Stage 1 of Tour de la Provence had a parcours fit for the sprinters but winds of up to 45 km/h provided an opportunity for the powerhouses on INEOS to take control.
A six man breakaway was established early on including Stéphane Rossetto (St-Michel-Auber 93), Pierre Rolland (B&B Hôtels-KTM), Viktor Verschaeve (Lotto Soudal), Tom Mainguenaud (Go Sport-Roubaix Lille Métropole), Tristan Delacroix and Jean Goubert (Nice Métropole Côte d’Azur).
The breakaway took on the only climb of the day, the Col de la Vayède, with a comfortable lead on the peloton. Tom Mainguenaud (Go Sport-Roubaix Lille Métropole) out sprinted Tristan Delacroix (Nice Métropole Côte d’Azur) to take the climber’s jersey.
Meanwhile the wind picked up, and back in the peloton, the INEOS Grenadiers took command and increased the pace as expected. After a few monster efforts from Fillipo Ganna and Luke Rowe, INEOS had successfully split the peloton in to many pieces with 83 km to go. In doing so however, INEOS dropped one of their own GC contenders (at least in our eyes), Ethan Hayter, indicating that the team was primarily interested in the stage win for Elia Viviani.
The front echelon led by INEOS contained an assortment of strong riders and the majority of the GC contenders including Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team), Nairo Quintana (Team Arkéa Samsic), Sep Vanmarcke (Israel – Premier Tech), Pierre Latour (TotalEnergies) and stage favourite Elia Viviani (INEOS Grenadiers). Notable omissions included Iván Sosa (Movistar Team) and stage hopeful Arnaud Démare (Groupama – FDJ) – a very disappointing day for two of the French World Tour teams here, Cofidis and FDJ, neither of whom were represented by a single rider in the front group.
The breakaway was caught with 75 km to go by the INEOS led first echelon. Despite efforts by Groupama – FDJ and, much later, Cofidis to claw their way back, the cooperation within the front echelon ensured that they stayed away. Julian Alaphilippe was also able to gain some further time on GC, winning both intermediate sprints which were uncontested by Carapaz, who seems disinterested in riding seriously for GC here. Conversely, Nairo Quintana showed once again how strong and attentive he is in crosswinds, always moving up before dangerous sections, as the riders were frequently turning into harsh crosswind in the exposed marshes along this route.
With 7.5 km to go Maciej Bodnar (TotalEnergies) attacked, not wishing to contest a sprint against the stage favourite Elia Viviani. Richard Carapaz was tasked with closing Bodnar, another indication that INEOS were prioritising the stage win over his advancements on GC. Soon after, Julian Alaphilippe tried to bridge across, forcing Fillipo Ganna to react over the top of Carapaz to quickly close him down.
However Carapaz could not close Bodnar down, and only after Ganna pulled again (creating an echelon of 1) was Bodnar brought back, only for Danish champion Mads Wurtz Schmidt to counterattack – again Ganna closed him down. Amidst all this chaos, Richard Carapaz was dropped from the group and only when Luke Rowe surged in the last 500 metres, stringing out the entire group with Viviani on his wheel, did INEOS look back in control. A brilliant leadout by Rowe and Elia Viviani duly finished it off, showing a very clean pair of heels gapping Vanmarcke off his wheel and winning by over 5 bike lengths, for his first win of the season and for his new team INEOS.
Sep Vanmarcke was able to hang on for second and Julian Alaphilippe took third, taking six more bonus seconds for his GC ambitions. He sits four seconds behind Ganna and with a near 30 second lead on Quintana, he will be tough to overcome in this race.
Tomorrow’s stage is one for the puncheurs, featuring almost the same finish as last year in Manosque, except they do not do the same detour which caused the climb to be slightly longer.
This is a finish which suits fast punchers and here we have the best in the world, Julian Alaphilippe. Last year he crashed in the slippery run-in to the Manosque finish and his teammate Davide Ballerini was able to beat Ciccone in the uphill drag.
The 4-5% gradients do not last for long and a sprinter in good condition should be able to contest this finish as well. The question is whether INEOS will again ride for Elia Viviani or for Ethan Hayter, who is extremely strong on uphill finishes such as this but is racing shortly after some sickness.