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Giro Part 4: 8 Days in Yellow

Images: James Startt

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Every team has its ups and downs at the Tour de France. That’s inevitable at an event that lasts 23 days and traverses such varying types of terrain and conditions. For members of the U.S.-registered Team BMC, their 2018 Tour was mixed. They avoided all the late crashes on the opening day across the maritime plains of the Vendée, but team leader Richie Porte was caught behind one of the pileups and conceded 51 seconds with a group that also contained defending champion Chris Froome of Team Sky. That setback was offset by BMC winning the stage 3 team time trial, which put the yellow jersey on the back of its Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet. Then, on the Tour’s first two uphill finishes, at Quimper and Mûr-de-Bretagne, Porte showed he was still in the great condition that won him the Tour of Switzerland in late June.

All this time, Van Avermaet was defending the yellow jersey with panache. He set in motion the sprint to the hilltop finish in Quimper and then picked up small time bonuses at intermediate sprints on the following flat stages, so that by the end of stage 8, he held a seven-second lead over second-place Geraint Thomas of Team Sky, while Porte had climbed to 10th place, 50 seconds behind Thomas. Then came stage 9, the one that many riders feared because it traversed some of the cobblestone roads used in Paris–Roubaix.

Although the first section of cobbles didn’t come until 47 kilometers into the 154-kilometer stage, it opened on narrow back roads through a series of small, brick-built villages. In the third of those villages, a place called Roeux, after just 7 kilometers of high-speed racing, there was a crash in the peloton. Several riders went down. “The bunch was really nervous,” BMC sports director Fabio Baldato reported. And Porte was in the middle of the crash.

“I don’t remember anything,” Porte later said, “other than being on the ground…and the first race doctor that came and saw me said, ‘Yeah, you’ve done your collarbone, you need to get in the ambulance.’ I was prepared for what we were about to face but I crashed before we even got there. It’s disappointing.”

That was a typical response by the understated Porte, who already had to quit the 2017 Tour, also on stage 9. He was lying in fifth place overall last year when, on the second day in the mountains, his horrific tumble descending the Mont du Chat saw his Tour end in another ambulance, that time with a broken leg. Ironically, on the same stage, Thomas fell and broke his collarbone. But Porte’s double misfortune deprived him the chance of racing against the Welshman for this year’s yellow jersey.

Porte’s departure was a mixed message for the team on the cobbles stage. “After the crash, I just had to switch to trying to do my own race,” said Van Avermaet, who raced brilliantly on the dust-covered pavé to make it into the day’s winning breakaway with Germany’s John Degenkolb and Belgium’s Yves Lampaert. “I was really aiming for that win in yellow,” added Van Avermaet, who had to settle for second place behind the German sprinter. He may have lost the stage, but his aggressive riding had extended his overall lead to 43 seconds over Thomas, with the first rest day ahead.

The next stage was in the Alps, over five categorized climbs that were expected to see the end of Van Avermaet’s weeklong reign in the yellow jersey. Had Porte still been in the race, that would have been the case. Instead, Van Avermaet reported, “I was waiting for the right moment and when the big move went I decided to give it a go…. I had to ride really hard to catch the [20-strong] breakaway, but once I was there we directly took six to seven minutes. I knew it could be a good day for me.”

Van Avermaet wasn’t able to follow the attacks by the stronger climbers in the six-man break that emerged on the last two Cat. 1 climbs, but the BMC man’s excellent fourth place—which earned him the day’s Most Aggressive Rider award—pushed his GC lead over Thomas to 2:22 before stage 11. That stage saw the first true battle between the prerace favorites, with Thomas taking the win (and the yellow jersey) ahead of Tom Dumoulin and Froome—the eventual GC podium in Paris 11 days later.

Looking back at his yellow jersey run, Van Avermaet said, “These were great days at the Tour…I’m happy with how I raced with the yellow jersey and, for me, it was one of the nicest moments of my career. To spend eight days in the yellow jersey is something special.”