‘I like to have pain in my legs’ - A lone wolf, the breakaway that never came and the peloton’s slowest sprint

It was a strange stage in the Tour de France as a breakaway didn’t assemble despite expectations of fireworks

The rain that fell heavily in central France, uncharacteristic of a summer July morning, might have been the first ominous sign: stage eight of the Tour de France was not going to go exactly to script. After yesterday’s time trial, the expectation was all there. It should have been a big fight for the breakaway, this stage had all the ingredients for some opportunistic attackers to grab their chance and stay away from a peloton who might have been happy to have an easier day. The reality, however, was a different picture.

“In the start it was pretty good with three strong guys but they didn’t want to pull with me so they went behind to the peloton and then I was solo,” Jonas Abrahamsen of Uno-X-Mobility commented at the finish line. The Norwegian rider had ended up spending the majority of the 200 kilometre stage battling the rain and wind alone, picking up points for the mountains classification and plenty of TV time. No one else really had interest from the peloton behind as they steadily rode at a tempo to close Abrahamsen’s gap.

“I kept getting more points for the jersey so I was happy about that,” the 28-year-old said. “I wished I could carry on but in the last 15 kilometres I was so tired and there was a strong peloton behind. I’ve never done so much power in four hours before. In the end I was a little bit tired but if you don’t try you don’t win. I also like to have pain in my legs. I got that today and I’m happy with that.”

Following the aggressive, attacking racing during this year’s Italian Grand Départ, stage eight’s slower, calmer atmosphere felt like a harsh contrast. Perhaps it was symbolic of the quiet, rural French countryside that the race traversed through, but the reality is that very little happened in stage nine apart from Uno-X Mobility’s valiant fight for polka-dots. The stage’s eventual winner, Biniam Girmay, argued that the lack of a breakaway wasn’t because teams weren’t trying, but because it was in the interests of many for it to remain together for a bunch kick.

“Many teams have sprinters so they don’t let guys up the road, except EF and FDJ and the race’s GC teams who can't have a rider in the breakaway,” Girmay said. “Other guys waiting are also for the next few weeks. From the beginning the stage was really organised, no one wanted to let big groups go, also because of what we have to do tomorrow. Two guys in front maximum is fine for most teams.”

Girmay was complimentary of Abrahamsen’s effort, but his Intermarché-Wanty team looked to have things under control for the entirety of the stage. 

“I think first we had a really good plan with the team. This kind of finish suits me really well, we don’t need to send many people in the break, we can control the peloton and control the race,” Girmay said.

“Jonas Abrahamsen is a machine, he had five minutes for a while which gives us some stress. A lot of teams tried to come to chase as this guy is strong and we knew him, but then from when we brought him back, we did the plan from the last kilometre and did quite nice teamwork. I found myself in a good position and then just had to finish it myself.”

The way in which Girmay won was representative of the stage itself: the sprint was uphill and long – it almost looked in slow motion. Riders pedalled slowly, struggling to haul themselves to the line against a howling headwind. The Eritrean rider was no doubt a worthy winner, but the victory came at the end of a day which felt like very little happened at all. Abrahamsen’s effort should be applauded, but it feels like the Tour de France has reached its lull in action. 

Tomorrow, however, everything will change. The white roads await the peloton, and stress is going to be high in anticipation of what the gravel will bring. There will be no lone rider out front alone, and there will be no relaxation in the bunch. The Tour has cooled down for a few days, but it’s only a matter of time until the heat is back on.

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