Team Ineos were happy to see the focus switch from Egan Bernal to Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France as Friday’s long, slow day in the saddle allowed time for the dust to settle on a dramatic first mountain stage of the race.
Dylan Groenewegen claimed a sprint victory in Chalon-sur-Saone but only after a 230km stage seven from Belfort which took the peloton – hardly keen to exert themselves after Thursday’s brutal day in the Vosges mountains and with the challenges of the Massif Central to come – more than six hours to tick off.
At the end of the day, there were no significant changes to the general classification which took its shape from the drama on La Planche des Belles Filles 24 hours earlier.
Giulio Ciccone retained the yellow jersey on a day when he celebrated signing a new two-year deal with Trek-Segafredo, six seconds clear of Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, but Thomas was back in the spotlight after his late surge on the climb invigorated his title defence.
The Welshman, best placed of the main contenders, turned a five-second deficit to Bernal into a four-second advantage on Thursday. Small margins for sure, but given many – including Thomas – had expected the day to suit Bernal more, the change of narrative seemed to suit the team.
“What was reassuring yesterday was to see Geraint Thomas at this level,” said the team’s sporting director Nico Portal.
“It’s good for Egan, who has a lot of pressure around him, a lot of expectation from his public, especially in Colombia.”
Team principal Sir Dave Brailsford had talked up the 22-year-old Bernal in the build-up to the Tour – declaring him “ready” to contend – but by Friday was happy to see Thomas hog the limelight.
“I think maybe everyone is getting a bit carried away with Egan,” he said.
“People treat him and Geraint in the same way. And I think you have to treat Geraint as a 33-year-old. And you have to treat Egan as a 22-year-old, even if you know they are both very, very talented bike riders.
“You can feel yourself falling into that trap all the time, thinking because he’s so good that he’s got all this experience. He hasn’t. He has to spend time at this race. He has to spend time in those shoes.
“And he has to absorb it and get used to it. Then he can come back and say ‘OK, I know all about this race’.”
On Friday, Bernal and the rest of the peloton got to know about headwinds which only extended the longest stage of the Tour.
Wanty-Gobert’s Yoann Offredo and Cofidis’ Stephane Rossetto attacked from the flag and the good friends might have imagined they were out on a training ride as they were allowed to easily pull five minutes clear in the first 20 kilometres.
The peloton was barely ticking over behind, though the race finally came to life in the final 30 kilometres.
There was a moment of panic for Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin as the speed picked up ahead of the intermediate sprint, leaving them in a group distanced on the road before Quintana’s Movistar team sent a rescue force to pace them back.
Irishman Martin blamed TV motorbikes for the incident, which also caught out Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates.
“With a block headwind, every time the TV motorbike goes in front of the peloton the speed goes up,” the UAE Team Emirates rider said. “It is something else we have to face when we race the Tour.”
With the break hoovered up, the pack came barrelling into town, where Groenewegen – left limping by an opening stage crash – showed he was back on form with his fourth career Tour stage win, and a third of this race for Jumbo-Visma.
It came by mere millimetres from Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan, who is still awaiting a first taste of Tour success.
“Every time I sprint with Caleb it is very close,” Groenewegen said. “He is a really good sprinter but today I beat him and I am really happy with the job.
“The first day I crashed really hard. Today my team worked hard for me and we take the win and I am really happy.”