Things started ominously for Movistar with the withdrawal of Miguel Angel Lopez ahead of the 207km Stage 19 from Mourenx to Libourne. The Colombian’s first Tour for the Spanish team couldn’t have gone much worse, Lopez having never really recovered from a crash in the opening week. He threw the dice with one small attack on the Tourmalet on Thursday, and was promptly joined by compatriot Nairo Quintana, before both sunk like stones.
Things didn’t get much better when Movistar’s man for the GC, Enric Mas, was caught up in a crash with 167km remaining – the Spaniard, sixth in the standings, eventually paced back on by Carlos Verona and Imanol Erviti.
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At this point, Stage 19 looked very much like it was going to script, with Alpecin-Fenix keeping the lid on a not particularly dangerous six-man move some four minutes up the road. Once Deceuninck-QuickStep started to chip in, it would be business as usual before Mark Cavendish sprinted for that 35th stage win in front of the race’s special guest for the day – Eddy Merckx, the man whose win-count the Manxman had levelled before the Pyrenees.
But then the race went entirely off script. A strung-out peloton and a series of splits following the intermediate sprint injected fresh impetus into what could have been a rather sedate affair. Instead, we had what Netflix producers involved in Movistar movies might describe as, well, the least expected day.
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And when a counter-attack of 20 riders went clear of the pack with 130km remaining, Movistar were right in the thick of things, with Jorge Arcas, the experienced Alejandro Valverde, and the powerhouse sprinter Ivan Garcia all very much present and correct.
By having three riders in a what was a stellar move, Movistar shared the numerical advantage of Trek-Segafredo, who had Belgians Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns there, and Frenchman Julien Bernard further up the road in the original six-man break.
The teams who missed out were soon on the front of the peloton, most notably Ineos Grenadiers – who have nothing but Richard Carapaz’s third place on GC to show for on this Tour – and Israel Start-Up Nation, who even committed Chris Froome to the task. Seeing the four-time Tour winner and his former teammate Thomas leading the chase on a group that attacked the peloton mid-way through a flat stage was surreal, to say the least.
But both teams remain winless from this Tour, with ISUN's Canadian Michael Woods joining Movistar’s Lopez on the sidelines ahead of the race after his failure to snatch the polka dot jersey in the Pyrenees.
Stage 19 Highlights - Mohoric steals the show as Cavendish has to wait
Friday represented a chance for Israel Start-Up Nation to salvage something – at the very least, they could put their German veteran Andre Greipel in the frame for a win on his 39th birthday. But here they were conducting a desperate chase after being caught napping.
“Greipel’s a big, big sprinter – give him the chance on his birthday,” Brian Smith later said in The Breakaway. “Make the effort – be there! Even with one rider there. Anybody who wanted to have a sprint today, they had somebody in the breakaway. It was the perfect combination.”
Movistar’s Garcia Cortina was one of the fastmen in the counter-move along with Theuns, the Italian Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Dutchman Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) the Frenchmen Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Anthony Turgis (Team TotalEnergies), and the German Max Walscheid (Qhubeka-NextHash).
Getting Garcia in the mix was a positive for Movistar – and having two riders to work for him an added bonus. But then, with the advantage over the peloton coming down to just 30 seconds, everything went pear shaped: a split occurred in the chase group and all three Movistar riders were on the wrong side, along with Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2R-Citroen) and Astana duo Omar Fraile and Dmitriy Gruzdev.
Just moments after these six riders were dropped, the chase group were bolstered by another six after they managed to bridge over to the leaders. As a newly formed group of 20, the elastic soon snapped, Israel Start-Up Nation gave up the chance, and the gap quickly grew north of 10 minutes. Having done all the hard work, Movistar had successfully shot themselves in the foot – and it left Brian Smith exasperated.
Movistar! They had their man there. They had Garcia Cortina there – he was their man. In Carcassonne he launched and he finished fourth on the stage. He’s a good sprinter! Yet they had the experienced rider Valverde there, Arcas was there as well. But the gap opened up and they decided to sit on the back. There was a split and they couldn’t close it. Seventy kilometres-per-hour. Nobody can close these gaps. What a mistake that was. The fact that all three of them sat at the back – for what reason? Because Garcia Cortina could have won it. He should have been up the front, working. If he was, that wouldn’t have happened.
In the event, none of the escapees with a sprinting pedigree went on to win the stage after a monster Matej Mohoric masterclass put everyone else in the shade. Attacking with 25km remaining, the Slovenian champion rode clear and held a nine-man chase group at bay all the way to Libourne.
Movistar, meanwhile, were back in the peloton that eventually trundled home over 20 minutes down. The Spanish team should have had a say on the outcome of the stage on what proved to be the least expected day. But once again they made a hash of it. At least series three of their Netflix documentary should be a hoot.
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