Australian rider Simon Clarke won a crash-marred fifth stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday while Wout van Aert clung onto the leader’s yellow jersey despite coming off his bike.
The big winner though was Slovenian rider Tadej Pogacar, who kick-started his bid to win a third straight Tour with a sensational ride over the cobbles to slash the gap to Van Aert to 19 seconds on a day where several of his rivals lost time. Pogacar had a broad smile as he crossed the line.
“That was a really hard day. Quite stressful in the first part, and the second part was really tough. It was a lot of power on the pedals through the day, the cobbles were dusty and dangerous,” Pogacar said.
“I’m just happy this day is over and I rode well. In the end it was a really good day for me and the [UAE Team Emirates] team I followed Jasper Stuyven in the end. He almost dropped me a few times, I struggled and I held onto his wheel. We came onto the front to take some seconds. I have to buy him a beer.”
It was a first individual win on the Tour for Clarke, who was in tears after crossing the line. Clarke had won a team time trial in the race in 2013 and also two individual stages in the Spanish Vuelta.
The 35-year-old Clarke, who rides for Israel-Premier Tech, sprinted to victory from the remnants of an early breakaway, edging out Taco van der Hoorn.
“After the winter I had when I had no team, to then have Israel ring me up and say ‘we’ll give you that chance’ just gives you such a reality check to make the most of every opportunity. All year this season, I’ve come out in every race swinging,” Clarke said.
“I still can’t believe I got it on the line there. Taco was well ahead of me with less than 50 meters to go. I was cramping in both legs and I just lined up the biggest throw I could possibly do and I just prayed it was enough. I need to watch the replay, I still don’t quite believe it.”
Edvald Boasson Hagen finished two seconds behind, at the end of the 157-kilometer leg from Lille Metropole to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut that went over some of the feared cobblestones that feature on the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic.
American cyclist Neilson Powless just missed out on a podium finish but moved into second in the overall standings, 13 seconds behind Van Aert and just one second ahead of Boasson Hagen.
The day saw several incidents and Van Aert was one of the first to take a tumble but his crash came as the riders were racing toward the first of the 11 cobbled sections. He was able to get back on and catch up with the peloton – although he almost went down again as he clipped the wing mirror of his own team car.
“In my opinion the roads were way too dangerous, everyone expected some stress because of the cobbles but then there was also a lot of narrowings and things on the road,” Van Aert said. “I didn’t want to take risks and the moment when I thought it was necessary to start moving up to the front I immediately crashed because of a narrowing.
“I hurt myself a bit but also I lost a bit of confidence to go really in a fight for position, and it’s a shame because at that point I let down the other boys, and I also was in the back chasing instead of having a good position on the cobbles. So for me from then on it was a fight the whole day.”
Van Aert admitted he didn’t think he would still be in yellow.
“It was a big surprise for me after the finish because I was so much in the back that I was not actually thinking about the jersey any more,” he said.
Peter Sagan and Caleb Ewan were also involved in incidents as nerves set in. Ewan’s crash came as he hit a hay bale that had come loose from the barriers and that also affected Primoz Rogli, who has fallen more than two minutes behind his Slovenian rival.
Thursday’s sixth stage is the longest one of the race and is a hilly 220-kilometer route from Binche – in Van Aert’s native Belgium – to Longwy.
The race ends on July 24 in Paris.