Defending champion Tadej Pogacar has taught his closest rivals a lesson in the ‘Hell of the North’ by just missing the yellow jersey on the Tour de France’s brutal cobblestone detour.
In a chaotic dust battle overshadowed by many falls, the 23-year-old Slovenian took another step towards his third overall victory with the surprise victory of Australian Simon Clarke.
Pogacar in seventh finished 51 seconds behind a six-man breakaway led by Clarke after breaking away from the remaining peloton with a strong push. Belgian Wout van Aert, who fell early, saved the yellow jersey with a brilliant comeback and ensured damage limitation for the Jumbo team on a pitch-black day.
However, German hopes of a major coup by John Degenkolb or Nils Politt were not fulfilled. Instead, Max Walscheid shines despite a spectacular rollover in the early stages in twelfth place and Max Schachmann in 13th place.
“It was extremely fast right through the neutral phase, extremely hectic, numerous falls. It was extremely fast towards the first paves, it didn’t slow down at all. It was an elimination run backwards,” said Schachmann.
Jumbo top star Primoz Roglic was the loser of the day, 2:08 behind Pogacar, he too had fallen. But the 23-year-old Pogacar also took time from all other challengers with a tactical feat on unknown terrain – he never contested Paris-Roubaix. The Danish Jonas Vingegaard, second in the previous year, only 13 seconds.
In the overall standings, van Aert is 13 seconds ahead of American Neilson Powless, who finished fourth in Clarke’s biggest career success. Pogacar is fourth (+0:19) and could take over yellow at the first mountain arrival on Friday.
Van Aert with big problems
Van Aert had big problems early on: One day after his grandiose stage win in Calais, he got into trouble in a nervous race when he fell on a traffic island after around 60 km and struggled to get up, apparently with pain in his shoulder.
Because the field was moving fast at this point, van Aert had to close a gap of more than a kilometer – and narrowly avoided another crash when he inattentively almost crashed into a braking team car. The Belgian was also lucky that he got away without a time penalty despite a borderline catch-up race in the slipstream of the car.
John Degenkolb was not able to continue his big cobblestone days. “I’m looking forward to this stage with great anticipation,” said the man from Gera. In 2015 he was one of only two German riders (alongside Josef Fischer/1896) to win the classic Paris-Roubaix and three years later the Tour stage to Roubaix. In the peloton, Degenkolb drove over the Pave sector, which is named after him.
Nils Politt, Roubaix runner-up in 2019, showed a very strong performance in “Hell Light”, but mostly worked for his captain Aleksandr Vlasov.
After a hard day on the rough roads, the tour continues southwards, the stress doesn’t get any easier. The sixth and longest section runs 219.9 km from Binche in Belgium to Longwy on Thursday, before the first mountain finish follows on Friday at the Planche des Belles Filles.