The winning moment? This could be a quick blog post but there’s more to the Tour than the Planche des Belles Filles time trial and in order to overhaul Primož Roglič that day, Tadej Pogačar had to match him all the way around France. He rode like Jumbo-Visma’s ninth man.
The contest for the yellow jersey only came alive right at the end of the race but there was plenty of entertainment before. This was an enjoyable race in a strange year. The Tour donned its mask, moved to September and sucked us into its bubble.
In case some historian fishes out this page in 100 years’ time, 2020 was the year of a viral pandemic and the Tour was postponed from July to September. It’s a credit to the organisation, teams and entourage that the race started and finished, although luck helped, moving to September bought time rather than guarantees and the Tour got out of Nice just as it turned into a “red zone” and some climbs had to be closed to spectators in Covid hotspots. Still the Tour, UCI, teams and French health officials designed, agreed and implemented a series of drastic measures that looked to have worked. Some are not new to the sport, one classics contender would stay away from his family for fear of getting a virus in April; several teams were sterilising hotel rooms last year. But the Covid-19 measures, tested in smaller races when the calendar resumed, combined with beaucoup political capital helped the Tour start and finish. It’s encouraging, if the Tour can reach Paris now it can plan on it for next year and there’s a template for the sport, albeit a strict one that requires degrees of organisation reserved for large, professional squads.
The start in Nice was awkward, the virus was the uninvited guest and cast a longer shadow over the race than the September sunshine, talk of rest day positives took on a new frisson. The race started behind barriers, not a mesh fence or a crowd barrier but behind tall black hoardings. The Tour is a popular event, as in it belongs to the people, and seeing the presentation and start hidden from view newspaper Libération to call the grand départ a “peep show”. Yet on the whole it was a joyous affair, fewer people beside the road because it’s September and in some départments the finish areas or mountains were closed to fans but if some stayed away, they turned on their TV, there are claims of record TV audiences in France.
Wash your hands, wear a mask and live cut off from your family… they all make sense in a pandemic but still jar with pro cycling’s embrace of risk when it comes to hurtling down a mountain. It hadn’t rained for months in Nice but that afternoon saw a downpour just as a nervous peloton, already edgy on the subject of rider safety, had to contend with twisty backroads made slick by an emulsion of water, oil, diesel and dirt. Several big names hadn’t started the race because of crashes, some started carrying injuries and others crashed, Pavel Sivakov and Thibaut Pinot among those coming off the worst. Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet also crashed hard later in the race, there’s arguably more survivorship bias to this year’s top-10 in Paris than in a long time.
Post-lockdown the big change to the racing was the rise of the Jumbo-Visma team, a year ago they just managed to place Steven Kruijswijk on the podium, now only the overall win would do after a strong ride in the Tour de l’Ain and Critérium du Dauphiné. Ineos had been off the pace and their aura of being able to plan for everything looked as disposable as a face mask; their selection dilemmas for the Tour turned into a mini-saga with Froome and Thomas, but it’s all relative as they remain a very strong team with a vast budget. Still Jumbo-Visma started the race as the strongest team on paper and tarmac alike and employed a form of total cycling, typified by Wout van Aert winning sprint stages one day, dropping climbers out of the front group the next and finishing 20th overall but comprehensive to the point of exclusive, riding down Total Direct Energie riders and at times trying to block the road to stop attacks. The mountain train was most visible yet it’s a defensive tactic used to contain rivals, it cannot put Roglič into orbit by itself. What Jumbo-Visma lacked was the second co-leader able to attack, like Bernal did last year on the Galibier while others marked Thomas. Often the Dutch team would run out of riders and, just as we saw in the Tour de l’Ain and the Dauphiné, left Roglič to fend for himself on the last climb where he was strong but rarely stronger than Pogačar. With hindsight Pogačar raced like he was Jumbo-Visma’s ninth man.
The chart shows the GC standings of the leading riders on each stage. While everyone gradually fell away from Roglič and his black line over the three weeks, Pogačar’s yellow line was always within reach of his compatriot. He lost 1m21s in the crosswinds between Castres and Lavaur but reclaimed half of that the very next stage with his attack on the Peyresourde. The pair sprinted together in Laruns, matched each other on the Pas de Peyrol and the Grand Colombier summit finishes. It was on the Col de la Loze that Roglič managed to open up daylight, gaining 15 seconds on the climb but that was the biggest gap Roglič got à la pédale. The pair duelled for time bonuses but these didn’t skew the result, in Paris it was 32 seconds to Pogačar, 33 to Roglič. The Planches des Belles Filles time trial saw everything reversed but with hindsight – and that’s what race reviews are for – the 57 second difference was slender and within the margin of error for an hour’s effort. Still Pogačar didn’t just overturn Roglič, he took almost a minute on top.
Pogačar’s win wasn’t obvious on the morning of Stage 20. Roglič’s favourite weapon has been the time trial, he burst onto the scene in 2016 winning the Chianti time trial stage and built many of his stage race success on TT wins. The story looked looked similar to 2017 when Chris Froome had less than a minute’s lead on Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uràn going into the Marseille time trial on last Saturday but Froome duly extended his lead and Roglič was expected to do the same. Some say Roglič should have attacked more in the race rather than riding on the coattails of his team but where and how? Anything Roglič could do, Pogačar could match.
