing at the finish line.

Van Aert, realizing he was unable to drop Van der Poel, eventually called a truce with his rival, and the two young stars worked together to chase down Mohorič and extend their lead on the chasing peloton. While they failed to catch Mohorič, Van Aert took loads of time and moved into 2nd overall behind his counterparty.

Back in the GC group, Ineos attempted to take some much-needed time back on Pogacar with a late-race solo Richard Carapaz attack, and nearly succeeded due to Pogacar’s team being unable to set the pace required to peg back Carapaz. But, like knights in shining armor, Carapaz’s aggrieved former team, Movistar, emerged from the pack to save Pogacar’s day by taking revenge on Carapaz for breaking his contract to leave the team and dramatically reeled him in with just a few meters left in the stage.

After the dust had settled on one of the craziest days of racing in recent Tour de France history, Pogacar, despite his team failing their first major test, had lost exactly zero seconds on every major GC contender while his biggest rival, Primoz Roglic, finally cracked due to his lingering injuries and fell out of contention in the overall classification.

The major questions left now are if Pogacar can continue to pull rabbits of out of hats as the race enters its first major mountain stages this weekend and how long Van Aert, now with a 3+ minute lead over the GC contenders, can hang on the high mountain passes.

If they fail to dislodge Van Aert tomorrow, we could be looking at the 2006 Tour scenario when Óscar Pereiro stubbornly held onto Yellow after being gifted nearly 30-minutes in a mid-race breakaway.

Stage 7 Race Notes:

209km: The race was on right from the gun and the pressure was on the peloton for the first 40kms due to constant breakaway attempts. Wout van Aert is at the front of the race attempting to rip a group off the front in some early crosswinds. Ineos and Pogacar’s UAE teams are not at the front and risk getting caught out.

208km: We can see the crosswinds are pining the peloton to the left side of the road and causing echelons to form. This is perfect for riders like Van Aert who want to force a split on the front. We can see Van Aert on the front of the group and he wants to get away for three reasons; to win the stage, get the yellow jersey, and get a buffer in the GC standings to allow Jumbo to put pressure on Pogacar and Carapaz.

198km: With the pace this high in crosswinds, it is almost inevitable a break will form, and sure enough, a large group of extremely strong riders break clear. Both Van Aert and Van der Poel make it in the move, which means it will be tough for Van Aert to win the stage and get Yellow today, but it does mean he will have an extremely strong and motivating engine to drive the move and put him in a better position to get Yellow on Saturday.

193km: With dangerous riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Van Aert in the move, Pogacar’s UAE team was forced to come to the front for an extremely long day of pacemaking. While they have some strong riders, they are no match for the powerhouses in the break and will have no chance to catch them. This will be all about time gap management.

133km: Mark Cavendish pulled a Sagan and made the breakaway, which is really impressive since. He easily wins the intermediate sprint and since no other Green Jersey contender made the move, he significantly increases his lead in the competition.

87km: The gap back to the peloton has increased to close to seven minutes. Brent Van Moer attacks towards the top of a small climb to get the KOM points and one of the strongest all-around riders in the world, Matej Mohorič, gets right on his wheel. This group behind assumes this is just a sprint for KOM points, but their failure to react means this ends up being the winning move. It is insane that the rest of the break allows these two extremely strong riders to just ride free.

36.8km: The two leaders splitting the break causes things to slightly fall apart for Wout van Aert. His decision to not follow the two when they attacked means the stage win is out the window since they are now 1’42 ahead of his group. Small groups of riders are attacking the main breakaway to bridge up to the Mohorič group while others are sitting on, which has taken the pace out of his group and allowed the peloton to cut the gap to roughly 5’30, meaning the GC buffer he will net from this stage has been reduced. He and his teammate Mike Teunissen are forced to set pace on the front to salvage what is left of their massive gap to Pogacar.

18.6km: Mohoric has systematically dropped every rider with him and goes over the penultimate climb with a 58-second gap on the chasers. Wout won’t drop MvdP before the finish, he is too strong

16.1km: Pierre LaTour attacks from the peloton and Roglic cracks. He is visibly struggling and looks totally cracked.

13.3km: Carapaz attacks from the Pogacar GC group and is absolutely FLYING. Pogacar simply watches him go and doesn’t even attempt to match his pace, which means he is either extremely confident or worried about blowing up.

10.2km: Carapaz is ripping through the dropped groups from the breakaway, this could get serious for Pogacar.

7.9km: On the final climb, Wout attacks to attempt to get the race lead, but Van der Poel is right on his wheel. They are really moving and have dropped Nibali.

7km: The Van train has left the station and the two are now working together to chase down riders dropped from the Mohoric group.

