Cometh the Alps, cometh the time gaps.
The opening salvo of the Tour’s second mountainous bombardment of the peloton brought the expected casualties, and some who might have been expected to survive.
BMC Racing’s Tejay Van Garderen, second on GC at the start of the day, was the best placed of the seven riders not to complete the 161km ordeal from Digne-Les-Bains to Pra Loup, while Tour debutant and sprinter Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon18), already the Lanterne Rouge, never really stood a chance.
Cannondale-Garmin’s Nathan Haas, the last man home on stage seven, failed to finish, but in this regard was in good company: neither did world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep).
Some of those who limped across the finish line at Pra Loup did so by the result of an effort that lesser men would regard as insane. Take a bow, Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka).
The 23-year-old winner of this year’s Coppi e Bartali is a hot prospect, but needed all of his already formidable climbing prowess to survive the Alps’ opening salvo. He trailed in some 37’09” after Simon Geschke (Giant-Alpecin) had celebrated a solo victory of unexpected brilliance.
The men in black and white have punched above their weight so far, with Daniel Teklehaimanot becoming an early holder of the maillot a pois, and Steve Cummings winning stage 14, but Meintjes is among his fledgling team’s Tour debutants and clearly learning some harsh lessons.
The young South African lost eight minutes even to a grupetto some 46 riders strong, and comprised of an expectedly ragged alliance of rouleurs and sprinters: Stannard and Cavendish, Stybar and Coquard, to name but a few.
Despite today’s meltdown, Meintjes’ position on GC remains respectable: tied on time with opening stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) in 100th. There are many who have already shipped vastly more time to race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Sébastien Chavanel is the new Lanterne Rouge, following Bennett’s abandonment. The French veteran, a rouleur of the flat lands, not designed for vertiginous slopes, came in with the grupetto led home by brother, Sylvain.
Sébastien is already 3.33.49 behind Froome in the overall standings, and comfortably last, nearly nine minutes behind Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEDGE), who holds 162nd place.
The road to Paris will doubtless strike Chavanel as long and unnecessarily mountainous. Three more engagements in the Alps await him before he is finally reacquainted with level ground on Sunday’s ceremonial run from Sevres to the French capital. It will not come a moment too soon.