Before we begin, stage 1 must be addressed. There was no report simply because there was no footage and I was not about reading another report to just write my own. So without further ado, Bauke Mollema and Trek-Segafredo took the driving seat by obtaining the golden leader’s jersey of Tour de Alpes-Maritimes. He beat a rejuvenated Greg Van Avermaet [AG2R-Citroen]. The highlight from stage 1 though was the team work, or lack of from Groupama-FDJ. They put 4 of their ‘team-leaders’ in the top 10. A feat Movistar would be jealous of. All eyes, pre-stage were on how Tom Pidcock and Ineos would fair given their star-studded line up they have brought to the climber’s race. They did not shine through though, with Tao being the notable headline with a small fall mid-way through the stage. But he continues on like the champ he is.
Today’s stage 2 is a looping affair around Fayence, covering 168 km and climbing 2,885 m in elevation, finishing on the Mur de Fayence. So, with the ‘wall’ providing the climax for today’s stage, we set for more of the same as stage 1, the classic puncheurs, mixing it up with the pure climbers. Coverage started with 40 km remaining on the clock, and with the peloton nearly 45 minutes up on schedule. The breakaway had set their fate for an insanely difficult day out, simply due to many narrow streets kicking up to greater than 10% littered throughout the day. The septet contained a duo from Delko; Biniam Girmay and Clément Berthet. They were joined by Dylan Kowalski [Xeliss-Roubaix Lille Metropole], Cyrile Barthe [B&B Hotels p/b KTM], Veteran Victor De La Parte [Total-Direct Energie] and the sole World Tour represented by Hugo Houle [Astana]. They never gained a gap of larger than 1m40 seconds.
The robotic nature of teams in cohesive formation dominated the next 30 kilometres, so we jump forward to 10 miles to go [16km]. The on trend, luminous yellow kit of Bingoal-Wallonie-Brusselles were out of place adjacent to the powerhouse teams of Israel-Start-up Nation, Ineos Grenadiers – just Rohan Dennis at this point really – and Trek Segafredo. Through 10 km it was apparent the break, whittled down to just 3 riders, would be caught before the very punchy climb up the finish.
All focus was on the Ineos-Grenadiers, I promise there are other teams. The monstrously strong pairing of Rohan Dennis and Dylan Van Baarle blew away their fellow World-Tour teams making a dominant pace down the descent. Dylan Van Baarle was pounding the pedals to bring the breakaway’s gap to just seconds. With 5 or so kilometres remaining Pidcock pulled a turn then pulled off, leaving the Geraint Thomas of 2011 on the front leading out his train into the final few kilometres. Clearly Thomas Is just working on himself and his progress to the long-term goal, the Le Tour. Then AG2R, supporting their upward trajectory through the peloton’s ranks in 2021, led out the peloton into the lower slopes of the finale. They did, however, slightly mistime their lead-out leaving Points Jersey wearer Greg Van Avermaet alone and directly in the wind with 1 kilometre to go. When all seemed lost for Avermaet, he slipped back into the bunch and followed yet another team-mate into the steeper part of the climb. In the end all was lost as the gradients proved too severe for Van Avermaet when riders like the king of all ‘Murs’ Alexis Vuillermoz [Total-Direct Energie] sent the pace to mark-2 on the climb.
Ex-runner Michael Woods [Israel Start-Up NationIMO] launched early showing his true puncheur characteristics on the bike. 400 metres on a vertical wall takes a long time, and a very difficult effort to pull off the victory. He launched with such ferocity that Jhonatan Narvaez [Ineos-Grenadiers] giving everything just to remain in contact was unable to come around the Canadian. In fact, the Woods, who was barely breathing for the first 30 seconds of his effort, had such pace he dispatched of Mollema and Narvaez with over 200 m to go of the climb. After 500 metres out of the saddle thrashing at the pedals Woods claimed victory in superior style fashion, his style on the bike is rather questionable. A truly remarkable performance then, on Woods’ part, one which demonstrates a formidable winter’s training he has had and moves him up to a major contender for races such as Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In the end Bauke Mollema relinquished his jersey to Woods, as there was more than a 1 second time gap between first and second place, also Mollema, on the day.
IMO Israel Start-Up Nation, like Mclaren F1 team have been making incredible steps in the last few years, slowly but surely becoming a dominant force in cycling, and certainly one to be reckoned with. Their steps have been incremental moving from continental level into the World-Tour, learning the ropes and within two years winning their first stage of a grand-tour for an Israeli-based team. It’s inspiring to watch, and with their newly signed director-sportif of Cherie Pridham, demonstrates this team is looking to break the traditional mould in cycling. Amazing to see, can’t wait to see what more the team has to offer.