6km: Mohoric has a 1’34 over the final climb and will certainly win this stage. 

5.5km: Carapaz has 30-seconds on the Pogacar GC group behind.

4.1km: Movistar is working to pull back Carapaz, why? They should be using this chaos to attack one by one in an attempt to bridge up to him.

2.6km: Carapaz has now teamed with his teammate Dylan van Baarle, who dropped back from the breakaway. However, Movistar could save Pogacar’s day here.

And sure enough, back in the GC group, Movistar has their entire team on the front setting pace to pull him back, while Pogacar is sitting in 9th wheel getting a relatively easy ride.

Finish: Mohoric wins the stage and now has won in all three grand tours. Super impressive win and really took the race to the others.

Jasper Stuyven gets second after a great ride, which is his second close-call in his career at the Tour.

Van der Poel and Van Aet catch the chase group and Van der Poel sprints through them to finish 4th, 1’40 behind Mohoric. The two Cyclocross rivals move into 1st and 2nd overall and announce that they have officially taken over road cycling. It is also interesting that the two have rarely finished more than a few positions apart so far at this Tour.

Carapaz, despite his all-out solo ride in the last 10kms, gets caught by the GC group in the final 100 meters! Pogacar didn’t have any teammates left but didn’t have to do a single turn on the front thanks to Movistar pulling this back for him.

GC Stage Results:
Wout van Aert +0
Vincenzo Nibali +1’17
Julian Alaphilippe +3’35
Richard Carapaz +3’35
Enric Mas +3’35
Pierre LaTour +3’35
Tadej Pogacar +3’35
Geraint Thomas +3’35
Primoz Roglic +7’23

Filtered GC Standings
Wout van Aert +0
Tadej Pogacar +3’13
Vincenzo Nibali +3’42
Julian Alaphilippe +3’53
Pierre LaTour +4’33
Rigoberto Uran +4’34
Jonas Vingegaard +4’48
Richard Carapaz +4’49
Geraint Thomas +4’59

Ten Takeaways:

1) This stage could easily have been a snoozefest, but instead, turned into one of the most exciting grand tour stages we will see this year thanks to riders like Van der Poel and Van Aert here that are just so aggressive and attacking-minded. There were so many plots and sub-plots wrapped into a single race.

  • Halfway through the race, it looked like Van Aert might actually be able to pull out 10 or more minutes from the GC group.

  • It also looked like Ineos might have Pogacar truly on the ropes with their Carapaz attack.

  • But, once the dust cleared, not much actually changed in the overall GC picture and we were reminded once again that minor placings mean so much at the Tour that teams will willingly work to pull back dangerous moves to bail out a higher-placed GC contender.

  • Days like today are what happens when the best rider isn’t on the best team. We haven’t seen this since maybe 2007. This would have been an unbearably boring day during the Sky era.

2) Matej Mohorič is the best Slovenian you’ve never heard of. While Pogacar and Roglic get all the shine, he is quietly becoming an elite stage hunter. He has now won stages in all three grand tours, and proves once again that if you give him an inch, he can pull out a mile and go on to a fantastic solo win.

  • While he is a big rider who can put out an ungodly amount of power for hours at a time, he is also deceptively good at climbing, as his two recent top-tens at Liège-Bastogne-Liège has shown.

3) Jumbo has a very mixed bag of a day:

  • One on hand, Wout van Aert gets into the breakaway and gets a massive buffer in the overall standings, and is set up to take Yellow on tomorrow’s stage. My guess is that it will be harder to reverse this lead than the GC favorites anticipate (see: Takeaway #9).

  • They also put Pogacar’s UAE team under immense pressure and showed the blueprint for beating the defending champ.

  • Their backup leader, Jonas Vingegaard has made it through the opening week ahead of Richard Carapaz.

  • On the other hand, Van Aert misses a chance to get the win due to some inattentive riding and most importantly, loses out on the chance to gain around two more minutes in the overall by missing the winning move.

  • But the biggest negative is that Roglic’s Tour looks truly over. While he rallied to a great result in the TT 48-hours after his horrible stage 3 crash, the body-wide road rash is beginning to take its toll. The four-minute time loss to Pogacar today is bad, but he will likely struggle to simply get through the next two mountain stages, will lose even more time, and might just have to leave the race to recover for the Olympics and the Vuelta.

4) Ineos has to feel frustrated that not only did they fail to get any of their outside GC contenders like Richie Porte in the early move, but that their late-race attack failed spectacularly and they weren’t even able to put Pogacar under pressure due to Movistar picking up all the slack.

  • I couldn’t find any video evidence of it, but I heard over race radio that Geraint Thomas was dropped at some point in the last 16kms before catching back on before the finish. If this is true, it doesn’t bode well for the difficult mountain stages this weekend.

