Christophe Laporte delivered an overdue French win on the 109th Tour de France as Fred Wright was the nearly man once again and the sprinters were left to wonder what race organisers have against them.
Stage 19 was circled as one for the fast men, starved of opportunities since the race left Denmark almost three weeks ago, but the flat appearance of the profile did not tell the true story of an undulating 188km route from Castelnau-Magnoac to Cahors, even though threatened crosswinds stayed away.
After the first break of the day had been caught, Wright joined Alexis Gougeard and Jasper Stuyven in slipping off the front with 35km to go and they stayed clear to the flamme rouge.
Even as the peloton bore down it was a disorganised chase, and Wright stamped on the pedals as the drag to the finish began, briefly distancing those behind him.
The 23-year-old Londoner had chased victory from breaks on stage eight into Lausanne, then into Megeve two days later.
On stage 13 in Saint-Etienne he was within sight of the line when Mads Pedersen powered away from him, and it was a similar story here as Laporte, coming out of the pack, carried superior speed on to the climb and rode away, winning from Jasper Philipsen and Alberto Dainese as Wright faded.
French fears had been growing of a first Tour without a home win since 1999, but Laporte’s burst of speed put that to bed with only two days to spare, delivering yet more success for Jumbo-Visma, who go into Saturday’s penultimate stage looking to carry the yellow, green and polka-dot jerseys to Paris.
“It’s hard to realise but I’m super happy,” said the 29-year-old of his first Grand Tour stage win.
“I was already super happy with this Tour de France even though I got no result for myself. Now the team gave me the opportunity to go for a stage win, it’s exceptional to win after I came twice second in the past…
“It’s important to get a French win. If it makes the crowd and my family happy, I’m happy too.”
Jonas Vingegaard retained the race lead by more than three minutes, albeit losing five seconds to Tadej Pogacar, who sprinted at the end and took fifth as gaps appeared further back. That battle will be settled in Saturday’s time trial before the parade into Paris.
Though all the talk had been of sprinters finally getting their chance after battling through the mountains, a similar stage to this was won from a breakaway by Matej Mohoric on day 19 of last year’s Tour, and the Slovenian was in the early breakaway again seeking his chance.
They negotiated the minor inconvenience of protesters blocking the road for the third time in this Tour, but the group was caught after the second of two category-four climbs 40km from town. Now it was the turn of Mohoric’s Bahrain-Victorious team-mate Wright to join the next move.
The trio held an advantage of a little under 30 seconds that barely budged despite the sprinters’ teams working furiously behind, and even as the peloton belatedly caught up in the final kilometre, Wright refused to be swallowed up.
“I saw the opportunity on that climb with 30km to go,” he said. “Everybody said it was going to be a sprint, but I saw a few guys attacking, it opened up and I thought, ‘I’m just going to go flat out’. We had a gap and we kept fighting.
“I’m not disappointed because I wouldn’t have wanted a bunch sprint. I was close, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes…Fair play to Laporte, he came around with some speed. He’s got legs.
“I’m super happy with my shape and looking forward to what’s next.”
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