How best to bounce back from coming second to Mark Cavendish in a bunch sprint? By conquering the legendary Giant of Provence for what you describe as “the best victory” of your already illustrious career.
Beaten by Cavendish on the flat on Tuesday, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) made amends with a victorious ride from the breakaway over a gruelling double ascent of Mont Ventoux – as the green jersey battled behind to beat the time cut by seven minutes.
On a day which started badly for the Belgian champion’s Jumbo-Visma team – with the early withdrawal of German veteran Tony Martin following yet another crash – Van Aert’s Danish teammate Jonas Vingegaard showed his class behind with a stinging attack from the yellow jersey group that put race leader Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) in the red on the second ascent of the mythical climb ahead of the nail-biting descent to the finish.
Van Aert proved the strongest of a stellar breakaway that also included the world champion Julian Alaphilippe, the 26-year-old crossing the line in Malaucène 1’14” clear of a chasing Trek-Segafredo duo, the Frenchman Kenny Elissonde and Dutch veteran Bauke Mollema.
Trailing Vingegaard by 20 seconds going over the final summit, Pogacar was caught by Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) on the descent, before the trio reeled in the white jersey of Vingegaard as the road flattened out. Pogacar led the quartet home 1’38” behind the stage winner, with Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-PremierTech), Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Enric Mas (Movistar) completing the top 10 after the thrilling 199km stage from Sorgues.
Three days after rising to second place in the standings after his victory at Tignes, Australia’s Ben O’Connor was distanced by the main favourites on the second ascent of Ventoux. The AG2R-Citroen rider dug deep to limit his loses but he dropped from second place to fifth after coming home almost four minutes down.
Emerging from his toughest day yet with a solid lead of 5’18”, Pogacar’s nearest challenger is now the Colombian Uran, with Vingegaard up to third place at 5’32” and Ecuador’s Carapaz fourth at 5’33”.
“It was a hard pace the whole climb,” the defending champion said. “When Vingegaard attacked, I couldn’t follow all the way up, it was just a little bit too much. I exploded a little bit but managed to save it in the end with Carapaz and Uran. It was a good day."
Elsewhere, Frenchman David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) plummeted out of the top 10 after being dropped on the first ascent of Ventoux, which began via the easier western approach from the town of Sault. Gaudu shipped 25 minutes on a dark day which saw him drop to fifteenth on the GC, the Spaniard Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) taking over his 10th place in the standings.
Five years after the Tour’s previous visit to Mont Ventoux, the inaugural double ascent of “Bald Mountain” was the climax to a tough 199km stage that also featured three other categorised climbs.
A fiery opening saw numerous attempts to force a break but nothing stuck until the 25km mark when Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Alaphilippe, the world champion, joined forces with Nairo Quintana, Arkea-Samsic’s polka dot jersey, ahead of the first of two fourth-category hills, shortly after the German veteran Martin crashed out of the race with a fall into a ditch.
The Colombian was caught on the climb but the Frenchman pressed on and was soon joined by compatriots Anthony Perez (Cofidis) and Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels p/b KTM), and the Irishman Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation). Alaphilippe picked up the solitary KOM point again over the next summit as a 13-man chase group formed around Van Aert.
Martin led the way over the top of the Cat.1 Col de la Liguiere before the leading quartet were caught by the chasers just as the race entered Sault, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, with the peloton five minutes in arrears with 100km still left to ride.
Alaphilippe, in typical swashbuckling style, caused the first major shake-out with a surge as the race passed Chalet Reynard and joined the traditional approach to the summit over the exposed, rocky dome of the Giant. The Frenchman was first over the top while, behind, the likes of Quintana, Gaudu and Geraint Thomas – the latter after a long stint pulling on the front for Ineos teammate Carapaz – were all tailed off.
Eight riders took control of the breakaway on the descent with Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Perez riding with a trio of Trek-Segafredo riders in Mollema, Elissonde and Julien Bernard, along with Xandro Meurisse (Alpecin-Fenix) and Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange).
Perez and Durbridge were the first to pop in Bedoin at the foot of the second ascent before Bernard – the son of Jean-Francois Bernard, winner on Mont Ventoux in 1987 – peeled off having paved the way for his Trek teammates. Elissonde made his move almost instantaneously, dancing clear with Van Aert in pursuit.
Mollema and Alaphilippe rode in a duo behind before the world champion’s efforts from earlier in the stage caught up with him, prompting the rainbow stripes to sink like a stone on the 15.6km ascent – seen as one of the hardest in the sport.
Van Aert caught Elissonde and then, with 33km remaining, put in the decisive attack which would pave the way for the fourth Tour stage win of his career. Elissonde was caught by teammate Mollema around seven kilometres later – but the gap was already in excess of one minute.
Around four minutes further down the road, Ineos Grenadiers kept up a solid tempo – but one which did not seem to make any demands of the man in yellow, who stayed in contention as other riders wilted one by one.
And when Michal Kwiatkowski, the last Ineos match for Carapaz to burn, came to a standstill a few kilometres from the summit, it was not the Ecuadorian who took the initiative, but the rider keeping Pogacar’s white jersey warm: the Danish debutant Vingegaard.
Elevated to Jumbo-Visma leader following the withdrawal of last year’s runner-up Primoz Roglic, 24-year-old Vingegaard’s attack was followed by Pogacar – but the Slovenian had no answer after his rival put in another acceleration in the final kilometre.
Pogacar showed maturity beyond his years, however, to measure his effort, wait up for Carapaz and Uran over the summit, and slowly reel in his older, yet more inexperienced rival on the descent.
As this played out behind, Van Aert closed in on what he later described as “perhaps my best ever victory” – one day after the versatile all-rounder narrowly missed out on beating Britain’s Cavendish in a bunch sprint.
“I’m lost for words,” Van Aert said after his win. “Of course, I didn’t expect to win this stage before the Tour de France. But yesterday I thought about it and getting into the breakaway. It’s one of the most iconic climbs in the Tour and in cycling, so it’s perhaps my best victory.
“If you believe in it then everything is possible,” the 26-year-old added, before referring to his operation for appendicitis in May. “It’s emotional. Personally, it was really hard to come on this Tour at a proper level. The first week we had some really bad luck and even today we lost Tony Martin with a crash. If you keep motivated and believe in it then, some day, it will work out – so I’m really proud.”
By cresting the second summit of Ventoux ahead of the rest, Van Aert moved within seven points of Quintana’s lead in the polka dot jersey standings. Meanwhile, Cavendish kept his green jersey dream alive by finishing in a small group alongside five QuickStep teammates some 40 minutes in arrears – not before the Manxman doffed his helmet in respect to the late Tom Simpson at the rider’s memorial near the summit of the climb where he lost his life in 1967.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Cavendish will have a chance to draw level with Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour stage wins on Thursday with the 159.5km Stage 12 to Nîmes, where he took his fourth Tour win back in 2008.
Action from Tour De France - Stage 12 - Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux - Nîmescan be watched LIVE on EUROSPORT and EUROSPORT HD from 17:00 Hrs (05:00 pm IST) onwards on Thursday, 8th July, 2021.. Eurosport channel can now be live streamed on the discovery+ app.