  • Making matters worse is that while they have seen Pogacar’s UAE team is vulnerable, it is clear that Movistar will fight to their last breath to help Pogacar.

  • It isn’t totally clear to me why, but there is clearly bad blood between the two teams. Richard Carapaz left Movistar for Ineos, and Movistar still harbors ill-will over the move.

  • A video of Enric Mas getting into a physical row with Michal Kwiatkowski after the stage only further strengths this theory.

4) UAE lucked out today with Movistar’s willingness to work late in the race, but the blueprint for how to beat them is out there. They were thoroughly worked over and Pogacar could easily have lost time.

  • On the upside, he didn’t, and nobody outside of Wout van Aert was able to take time on him.

  • And it will only get harder to take time on Pogacar as the race gets into his preferred mountain terrain.

  • But, it is clear he will have to do most of it alone. His team will be destroyed before tomorrow’s brutal stage even starts, which leaves Pogacar extremely vulnerable to more attacks.

5) What was Movistar thinking? They failed to get one of their outside GC contenders in the break, which they needed to do, and then used multiple riders to pull back Carapaz for Pogacar in the finale when having Mas follow Carapaz or simply sitting in and letting Pogacar pull have been the correct move This is the definition of a loser’s mentality.

6) A interesting thing I noticed after the race is that Pogacar said the early dangerous 29-rider move was ‘unlucky.’

  • What is interesting about this comment is that it wasn’t unlucky at all, and was actually quite predictable.

  • This comment is a reminder that while his physical and technical skills are unmatched, the young rider still has a lot to learn about in-race tactics when things get hairy. 

7) Despite constant attacking from the gun, the breakaway didn’t get clear until nearly 40kms into the stage and averaged around 55km per hour for the first hour. By the end of the marathon 250km-long stage with multiple climbs, they averaged a searing 45.7km per hour.

  • This extremely tough first week is going to make these coming mountain stages extremely difficult to control due to the high level of fatigue amongst the rank-and-file.

8) Vincenzo Nibali was hunting for a stage win, and quite definitively failed, but the 2014 Tour champion is now sitting only 30-seconds down on Pogacar and ahead of nearly every other GC contender. He hasn’t been talked about as a GC threat, but his pedigree and history of grand tour success mean he has to be seen as a potential podium finisher if the favorites are willing to let him get in breakaways.

9) Van Aert and his team deny it, but the Belgian champion is riding the perfect GC campaign so far. Pogacar doesn’t seem too concerned about him, but the powerful rider is almost impossible to drop in the mountains, as evidenced by the 2020 Tour and 2021 Tirreno–Adriatico, and is the only rider high up in the GC standings who can come close to matching him in the TT.

  • I suspect the 3+ minutes he was spotted today won’t be as easy to strip away as Pogacar expects.

10) Mark Cavendish got a great Green jersey points haul, and I was shocked that he, not Peter Sagan, didn’t make the super-star-laden breakaway to contest the intermediate sprint.

  • On the flip side, this was a serious effort with two looming Alpine stages. The effort he expended to make, and stay in, the move could see him struggle mightily this weekend.

Stage 8 Preview & Predictions

Tomorrow is the first true Alpine mountain stage and crosses three very serious mountain passes in the final 50kms. Adding to the pain is that the 151km stage starts on a 5km-long climb, which will blow up the race after such a hard stage today.

  • Green Jersey contenders will race the opening climb at full speed to attempt to dislodge Cavendish and steal some points at the first intermediate sprint.

  • This high pace will also have an effect on the GC contenders, and we could see yet another star-filled breakaway that becomes impossible to control.

  • Riders currently on the outside-looking-in like Richie Porte will want to get into a potential move if he wants to get back into the GC conversation.

  • Tomorrow is the most vulnerable Wout van Aert could be for the entire race. If Pogacar and UAE want to take back the time he stole today, they will have to try to put him under pressure on the final two climbs.

  • Van Aert has to be the favorite to take Yellow tomorrow since the final two climbs, the Col de Romme and Col de la Colombiere, will likely be too much for the 75kg Mathieu van der Poel. But at this point, I wouldn’t be shocked at anything he does on the bike.

  • The downhill finish will favor descenders like Vincenzo Nibali, Julian Alaphilippe, and Wout van Aert. Their superior ability to descend gives them essentially a minute buffer on the rest of the contenders.

  • Prediction: Tadej Pogacar realizes the best defense is the best offense and throws down a brutal attack on the Colombiere and rails the descent to win the stage. Wout van Aert finally drops Mathieu van der Poel and takes the overall race lead. Geraint Thomas is dropped and falls out of GC contention and Chris Froome struggles to make the time cut.