Le Tour Stage 9: The Action Never Stops

A rider emerges from deep in the GC standings while the brutal alpine terrain and weather continue to assault the peloton

The second day in the high French Alps finally gave us a stage that conformed to some sort of logical template. Ben O’Connor took a stage win over four alpine passes that finished in the ski resort of Tignes out of the early breakaway while Tadej Pogacar was polite enough to wait until less than 2-kilometers to go launch his attack and limited his gain on Richard Carapaz, Rigoberto Uran, Enric Mas and Jonas Vingegaard to 32-seconds.

However, the 2021 Tour de France refuses to be boring, and this was exhibited today by the fact that the breakaway stage winner, O’Connor, moved from thirtieth into second place overall and at certain points on the day, was actually the leader on the road. Also, for the second straight day, the peloton was forced to race up, and down, mountains, in freezing and driving rainstorms.

And adding further to the drama and interest was that we had subplot battles for both the KOM and Points jerseys shaping the stage, with Nairo Quintana and Sonny Colbrelli, animated the early portion of the stage by getting into and driving the early breakaway to pick up maximum points in their respective competitions. Quintana was rewarded with his efforts with the Polka Dot KOM jersey after the stage and Colbrelli’s shocking third place on the stage saw him head into the first rest day in striking distance of Mark Cavendish’s Green Jersey.

Stage Results:
Ben O’Connor +0
Matteo Cattaneo +5’07
Sonny Colbrelli +5’34
Guillaume Martin +5’36
Franck Bonnamour +6’02

GC Stage Results:
Ben O’Connor +0
Tadej Pogacar +6’02
Richard Carapaz +6’34
Jonas Vingegaard +6’34
Enric Mas +6’34
Rigoberto Uran +6’34
Alexey Lutsenko +7’36
Wout van Aert +31’37

Overall Standings:
Tadej Pogacar +0
Ben O’Connor +2’01
Rigoberto Uran +5’18
Jonas Vingegaard +5’32
Richard Carapaz +5’33
Enric Mas +5’47

Stage 9 Race Notes:

120.9km: The first 20kms of the stage were full of unsuccessful breakaway attempts, but things change when Sonny Colbrelli, a sprinter on the form of his life, gets off the front in pursuit of Green jersey points at the intermediate sprint.

120.3km: We can tell this move will finally stick when we see Pogacar and his UAE team just relaxing at the front of the peloton, even as Guillaume Martin, an outside contender for the GC, sprints right past them. They also let Ben O’Connor go up the road, which I think was quite savvy since it puts pressure on the rest of the top ten to set the pace to pull him back later in the stage and takes the pressure off of themselves.

111.8km: Colbrelli easily takes max points at the Intermediate sprint. The guy has turned into such a great climber and is almost like a new-age Peter Sagan even though they are actually the same age. The massive breakaway rolls up to them from behind, which includes Richie Prote from Ineos and Sepp Kuss from Jumbo. Mike Woods also makes the break for the second straight day, which is really impressive. The UAE-led peloton has sat up behind, which tells us this will be a day contested by the break.

95km: Nairo Quintana and Wout Poels have one of the most exciting KOM sprints I’ve ever seen at the first summit of the day.

87km: Quintana attacks and drops Poels. He looks incredible.

72km: Jakob Fuglsang is pulling the G.Martin chase group a minute behind Quintana, which is odd because it means he is pulling G.Martin and Ben O’Connor ahead of his teammate Lutsenko in the overall standings.

67.4km: Wout van Aert is dropped from the Pogacar GC group, and with multiple massive alpine passes left to cross, is in serious trouble and his GC chances are over if he is already struggling. Oddly, Jumbo sends two riders back with him and leaves Jonas Vingegaard, in 5th place overall, alone in the group.

63.8km: Quintana gets max KOM points at the next summit and rides into the lead in the KOM competition.

54.6km: Ben O’Connor has ridden from the chase group to the front of the race with Sergio Higuita and Quintana and they have a 1’25 gap on a chase group, 2’51 on the rest of the breakaway, and a whopping 8’28 on the peloton with Pogacar. O’Connor is now in the virtual lead. This will make things really interesting for the rest of the stage as everyone else in the top ten will start to get nervous and feel the pressure to chase.

Also, with a long descent coming up and driving cold rain all day, the rest of the stage is about cold management. Quintana takes off his jersey to put on a waterproof thermal jacket and Ben O’Connor takes the time to put on super warm, waterproof gloves with the others have somewhat useless warm-weather gloves on. This is a really, really savvy move

54.2km: We get an extremely rare shot of Pogacar in Yellow and see that he certainly isn’t sweating theoretically losing the race lead. If we look at the virtual graphic in the bottom right corner, we see that if the stage ended now, Pogacar would be 14-seconds behind O’Connor, while G.Martin would be on the podium with a huge lead over Wout Poels and Lutsenko. These gaps to really good GC riders will mean riders like Carapaz, Uran and Mas will be feeling the pressure. This is falling into place perfectly for Pogacar and UAE.