2020 vs 1989
The late overhaul evokes 1989 but that seems to have been a better Tour by most accounts, the yellow jersey changing backwards and forwards behind Fignon and LeMond, this year when Roglič took the lead he kept it from the Pyrenees and the Alps and the was no suspense. Instead the action came in the daily battle for stage wins, sometimes with action from start to finish. Stage 7 to Lavaur was fantastic with action from start to finish after Bora-Hansgrohe hit the opening climb hard and then race split in the vent d’Autan. Both stages in the Pyrenees were enjoyable, with fights to get in the break and surprises. The Auvergne volcano stage was another great day and if the GC battle can get locked down by the big teams as we saw on the Grand Colombier. the Col de la Loze’s constantly changing gradients can unpick things. All this enhanced by the green jersey competition, the day’s intermediate sprint often mattered, and late in the race the mountains competition perked up. The route played its part in all of this. Christian Prudhomme has been trying to craft uncertainty right until the end. Last year’s Tour was like a Netflix series with a series of cliffhangers, this year’s race didn’t have the volatility but the course played its part in keeping the GC tight so that the time trial could decide: Orcières-Merlette set the tone, a summit finish but with 20 riders in the picture; Mont Aigoual had 30 riders. The Pyrenees were relatively light and so on.
There’s a refreshing aspect to Pogačar who seems to “play” at cycling. He didn’t need a big team, his Colnago bike is relatively heavy, he doesn’t stare at his power meter, his hair sticks out of his helmet and he wins the Tour at his first go, the first time since Laurent Fignon in 1983 and is the youngest Tour winner since 1904. It’s not just style, he was one of the few who dared to attack Roglič, along with Guillaume Martin and Miguel Angel Lopez.
All this would be better if he wasn’t managed by the likes of Andrej Hauptman, Mauro Gianetti, and Joxean “Matxin” Fernández. Hauptman managed to leave the 2000 Tour de France before it started thanks to a failed blood test. Gianetti is “no paragon of virtue”, not this blog’s words, it’s Tour director Christian Prudhomme in 2008 following the Saunier Duval team’s scandals while Matxin was behind Juan José Cobo’s discredited Vuelta
win. Does this incriminate Pogačar? Of course not, but it’s the worm in the apple and one of these stories that hits the front page at the Tour de France because it’s the Tour de France. When Pogačar was winning in Abu Dhabi or even the Vuelta it was a forum topic but win the Tour de France and it goes mainstream, news agency AFP explores Pogačar’s entourage, France Télévisions had a report last night. It’s also the winners curse, had Roglič won we’d have got more about Jumbo-Visma being Rabobank in new colours, how staff today used to help Denis Menchov and Carlos Barredo and so on. Good luck finding a pro team without staff from cycling’s leaden years but one difference is UAE management have brushed away questions rather while others have done a mea culpa.
A relief to see the race start, a satisfaction to see it finish. The 2020 edition delivered a surprise result with a stunning reversal on the penultimate stage. For all the drama of the Planche des Belles Filles, when it came to the overall contest the preceding three weeks were more processional as Kristoff, Alaphilippe and Yates seemed to be keeping the yellow jersey warm for Roglič who rode a cautious race thereafter, whenever he did attack it tended to be late and it was only on the Col de la Loze that he could drop Pogačar. The GC battle never quite caught fire, until the Planche des Belles Filles one of the most dramatic incidents was the commissaires’ decision to hit Alaphilippe with a time penalty which put Adam Yates in yellow. But the final time trial was thrilling, with Roglič losing a few seconds at the start but still in the lead going into the final 5.9km climb only to lose ground the higher he climbed.
Pogačar ends up the surprise winner and with the world at his feet on his 22nd birthday today. Egan Bernal looked like this a year ago too, fellow wunderkind Remco Evenepoel is out for the season and 24 year old Tour stage winner Lennard Kämna has already had a career break to get over burnout while Richie Porte shows age isn’t a barrier by getting on the podium aged 35. The bedevilled Tasmanian completes the podium, he didn’t weigh on the race with a stage win or a big attack but instead overcame his habitual bad fortune, when he had a mechanical in Lyon he made it back just in time, the same over the Plateau des Glières, it’s a prize for tenacity over flair. Perhaps the biggest question is Roglič, it’ll take time to absorb the defeat. He turns 31 soon and it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back, does he have to start winning multiple stage races in 2021 like he’s done before to get back in the groove, does he look to the Giro instead or come back to the Tour? It’s too soon to tell, we need to know the route – if there’s a team time trial Jumbo-Visma will be delighted – but probably the latter and with Tom Dumoulin as a co-leader.
Away from the GC contest there was plenty else to distract, many stages were thrilling to watch with energetic opening phases, and some felt like a spring classic in their finales, albeit bathed in the baleful September sunlight. The sprint stages brought variety rather than routine and we had a genuine contest for both the points and mountains competitions. Sam Bennett gets the green jersey after a battle with Sagan, the Slovak lost out for a change but surely this just adds lustre to Bennett’s win. The mountains competition belatedly goes to Pogačar partly thanks to the Col de Loze’s points bonanza but only after Hirschi and Carapaz spiced up the final mountain stages.
Normally the end of the Tour leaves a vacuum but the condensed calendar means there’s no time to wait, the World championships start this week and next week sees the Ardennes classics and the Giro begins.