For 100km, the bunch spun calmly through the fields of Nouvelle Aquitaine. Farms swept beside them, the peloton as docile as their grazing residents, who for once had time to savour the passing race between mouthfuls of fresh grass.
The breakaway was a no show. The bunch settled in for the sprint.
EF-Education EasyPost sports director Tom Southam had foreseen a calm day. “Everybody knew it was going to be a sprint today, right?” He told Cycling Weekly by the team bus. “We said on the radio that two or three guys were probably going to go quite early, and Magnus Cort immediately said, ‘I think no-one’s going to go at all.’ And he was 100% right.”
Save for a short-lived, two-pronged move from Benoît Cosnefroy and Anthony Delaplace, the peloton trundled as one on stage four.
“If you look at the teams that would normally go in those breaks, or could potentially go in those breaks, a lot of them have actually got sprinters,” Southam explained. “So Uno-X, here on an invite, have got [Alexander] Kristoff, who’s got legitimately a chance at winning, so why go in the break? It’s the same with [Caleb] Ewan and Lotto Dstny.”
For the riders, an easier day was welcome. “It was pretty calm, and then pretty crazy in the last 7km,” Ineos Grenadiers rider Ben Turner told Cycling Weekly. “We’ve had some hard days the last few days, and then the next few days are also hard, so I think everyone is just waiting for tomorrow.”
The weekend’s Basque Grand Départ brought one of the most challenging, hilly starts to the race in recent years. With the Pyrenees now looming large, the flat road to Nogaro came as a relief.
Not even Neilson Powless, one of the race’s key animators, could be tempted to drift clear. Stage four offered just one point for the polka dot jersey wearer, spoils that he and his team were happy to forego. “One point today,” Southam said. “But we look at the next few days – plenty of points.”
The drama, in the end, was saved for the finale. Crashes came on the race circuit in Nogaro, where motorbikes tear at 120km/h, four times the average speed of the peloton.
“It was a really easy stage,” said Soudal-Quick Step sports director Tom Steels, whose sprinter Fabio Jakobsen was among those who hit the asphalt. “40km/h, that’s like what they do in training. When everyone is fresh into the final, the fight is even heavier.”
Indeed, the fight in the finale was heavy, but the build-up stretched out wearily. Speaking to the media, Philipsen put it best. “I think we had the most boring Tour de France stage for a long time,” he said bluntly.