41.9km: The long descent into the final climb to Tignes will be a crucial test for the GC contenders. We can see that Pogacar’s UAE team has him towards the front to keep him safe and to avoid being dropped if things split up. He is giving them plenty of room to react if one of them goes down in front of him.

And we see exactly why that buffer is critical when Brandon McNulty loses focus on the front for a split second and rides into a ravine. This is bad both for Brandon, who will feel the effects of this crash later in the race, and UAE, who loses an important motor that they were counting on for the extremely long final climb.

25km: Jonas Vingegaard punctures in the valley and has no Jumbo teammates left. This shows the flaw with the strategy, they sent riders back with Wout and let Kuss go up the road and now they pay for it.

23km: UAE, despite being a somewhat weak team, still have multiple riders left while Jumbo is down to just Vingegaard. They have really proved a lot of people wrong, including me, today. They almost seem to be getting stronger as the race goes on.

22km: Up front, Ben O’Connor can smell Yellow and accelerates as soon as the finishing climb to Tignes starts. He immediately drops Quintana and looks incredibly strong as Higuita struggles on his wheel.

20.9km: Pogacar only has one UAE teammate at the front with a long, 19km ahead of him. Ineos has a full suite of riders remaining, which in theory, means they could attack an isolated Pogacar on this climb, but in practice, they’d left it far too late since Pogacar can counter and drop Carapaz if they try. UAE just needed to stay with him until the base of this climb and they’ve done that perfectly.

17.6km: Up ahead, O’Connor drops Higuita and decides he needs to forge on alone to get the stage win and attempt to take the race lead. He is flying but UAE has taken the gap down to 6’55 already and have the virtual lead back.

17km-6.5km: UAE eventually got another rider back, so Pogacar had Rui Costa and Davide Formolo for the final climb, but they really nursed both of them along and let O’Connor pull his lead out. Shockingly, Ineos let them do this and don’t seem to realize what is happening until around 6km to go when they finally hit the front to isolate Pogacar and attempt to set up a Carapaz attack.

5.2km: We soon get a hint as to why they didn’t take the front earlier. After getting to the front, they only put a few seconds into O’Connor’s lead, who is hammering up the climb and still have 7’56 on the chasers.

3km: Ineos has only taken 30-more seconds on O’Connor and only have a single rider, Thomas, left on the front. When we look at Pogacar, he almost looks bored and it is clear this pace is not nearly hard enough to put him under pressure. In fact, this is working out perfectly for him since he can just use Thomas to keep the gap to O’Connor in check.

1.6km: Ineos sets up a Carapaz attack but, as expected, it just serves as a launchpad for Pogacar, who then counters and lands a knockout blow. Carapaz falls to the back of the chase group, hurting from his effort while Pogacar simply rides away.

Finish: O’Connor rides in for a great stage win and an even better overall result. He slots into 2nd-place overall and has a three-minute buffer to 3rd place Rigoberto Uran. O’Connor has so powerful on the final climb that Mattia Catteneo, comes in five minutes behind, and Sonny Colbrelli has to ride of his life to finish 3rd on a mountain stage and make up huge ground in the Green Jersey Classification.

Pogacar literally coasts along the line in 6th, just 6-minutes back on O’Connor and 32-seconds ahead of Carapaz. This means he pulled back close to 1.5 minutes since he launched his attack around 10-minutes before the finish. Carapaz leads the rest of the GC contenders in 30-seconds later as they sprint for scraps.

Ten Takeaways:

1) We got good news and bad news today.

  • The bad news is that the fight for the top GC spot appears to be well and truly over. Ineos doesn’t seem to be the strength and racecraft to truly challenge Pogacar, and the others seem content to race for minor placings. In their defense, who in their right mind would dare attack Pogacar right now.

  • The most recent odds for Pogacar on BETMGM have shifted from+135 to -2000, so it is clear that even the slow-moving and somewhat clueless betting market has come to this realization.

  • The good news is that the fight for the podium is extremely open and riders are willing to risk it all to move up into contention. We’ve had multiple long-range moves where riders have grabbed massive amounts of time to take huge jumps to move up.

  • This runs in contrast to the recent history of the race when the breakaways have been exclusively for stage hunters and all the GC action is packed in the final 4km of the final climb.

2) The perfect example of this is Ben O’Connor’s ride today. He powers to a stage win and is now sitting 2nd overall with an absolutely massive gap to third place. And he wasn’t gifted this stage, he was absolutely motoring on the final climb and limited his losses despite two GC teams attempting to pull him back.

  • His career results aren’t exactly sparkling, but he has been a different rider since moving over to AG2R from Dimension Data. Anyone who expects him to fall away is mistaken. He rode the TT roughly equal to Carapaz and proved today that long, difficult climbs clearly don’t bother him.

  • He got overall top tens at both Romandie and the Dauphine earlier this year, so we know he can string together good time trials and mountain stages.

  • EF and Ineos’ decision to not chase him down immediately when he got into the break could prove to be a fatal one.

