As a rule, young riders tend to approach their first Tour de France with a survival mindset. Even excluding the reality that a three-week odyssey across the Alps and Pyrenees against the best riders in the world is a substantially more demanding physical challenge than the Tour de l’Avenir, most debutants are selected by their teams to learn, help the team leaders, and try to make it to Paris in one piece. Marc Hirschi, however, is not such a rider.
The 22-year-old Swissman is riding his first-ever Grand Tour for a depleted Sunweb squad, and he won Stage 12 this morning with impressive zeal. Untethered from general classification ambitions now that Tom Dumoulin is Primoz Roglic’s super-domestique and Wilco Kelderman is elsewhere, Sunweb is in France to hunt stages and find opportunities. Through the first dozen stages, Hirschi has distinguished himself as the most ambitious stage hunter on his team, as well as one of the most aggressive riders in the whole peloton. Though his first two attempts ended in heartbreak, Hirschi came out of the gates swinging, and nearly rode his way into the yellow jersey in his first-ever week at the Tour.
The second stage of the race in Nice two weeks ago could not have been more ideally suited to cycling’s alpha-opportunist, Julian Alaphilippe, and he inevitably launched a scorching attack on the day’s final climb. Only Hirschi and Adam Yates could match his pace, and the group managed to fight off a charging (albeit reduced) peloton to contest the stage in a three-up sprint. Hirschi led it out and nearly captured the yellow jersey on his second stage, only to get wrecked by Alaphilippe, one of the best riders in the sport and 2019’s surprise contender. Even if he helped Alaphilippe stay away from the sprinters behind, he announced himself to the world.
One week later, Hirschi came even closer to victory. He made the breakaway on the mountainous Stage 9, and once the break was reeled back in, he managed to pop off the front of the race completely solo about 80 kilometers from the finish. He picked up a gap of four minutes at one point as the general classification teams postured ahead of the final climb, and even though he coughed up his big lead, Hirschi summited the final climb first and kept an elite group of GC riders away until the final kilometers of the day. Once again, he lost the sprint, finishing third behind the yellow jersey-bearer Roglic and his countryman Tadej Pogacar. That Hirschi made an extremely long solo move stick like that is a testament to his talent; that he eventually lost another close one despite his obvious strength is a testament to his youth.
Most riders don’t even get one such opportunity to take a huge win, and after nearly nabbing two, Hirschi finally broke through. Stage 12 is the longest of the entire race, as well as one of last opportunities for breakaway specialists to contend for a stage. Hirschi ripped off another solo move, this time from 25 kilometers out. This time, he held off all chasers, including Alaphilippe, to win with almost a minute to spare.
In a Tour distinguished thus far by a general air of paranoia, thanks to a spate of crashes and a poorly defined COVID-19 protocol, Hirschi has been the most exciting up-and-comer in the race. He’s been singled out by Fabian Cancellara, one of the greatest single-day riders of all-time, as his protege and cycling’s Kylian Mbappé, and is perhaps expected to produce fireworks like this at some point in his career, but to take swings like he has and find success on the toughest day in the race is impressive even for someone with Hirschi’s impressive early-career bona fides. Throughout their brief history, Sunweb has produced some of the sport’s best modern prospects, and Hirschi’s confident rise in the immediate wake of losing Dumoulin says a good deal about the team’s coaching staff.
Now that the race is shifting to the Massif Central and the Alps, the GC fight will take center stage, leaving non-pure climbers like Hirschi few obvious opportunities. Even so, he’s shown he can already create his own.