For the third time in four days, the breakaway group had the final word. However, whereas in Kendal and Knutsford there was no doubt that an escapee would win, here nails were bitten until the very last metre, with Jack Bauer of New Zealand snatching victory even as Caleb Ewan of Australia led the peloton on to the heels of the third rider across the line, Erick Rowsell of the British team Madison-Genesis.
With much debate about a possible reduction in the size of teams at the Tour de France to eight, Bauer’s stage five win could be put down in part to the fact that here teams are restricted to only six. Two teams had the most obvious interest in a sprint finish, Lotto NL-Jumbo and Lotto-Soudal, but they ran out of manpower, to the extent that Lotto-Soudal’s best sprinter, André Greipel, came to the front to put in a shift himself.
Together with Amaël Moinard of France – who eventually finished second – and the Spaniard Javier Moreno, Bauer and Rowsell were two survivors of a five-man escape that had gone clear after an hour of a stage that took the riders out of the Welsh valleys and across the Forest of Dean to skirt the Cotswolds en route to Bath.
With Bauer lying 20th overall and Rowsell 16th, both within five minutes of the overall leader, Julien Vermote of Belgium, the move was never going to be given too much leeway and with the gap at around six minutes, the chase began in earnest as the race approached Gloucester with more than 80km remaining.
Initially Mark Cavendish and Steve Cummings’s Dimension Data team set the pace but they are short of muscle and with Cummings challenging for the overall title, they have their eyes on Friday’s stage through Devon. Vermote’s Etixx team were also keen to conserve their strength, so when Dimension Data desisted the chase fell to the two Lottos – but neither was willing to gamble on putting more than two riders on the front.
Into a stiff headwind, the simple mathematics of four riders behind versus five in front meant the gap declined so gradually that three kilometres out, the remaining escapees – Jonny McEvoy of NFTO had given way a few kilometres earlier – began marking each other. “Everyone was working well until Moinard attacked but then it started to become messy. We could see the bunch coming but it was cat and mouse,” explained Rowsell, the younger brother of the Olympic team pursuit gold medallist Joanna Rowsell Shand.
The 31-year-old Bauer “cut his teeth”, as he put it, in British racing with the Endura team in 2010 after earning his spurs as a mountain biker and taking a degree in physical education at Otago University. This was his first major professional win after six months out last year recovering from a broken leg but he was best known for coming within seven pedal revolutions of taking a Tour de France stage in 2014 in an almost identical scenario to here, with the peloton bearing down on him in the final metres.
“I learned a lot from that; if you have an opportunity to win, you lay it all on the line, [so] I didn’t think about what the bunch was doing,” Bauer said. “If they catch you, they catch you. I’d have regretted more being beaten by one of the other guys in the break.”
Knowing that the key phase of the race was a few days distant, Vermote and Cummings and their teams have had to deal with a far more complex tactical picture since Monday’s finish in Kendal, and have been clearly uncertain over how much energy they can spend. While Saturday’s time trial in Bristol should give the final verdict, the Haytor finish on Friday will at least provide some clarity, with two major climbs in the final 25km.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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