242m: this was all that was remaining of stage 11 of the Tour de France when Maciej Bodnar was caught by the sprinters after riding the entire day in the break. Escaping at kilometre zero, the Polish time trial specialist rode the whole 203.5km stage off the front, before going solo with 23km remaining. While Maciej was cruelly denied the stage win, he took the day’s well-deserved combativity prize for his effort and gave the fans the most spectacular break of the race so far.
After a gentle 178km route on yesterday’s stage to gently ease riders back into the race after their first rest day, the distance was ramped up to 203.5km, making for a long day in the saddle. The route itself wasn’t going to cause any trouble, with only the one fourth category climb coming after 145km, but on days like these, the breakaway is always something to watch out for. With the race going back to the mountains tomorrow, the sprinters would be looking for the win, and the breakaway would be looking to deny them that.
For a breakaway to succeed, it has to have riders in it who are able to ride hard all day without the peloton to shelter them. Today, the perfect example of that rider made the jump, as BORA-hansgrohe’s Maciej Bodnar used the time trialling skills that won him the Polish national time trial championship in 2016 to power ahead of the bunch, taking two other riders with him. It was a constant back and forth between the break and the peloton – the gap rising to almost five minutes, before the peloton brought it back down to 1:30, only for it to go back out to 2:30. With 50km remaining, the break’s lead was a little over a minute, but Maciej wasn’t riding like someone who had spent almost 200km off the front, and seemed to have energy in reserve.
With just 28km remaining and as the gap hit thirty seconds, the Polish rider left his fellow escapees behind, pushing his advantage back out to a little under fifty seconds. Coming into the final 10km, Maciej had forty seconds in hand, riding out of his skin to hold the peloton at bay. Past the Flamme Rouge and with just over 200m of the race left, he was finally caught, bringing to an end the strongest breakaway effort of the Tour de France so far, after riding the entire stage off the front. While Quickstep’s Kittel took the stage, the stage would be remembered for Maciej’s incredible effort.
From this finish, Maciej reflected on a hard day, but one that will be remembered. “I felt I had really good legs today and jumped in the breakaway from the start. The three of us collaborated and thanks to them we all worked together well. When the gap was down to about forty seconds, I decided to go alone and try my chances for a stage win. I was slowing down a little in the last 10km and the wind was a problem, but I still had a bit of a lead on the peloton. In the end it was so close – just a few hundred metres – but what can I do, I tried my best. With 2km to go, the bunch still hadn’t caught me, they were about 200m behind me, and I was starting to think I could do it, but the last 400m were really hard for me. The bunch was going really fast, so that was that – just ten seconds more and I’d have taken it. It was a hard day! In the last 3km we were going at a furious pace – it was like sprinting from every corner.”
The whole team was understandably thrilled at Maciej’s performance today, as Team Coach Patxi Vila explained. “Congratulations to Bodi for his superb performance! He was so close – that was our plan in the morning, to send Bodnar or Burghardt in the early breakaway and let them try their chances. We thought the group would be bigger, but still, Bodi was in good form and went for it. He rode very well and when the gap from the bunch was down to about 30-40 seconds we thought that it was now or never. Bodi went on his own and the last 10km were nail biting. There were moments I thought he could make it and others when I thought it was all over. Still, to be caught in the final 250m after nearly 205km in the breakaway, of which 30km were alone, is a great achievement. We had a tough start in this Tour, but the spirit is high in the team. We will never give up and will give the best we can every day, taking advantage of any opportunity that we see.”
The week so far has been fairly gentle, but tomorrow this will all come to an end. Six categorised climbs dot the stage, with three of them coming in the last 30km – one of them the Hors Catégorie Port des Balès. If the climbs weren’t hard enough, riders also have to cover these tough climbs on the third longest stage of this year’s edition of the Tour – 214.5km. A summit finish immediately preceded by a first category climb could well form a perfect launchpad for a late attack.