A bit of Belgium in Toledo

Sept. 13, 2019

Stage 19 had Team Deceuninck-QuickStep written all over it. One hundred and sixty-five kilometers of mostly flat exposed roads, crosswinds in the offing, rain in the forecast, and a short, punchy, cobbled finale that looked like it had been brought in special from the hills of Flanders. If any team could benefit from those kinds of conditions, it would be the chaos-embracing Belgian squad that delivered Philippe Gilbert through the wind just two days ago, and that seemed to dominate every cobbled stage this spring.

Scanning the Deceuninck roster, most would’ve picked Gilbert as the obvious choice for a dominating final climb (and a third stage win). Or maybe Zdenek Stybar, surprising everyone from a kilometer out.

Those would’ve been good guesses, as the pair ultimately finished third and fourth, but it was teammate Remi Cavagna taking the glory today. The Frenchman escaped the breakaway with over 20 kilometers to go, putting his time trialing skills to good use as he powered along the stone canyon walls of the Tagus River skirting the ancient walled city of Toledo.

It was a brilliant strategic move by the team. If Cavagna were to hold on, they’d get the win. If he were to run out of gas, he at least would have forced all the other teams looking for the stage win to chase, while Gilbert and Stybar saved their energy to go for the stage themselves.

With a kilometer to go, Plan A was looking in doubt, as the peloton swept up the final remnants of the breakway and the CCC and Bora teams hammered away at the front. Sweeping across the river and into Toledo, the road would rise by about 100 meters, pinching back and looping upward on the cobbles. Cavagna hit the climb and seemed to come to an absolute standstill. Surely the peloton would make the catch.

But as lone leader ascended through the town – wobbling, gritting his teeth, cocking his head to one side – the chase never even appeared in the shot. Not until the final hairpin, with just 80 meters to go, did the peloton surge into view. But by that time Cavagna was just meters from the line, with ample time to lift one arm from the handlebars, shake his head, and punch the air.

Sprinter Sam Bennett finished in second, also shaking his head, apparently having believed – until that final turn – that the breakaway had long since been caught and that he had been racing for the win.

There were other thrills on the day, too. Though the first half of the stage was uneventful, with only some rain and the donning of jackets and gilets to report on, a crash with 66 kilometers to go threw the race into a panic.

Television cameras didn’t record the moment it happened, but as the helicopters caught up and began to scan the damage, the lens picked out the red jersey of race leader Primoz Roglic, who was standing above the mess, on the stone guard rail. White-jersey wearer Miguel Angel Lopez was also dusting himself off. Meanwhile, the Movistar team of second- and third-place Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, apparently unscathed, was up the road and pedaling away.

That likely unleashed a hailstorm of tut-tuts on the radios of the team directors, guardians of a culture that maintains that attacking the race leader while he’s on the ground is not the done thing. That message was either lost or ignored for about 10 kilometers, while Roglic and Lopez chased in panic, but eventually Movistar relented, sitting up and swigging from their bottles while the other groups made their way back. With 50 kilometers to go, Roglic resumed his spot at the front of the peloton, and Lopez teammate Omar Fraile was spotted giving Valverde an earful.

Fifteen kilometers later, the Deceuninck team would implement the first phase of their strategy, sending Tim Declercq to the front of the peloton to set a heavy pace and begin to wear out the bunch. The Bora squad of Sam Bennett would then take over and briefly split the peloton in the crosswinds as they chased the breakaway.

But the nine-man break would maintain an advantage of around one minute and 45 seconds, until Cavagna subtracted himself a few kilometers later. Nearing Toledo, Nikias Arndt, Lawson Craddock, and Bruno Armirail made a countermove to go after the sole leader, but they were quickly swept up by a rampaging peloton, which was led by the stage hunters hungry for Cavagna but also assisted by the overall favorites, who were looking to create gaps among themselves. At the finish line, Valverde crossed in fourth place, three seconds ahead of his rivals.

Those three seconds don’t compare to the nearly three-minute advantage that Roglic still enjoys in the overall classification. And tomorrow’s relatively benign Stage 20 is the last chance for the likes of Valverde and Quintana to do anything about it.