The grupetto chronicles: A fight against the time-cut at the Tour de France

21 minutes have passed at the last roundabout before the finish line on Alpe d’Huez, and there’s no sign of the grupetto.

The first race of the day has been run and won, and Tom Pidcock is in a tent somewhere talking about his stage win. The second race of the day is done, too: Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard are recovering from a day-long duel with no obvious victor. Fifty-seven riders in, a level of haggardness has begun to set in, and somewhere down the mountain the sprinters, the domestiques, the guys on a bad day are racing to avoid the time cutoff and stay in the Tour de France.

So we wait.

The last group on the road to Alpe d’Huez. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Tiesj Benoot sweeps past on the slight downhill, sunburnt and skinny. His day was spent guarding his team leader, ended with a long sint on the front of the peloton setting it up for he Alpe, with a crawl to the finish his reward. Stefan Kung arrives 30 seconds later, just as the announcer over the PA runs through the results of the day again. “Thomas Pidcock-a!” the speakers boom, his voice cracking on the ‘Pid’.

Matteo Jorgenson, who’s already finished, rolls backward down the course into the gap in the barricades. He’s looking for his team hotel or uploading a ride to Strava or something – either way, whatever he’s doing involves a lot of hunched looking at his head unit as strangers around him take his picture.

Chris Hamilton finished ten minutes ago, and after some time to compose himself at the finish line is on the hunt for the team truck to dump his bike. Romain Bardet’s waiting down there, a bit tired and a bit unhappy, having dropped from 2nd to 4th on the GC. Hamilton’s black kit has white blooms of sweat all over it, and his brakes howl raucously as he rolls down the hill to his team leader.

Yves Lampaert and Mikkel Honore, exhausted but home safe-ish for the day. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

26 minutes. Mike Woods, curly hair tufting out of the back of his helmet, doesn’t seem to have had a great day. He’s the sixth best Israel – Premier Tech rider on the day, Chris Froome is the first, and the world is topsy turvy.

Michael Matthews, 27 minutes back, is followed by a big group of 14 riders – McNulty, Simmons, Rigoberto Uran. Dribs and drabs for a couple of minutes before the next big group on the road, and then Toms Skujins with Magnus Cort. Skujins has been sick the last couple of days but is looking better, mostly evidenced by the fact that he’s not one of the last guys on the road. Magnus Cort has been publishing colorful columns and winning stages, and is probably just fine taking a break from the excitement for a little while.

My own excitement about standing at a roundabout in the scorching sun for as long as it takes to see the last guy on the road is also dwindling. Then in the space of two minutes, Mathieu Burgadeau rides past looking like an off-brand Julian Alaphilippe, the Stavanger Stallion gallops past, and Peter Sagan follows with harrowed eyes, and I’m having fun again.

Caleb Ewan was the last rider on the road to Megeve on stage 10. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

On big mountain days like today, a brutal series of calculations start falling into place. The race organisers impose a time limit – today, +15% of the winning time, or 44 minutes and 19 seconds. The riders left on the road start working out if they’re in trouble or not. Their directors and soigneurs start wondering if they’ll be a rider down tonight.

A Lotto-Soudal staffer is standing next to me and I ask the question, although I don’t really need to, because we both know who we’re waiting for. “Eight minutes,” he says, nervously checking his watch. He hopes Caleb Ewan can win in Paris, if not Cahors, but there’s a lot of road between then and now and there’s still a bit of Alpe d’Huez, too.

A tired-looking woman in a tired-looking Peugeot hatchback tries to drive onto the course to get through to her house and the gendarmes are not impressed. Almost immediately after she reverses back the way she came, a UAE Team Emirates BMW with a smashed-in grill tries the same trick. Both of the people in the car have N95 masks on, and try to negotiate their entry to the course with a closed window, so that’s a great vibe. Even COVID-riddled team helpers do not sway the gendarmes.

Three Lotto-Soudal riders ride past, none of them Caleb Ewan. Mr Lotto-Soudal looks briefly fidgety, but about 15 seconds later the Australian sprinter rounds the bend. He’s flustered, empty eyed and staring at a fixed point ahead, but also looking nowhere. But he’s still in the Tour de France.

A hard day at the office for Fabio Jakobsen. (Photo by Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

Forty minutes and three seconds after Pidcock finished, the last two riders of the day – Christophe Lafay of Cofidis, and Fabio Jakobsen of Quick Step–Alpha Vinyl – reach the summit, the broom wagon on their tail.

One hundred and fifty nine riders, some having good days, some of them very bad days, survive to ride another stage.

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