“We want to win so badly….”
— Bjarne Riis, NTT Pro Cycling team manager
By John Wilcockson | Images by Chris Auld
Most of the 22 teams that come to the Tour de France are hoping to win a stage or two, because they know that only a handful have a realistic shot at winning the Tour itself. But winning a Tour stage is one of the toughest achievements in pro cycling. With this 107th Tour half complete, only seven teams have so far hit the stage jackpot—leaving 15 teams still searching for that elusive goal. The most recent breakthrough came Thursday from Team Sunweb, which, after four collective podium spots for Dutch sprinter Cees Bol and Swiss allrounder Marc Hirschi, the Swiss rookie finally pulled off the solo victory he almost took in the second Pyrenean stage last weekend.
Like the Sunweb squad, NTT Pro Cycling came to the Tour with high hopes of winning a stage. Those hopes were led by its Italian sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo, who in the week prior to the grand départ took two major wins: the Italian national championship and the European road title. Stage 1 ended in the expected mass finish. But like most other teams, half the NTT riders were involved in crashes. Lead-out man Max Walscheid was stopped by the last mass pileup, forcing Nizzolo to improvise. “In the end, I actually felt great in the sprint,” he said. Indeed, in his white-with-blue-stars European champion’s jersey, the Italian was looking good coming into the final 200 meters when two riders accidentally blocked his path and he had to ratchet back, unable, he said, “to deliver the power that I felt.” He still took a close seventh place, adding, “I’m super-happy about how I’m feeling.”
For the next mass finish, at Sisteron on stage 3, Nizzolo was full of confidence. “The team did a perfect job in the last 30 kilometers and Max did a huge acceleration,” Nizzolo said. “I had to start the sprint early because I was scared that if I dropped the speed that we would get caught from behind, so it was a super-long sprint…and it was a full headwind.” Two men did come from behind, this Tour’s fastest two sprinters, Caleb Ewen and Sam Bennett, so Nizzolo was third. “I think I was in the wind too early,” he said, “but I still managed to be on the podium, so it was a good day for us.”
Stage 5 into Privas was always destined to have a sprint finish. South African national champion Ryan Gibbons did his job to keep Nizzolo near the head of the peloton in the final kilometers, but lead-out man Walscheid had some problems. “I was too far back on top of the climb [with 15 kilometers to go] and couldn’t make it back on time,” said the tall German. “I think that Giacomo was pretty much left alone at the front.” Nizzolo agreed: “It was hectic and perhaps we spent a little too much energy before the sprint.” He finished 11th that day.
With NTT’s climber Domenico Pozzovivo still suffering from his stage 1 injuries that prevented him challenging on the first two mountain stages, the team had a different plan for stage 6, which finished atop Mont Aigoual. This time, NTT’s veteran Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen fought to get into the day’s long-distance, eight-man breakaway—which eventually fought out the stage win. “I was one of the last to get into the break…and when I came to the [Category 1] climb it wasn’t too great,” he said. “I’ve had a brief look at tomorrow’s stage and I think it’s going to be a sprint, so I look forward to helping Giacomo.”
However, Nizzolo and all the main sprinters were dropped in an early attack that split the peloton, and when the race split again in late crosswinds only 42 riders were left to contest the stage 7 win at Lavaur. Boasson Hagen was still there, along with his Austrian teammate Michal Gogl. The Norwegian, who has won three Tour stages in his long career, looked like getting a fourth after Gogl gave him an excellent lead-out and Boasson Hagen powered strongly away, but he was just overtaken before the line by stage 5 winner Wout van Aert. “We want to win so badly,” said NTT team manager Bjarne Riis. “and then being that close with Edvald—it’s such a pity.”
“It’s all about winning of course,” said Boasson Hagen,” but I have to be happy with second place and it gives us something to work on, so hopefully a first place will come.”
Both of NTT’s Italian stars had to abandon the Tour on the second Pyrenean stage on Sunday—Nizzolo suffering with an injured calf muscle, Pozzovivo with continued pain from the left arm he broke in 2019—so after Monday’s rest day it was a depleted squad that began stage 10. On the flat course along the Atlantic coast, the team was hopeful that Boasson Hagen could figure in the final sprint. “It was a difficult parcours, with lots of stress in the bunch…. Lots of corners, lots of accelerating,” reported Walscheid.
There were frequent crashes, one of which involved Boasson Hagen, who said, “We were sitting well together and suddenly there was a lot of bikes and obstacles in from of me and I went down.” He would finish in a group five minutes down, leaving just Gibbons and Walscheid in the 60-strong peloton. Their chances in the windy finale across a high, exposed bridge to the Île de Ré island were both ruined by mechanicals. “I was in a good position just before the bridge, and then I had the mechanical,” Walscheid said. “My rear derailleur ripped off. I had to change bikes, came back and then got mixed up in the chaos.” He still ended up in 19th place with Gibbons another four places back.
Wednesday’s rolling stage to Poitiers also had a bunch finish, with Boasson Hagen again the designated sprinter. “Our plan today was to work for Edvald,” confirmed Gibbons, who’s been riding with fractured ribs since stage 1. “I dropped my chain with about 6 kilometers to go and with the speed that they were going it took me about that long to get back. [In the final] I saw an opening with about 500 meters to go. I saw that Edvald was in the wind, so I went past as fast as I could thinking that he was there. I sat back down but then I realized that it wasn’t him, so I just kept on going until the line.” Despite not fully sprinting, Gibbons placed 10th, with Boasson Hagen in 14th.
With the long, hilly stage 12 unlikely to finish in a sprint, NTT put Walscheid in the early move, but it was caught on the lead-up to two late climbs. Gogl then fought to the front but, as he said: “I managed to go in the breakaway on the first of the two climbs and then I was in the front just chasing the few guys out there, but in the last climb I didn’t have the legs and I came back to the peloton and in the end it was a sprint for the minor places.” He placed 16th on the stage, alongside the race leaders, 2:30 behind the solo stage winner, Hirschi of Sunweb.
Perhaps one of the NTT riders will get his chance of success on one of the two remaining stages that best suit them: Saturday’s stage 14 to Lyon or next Friday’s stage 19 to Champagnole. You just have to keep trying….