  • This is another indictment of Dimension Data (now Qhubeka-NextHash). Along with Cavendish, this is another rider at this Tour whose career has taken off leaving that team.

  • It also shows how much value is sitting out there for teams with good talent identification. While teams spend fortunes on riders like Mas, Kelderman, and Chaves, there are riders sitting out there like O’Connor who can get the same results, and perhaps even better, for a fraction of the price.

3) I have no idea if UAE did it on purpose, but letting O’Connor and G. Martin get up the road was a stroke of genius. Despite looking good today, they were not particularly strong today as shown by the fact that they never really pulled O’Connor back even though he had been cooking out front by himself. But by letting O’Connor and Martin go, they put themselves at very little risk and put a ton of pressure on the other teams. It also meant they just simply had to get Pogacar to the final climb since Ineos would be in a position where they had to pace to keep Carapaz in contention for second place on the final climb instead of attacking.

  • If Pogacar was going to be put under any real pressure, he would have had to have been isolated by the middle of the stage with multiple passes remaining. The fact that no team, especially Ineos, was willing or strong enough to try this tells me that this thing is probably over.

  • An interesting strategy point to think about in regards to Pogacar’s vicious counter-attacks is that he is essentially teaching the peloton to not attack him, which could come into play in the third week if he starts to fade a la Bernal at the Giro. Even if he is struggling, we may never actually know since the other contenders will be too traumatized by these counter-attacks.

  • The only thing better would have been if they could have given O’Connor the leader’s jersey by a few seconds so that Pogacar wouldn’t have to deal with the media obligations on the rest day and UAE wouldn’t have had to control the race in the second week.

4) If Ineos is going to race this way, they might as well just go home now, it simply won’t work and they need to get more creative.

  • Ineos’ late-race attack illustrates the problem with trying to use your team to attack a stronger rider, it only ends up hurting you and helping them. This brutal counter by Pogacar also serves to intimidate the others and teach them that if they attack, he will drop them.

  • And this comes into play in the last week. Even if Pogacar is on the limit, the others may not test him due to the punishments they’ve received this week.

5) I have no idea what Jumbo is doing. They have a rider sitting in 4th place overall, Jonas Vingegaard, who has proven he can time trial and climb at a world-class level, but they sent riders back with Van Aert after he was dropped when it was clear he wouldn’t be able to salvage any type of GC position. They also sent Kuss into the break for the second straight day, which meant that once he was dropped he couldn’t offer any help either. This left their leader unnecessarily isolated.

  • This scattered strategy makes it feel like they are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, but it seems like we are far past the moment. Vingegaard has proven himself as a true podium contender.

  • I can’t understand why they wouldn’t simply put their resources behind this instead of sending an off-form Kuss up the road to get beat up by riders like O’Connor and Teuns who are absolutely flying.

6) Movistar has recovered well from pointlessly chasing on sprint stages and working for Pogacar to pull back Carapaz. They have Mas up in 6th place and only 29-seconds outside the podium.

  • Early on stage 9, Mas crashed and Valverde was there to give him his bike and the team was able to pace him back on. They were only able to do this because they were focused on surrounding Mas with teammates instead of sending them in the break to be dropped.

  • This, contrasted with Vingegaard, who was isolated when he flatted before the final climb, is the perfect example of why Jumbo is playing with fire by sending Kuss up the road

7) Roglic finally drops out of the race and while it is sad that we will never know how this race would have played out if the second-best grand tour rider in the world would have been healthy to challenge Pogacar, it is ultimately for the best. It has been tough to watch him struggle through the Alps with his injuries from the stage 3 crash. Has a house in Tignes and I assume he is just going home and trying to recover for the Vuelta.

8) Wout finally falls apart and falls truly out of contention. We had a good run and in retrospect, it was a little fantastical to think he could actually stack together multiple great days in the high mountains.

  • But, the fact that he was able to hang as long as he did after emergency surgery in June could give him something to think about when it comes to picking his future focus.

9) Sonny Colbrelli is riding out of his mind and doing this I didn’t know he was capable of. After being not quite fast enough in bunch sprints, he has reinvented himself this year and is getting podium places on high-altitude mountain stages. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this before and he has really closed the gap on Cavendish in the fight for the Green points’ jersey over the past two days.

  • At only 47-points back with tons of difficult intermediate sprint points coming in the 2nd week, I think he is the favorite to take Green in Paris.

10) The brutal pace and weather throughout the first week will take their toll on the peloton as they head into the first rest day. I have to imagine there will be some sort of lull in action over the next few stages as the GC favorites reassess and those who have fallen out of contention, like Alaphilippe, turn into full-on stage hunter mode.

  • One thing to keep an eye on is riders like Van Aert and Van der Poel (who actually DNS’d the stage) leaving the race to rest and recover for the Olympic games at the end of the month.

I will be sending out a rest-day analysis post tomorrow with a stage 10 preview and BTP Velogames update, where KT$$$ is quickly closing in on Double dubs’ lead.