Le Creusot, France, 2nd July, 2021: On this fabulous Tour de France which keeps serving up scripts to savour, Mathieu van der Poel defended his yellow jersey with grit and determination after battling into a large breakaway alongside his old friend Wout van Aert, the green jersey Mark Cavendish, and the 2015 champion Vincenzo Nibali, as defending champion Tadej Pogacar found his UAE Team Emirates squad under the cosh from the get-go during the longest stage of the race.
If Pogacar weathered the storm, the same could not be said of his fellow Slovenian star Primoz Roglic, who emerged from the 249km schlep from Vierzon to Le Creusot as the big loser after being dropped on the penultimate climb inside the final 20km.
An isolated Roglic eventually crossed the line over nine minutes down on his compatriot Mohoric, who took maximum points over all five climbs before soloing to an emotional win that saw the Bahrain-Victorious rider complete a set of stage wins on all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
Milan-Sanremo winner Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) took second place at 1’20” before Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) led home a select group that also included Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
The surviving remnants of the original 29-man break came over the line in drips and drabs before world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) led the main field of favourites home 5’15” down after a late move by Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) was snuffed out just metres before the line.
Pogacar, the white jersey, was part of this main pack but it was the best part of four minutes before compatriot Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) trundled over the line after the 31-year-old was dropped on the double-digit ramps of the Signal d’Uchon climb on its first appearance in the race. It was on this uphill test, with 19km to go, where Mohoric made his decisive move, riding clear of Belgians Stuyven and Brent Van Moer (Lotto Soudal) in pursuit of glory.
Van der Poel will now enter a tough weekend in the Alps with the yellow jersey still firmly across his shoulders, the inseparable Van Aert now his nearest challenger at 30 seconds. Denmark’s Kasper Asgreen, who led out Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Mark Cavendish for the intermediate sprint points before trying his hand in the hills, moved up to third place on GC at 1’49” while Mohoric rose 29 places to fourth after his victory.
Slovenian national champion Mohoric is now 3’01” off the race summit and ahead of compatriot Pogacar, who slipped to fifth place at 3’43”. Another big winner in the GC battle was the Italian veteran Nibali, an active figure in the break before fading in the finale, who is up to sixth place at 4’12”.
But any hopes harboured by Roglic of winning this Tour have gone up in smoke as he dropped like a stone to 33rd place, 9’11” in arrears, after suffering the after-effects of his heavy fall in Stage 3.
Double stage winner Cavendish, meanwhile, strengthened his grip on the green jersey after forcing himself into the day’s break and taking the maximum 20 points in the intermediate sprint before dropping off once the race hit the hills.
Any fears that the longest stage of the Tour since 2000 would be tackled with little enthusiasm by the protagonists went out the window from the gun as numerous riders tried their luck during a frantic opening hour which saw the race cover a staggering 51.6 kilometres.
Pogacar’s UAE team were one of five squads not to place at least one body in the strong 29-man break – resulting in a panicked chase as the gap continued to grow with the riders zipping along the flat roads towards the hilly finale.
Fresh off the back of picking up his second win in what is proving to be a spectacular comeback, Cavendish won the intermediate sprint at a canter as the 36-year-old rolled back the years to extend his lead in the green jersey standings to 66 points.
The gap was pushing five minutes at this point, with Portugal’s Ruben Guerreiro (EF Education-Nippo) the first of the escapees to give up the ghost, the polka dot jersey from the 2020 Giro d’Italia tailed off shortly after the feed zone and soon gobbled up by the pack.
It was a fascinating set-up ahead of the five categorised climbs with the likes of 2015 champion Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), double Tour stage winner Soren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM), Belgian veteran Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), the Hour Record holder Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka-Assos) and 2018 Vuelta champion Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) among the stand-out names in the break – along with big-hitters Van der Poel and Van Aert.
But it was Mohoric who went clear with Van Moer – described by teammate Thomas De Gendt as the new Thomas De Gendt – on the first climb some 90km from the finish. Having crashed out of the Giro in spectacular fashion, the Slovenian champion was clearly on a mission as he went on to take maximum points over all five of the climbs ahead of the finish.
After thwarted attacks from Nibali and Gilbert, Belgian duo Campenaerts and Stuyven joined the leaders to create a quartet out in front with 50km remaining – but Mohoric slowly wore down his companions before shedding the last, Stuyven, on the steep final kilometre of the Signal d’Uchon.
As Van der Poel and Van Aert combined behind to neutralise an attack from Asgreen, 26-year-old Mohoric kept his cool on the front of the race to complete his grand slam of Grand Tour stage wins.
“I won in the Giro and the Vuelta but this is completely something else – this is the biggest race in the world,” an emotional Mohoric said at the finish. “I think it will take some time to settle in. It was also the longest stage (of the Tour) – I think the stage I won in the Vuelta was the longest stage, same goes for the Giro.
“I’m good in these super-long, not so brutal efforts, because I can keep up a good pace for a very long time. That’s also a part of the reason why I tried to anticipate today.”
As Mohoric rode towards the final piece of his Grand Tour jigsaw, the GC battle intensified behind with Roglic being tailed off the main pack moments before Carapaz put in a stinging attack near the summit of the penultimate climb.
Carapaz looked to be making some headway but the Ecuadorian livewire was swept up just ahead of the line as Alaphilippe led home the main field after a gruelling day in the saddle.
The first of two Alpine tests takes place on Saturday with the 151km Stage 8 from Oyonnax to Le Grand-Bornand, where Alaphilippe secured his first ever Tour stage win in 2018. Three first-category climbs will be a severe test for the favourites ahead of a downhill finish where Van der Poel is likely to surrender the yellow jersey he took after his Stage 2 victory at Mur-de-Bretagne.