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The Great Marie Blanque Downhill Race

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

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Don’t try this at home kids. If you wanted a crazy idea for a bike race, you could do worse than take a bunch of the best cyclists in the world, keep them largely away from competition for a few months, make them race across the south of France for a week, then send them over the top of the Col de Marie Blanque in small groups a few seconds apart, and tell them, “last one to Laruns ain’t gonna win the Tour de France.”

By William Fotheringham | Images: Chris Auld

It would quite a fun thing to do on, say, the first Sunday in September, with leaves just beginning to fall, and a bit of Pyrenean drizzle to grease up the corners to induce a bit of extra adrenaline. If you were feeling cruel, you could make them ride up the 12-percent-to-13-percent monster absolutely flat out just so they start the high speed, hairpin descent with lots of lactate in the legs and not too much oxygen in the brains.

We could call it the Col du Marie Blanque Downhill Race.

Set off a young Swiss hopeful, Marc Hirschi, first. Start Primoz Roglic, Tadej Pogacar, Egan Bernal and Mikel Landa 15 seconds or so behind. Another 15 seconds to 20 seconds and a slightly larger group: Guillaume Martin, Romain Bardet, Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema. A little bit longer before a slightly bigger string including Adam Yates, Tom Dumoulin and Richard Carapaz.

Last one to Laruns ain’t gonna win the Tour.

Marc Hirschi nearly made it all the way to a stage win, being caught with only 2km to go after being away for 90km. Image: Chris Auld

It was a madcap descent, with Hirschi ramming his stubbly chin into the back of the television motorbike at times, with everyone taking the hairpins to the limit, and it was followed on the brief flat road into Laruns by something we haven’t seen often in the Tour in recent years: three groups of race favorites all going flat out, swapping turns with zero inhibition, with barely a specialist mountain domestique to be seen. There were no tactics. It was just the favorites for the Tour unleashed. Bike racing as we love to see it. Hirschi the unlucky victim, promising much but falling at the last as Cees Bol had on two sprint finishes.

The Jumbo-Visma tactic of smashing the front group to bits to eliminate the Ineos mountain climbers and leave defending champion Egan Bernal alone had worked. Bernal was alone. The only glitch in the machine was that the Jumbo leader Primoz Roglic was alone as well, as the two teams had pretty much canceled each other out. Luckily for both Roglic and Bernal, both Landa and Pogacar had lost time in Friday’s insanely fast and selective windy stage into Lavaur, although that now seems a lifetime distant. (By the way, anyone apart from Thibaut Pinot remember that ice-rink start in Nice, just nine days ago? It’s been that kind of a Tour.)

Primoz Roglic (left) and Egan Bernal (center) both found themselves without the support of domestiques. Image: Chris Auld.

The Marie Blanque downhill race showed us a few things, but kept enough questions unanswered to give the Tour ample suspense going into its first rest day. Bernal and Roglic are clearly in pole position. Jumbo-Visma? Strong enough to rip it to bits in the mountains but not strong enough to control the race for long. Not yet anyway. Ineos? Far from a spent force but happy to let Jumbo run the show, one little blast into the wind leaving Castres on Friday excepted. Critically, however, their mountain domestiques had gone missing when Jumbo upped the pace. Pogacar was the most sprightly when the road went uphill. Landa had been unlucky on Friday, but was consistent enough through the first mountain days to look promising with plenty of climbs to come.

The second group – Quintana, Martin, Bardet and company – could still hope for the podium with a little improved form and a dollop or two of good fortune. The members of the third group will probably be looking for stage wins or some heavy-duty support work. Nine days in, the first serious test rarely lies. And the opening phase had ruled some serious contenders out: Thibaut Pinot, whose days targeting the Tour may be numbered. Fabio Aru, never on the pace and heading for home. Julian Alaphilippe, who finally discovered his limitations but should win at least one stage before the Tour ends. Hopefully that will be in Paris, the virus and the French government permitting.

What of the rest day? There was a hurdle there for the entire race to negotiate: a blanket test for the Covid-19 virus. Assuming everyone got through that, it was back into the wind here there and everywhere between the Islands of Oléron and Ré on the Atlantic coast on Tuesday. With the Massif Central looming. Thus far, it had been one hell of a Tour, culminating in that mad-cap downhill race.

To read more long-form features, please visit lacourseentete.com