In the second of the 2020 highlights here’s the Tour de l’Ain. Normally a modest 2.1 stage race, in 2020 it had all the right ingredients to set up a summer of sport and told us plenty about the upcoming Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de France, setting up the Jumbo vs Ineos duel.
All the administrative départments of France are listed alphabetically and get a corresponding number and it happens that the Ain department ranks ahead of the Aisne and Allier so it’s associated with the 01 identity. These numbers are regularly used for branding and more, there are T-shirts and bumper stickers with “64” on it which mean little outside of France but represent the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and evoke a laid back life and surfing; French rappers use of “le 9-3” just as American counterparts go “East Coast” and so on. The Ain might be “France’s number one department” only it doesn’t exploit this as a marketing message, presumably because aside from alphabetic accident it doesn’t really rank as France’s best. One field it does score well is prime cycling territory, bordering the Alps it’s got many of the best Jura mountains and flat plains, the race can have a flat stage, a mid-mountain stage and then go all out with a summit finish on the fiendish Grand Colombier. and if it doesn’t include the Alps themselves, the views of Europe’s largest mountain range from the Jura are spectacular enough to inspire poets. Only a handful of other departments can offer this so the Tour de l’Ain’s off to a headstart but geography isn’t sufficient for a good race, it’s still a lowly 2.1 ranked race that’s often been used by pro teams to bring on young riders and test stagiaires. Thibaut Pinot, Julian Alaphilippe, Pierre Latour and David Gaudu have all taken their first win in the Tour de l’Ain. The story goes that the Argos-Shimano team (Sunweb today) spotted a promising Colombian climber only to find out it was Warren Barguil in the white jersey of best young rider and they signed him.
Things changed in 2020 because with the resumption of racing at the end of the July, all roads pointed to the Tour de France and teams were keen to send their best riders, their Tour teams, to smaller stage races for a series of pre-Tour tests. As it happens the Tour de l’Ain even had a stage that copied much of the route of the Tour de France stage than finished atop the Grand Colombier so as a dress rehearsal this was the real thing. Consequently glancing at the startlist wasn’t about looking for new names, instead it was like staring down the Hubble telescope with Primož Roglic, Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas, Tom Dumoulin, Chris Froome, Steven Kruijswijk and Nairo Quintana to cite a few.
There were only three stages and first day was notionally the sprint stage, except there was a sneaky climb up a narrow road in the final kilometres and besides, few sprinters had decided to show up. The early breakaway went clear and Tony Martin set to work on the front of the bunch on behalf of Jumbo-Visma, the sight of him in his yellow jersey pedalling through villages in France was almost as ubiquitous as that of a La Poste van. So we got a stage win from Deceuninck-Quickstep’s Andrea Bagioli ahead of Roglič and Swiss powerhouse Stefan Bissigger in third place. It seemed to take an age to identify which Quickstepper had won because Bagioli’s no celebrity, only a year ago he’d won the Ronde de l’Isard stage race in the Pyrenees and a stage of the Giro delle Valle d’Aosta, two of the big U23 stage races but now he’d smoked Roglič and so here was the race still as the talent revealer.
Stage 2 had a long drag uphill to the finish but the key part was the Col de Menthières, a solid climb 20km from the finish, it’s 9km long at an even 6.5%: a ramp test and it was here that both Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome were missing, the start of summer saga for Team Ineos. It was also first big sight of the Jumbo-Visma mountain train in action, first Tony Martin towing the peloton across the plains before team mates go to work on the climbs with the likes of Robert Gesink, Tom Dumoulin and George Bennett taking over to launch Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglič into the lead group while Ineos had Egan Bernal and Jonathan Castroviejo. Roglič duly won while Thomas came in over five minutes down, Froome at 12 minutes.
Stage 3 was the Tour de France copycat stage, the same final 75km and with the tough climbs of the Selle de Fromentel, the Col de la Biche and then the Grand Colombier. Once again Jumbo-Visma got to work early on the stage. Roglič won again, his jump on the top of the Grand Colombier just too much for Bernal to match again.
Why the highlight?
A less obvious pick, this wasn’t a race that passes the “DVD test” as in you’d buy the highlights DVD to keep and watch the action over and over… if you had a DVD player. Instead it was something to enjoy in the moment for two different reasons: first, here was a race live on TV going ahead as planned. We’d had the Vuelta a Burgos but that saw riders recalled and talk of Covid-19 positive tests in Burgos; we had the Route d’Occitanie but it wasn’t live on TV. The Tour de l’Ain was just something to sit back and savour, a brief return to normality during in a hectic year, and if we needed bread and circuses this was a big loaf with some top-rated acts. It’s easy to bank the fact that racing resumed almost seamlessly because races like this were able to be moved on the calendar. The second satisfaction was how it set things up for the summer of stage races to come, Roglič had looked better but wouldn’t Bernal prove stronger on the longer climbs of Tour and across the three weeks? Surely Ineos would get better? Was Quintana on the up? Tom Dumoulin seemed to improve within three days and his odds for winning the Tour shortened considerably. Finishing the race with more questions meant there was plenty to anticipate and look forward to. At the same time everything we saw unfold in the upcoming Dauphiné and Tour started here, the pilot episode to the hit series to come.
With 2020 hindsight…
This was the race that saw Primož Roglič back in action and Jumbo-Visma as a force to be reckoned with. For years Sky and then Ineos had set the pace in the Tour de France only here they were having sand kicked in their face. Now it’s not about one team being down, instead if was like seeing a monopoly being broken up and space created for others. Egan Bernal had resumed racing with a win in the Tour d’Occitanie and looked set for more wins but was undone here and if Roglič got to the better of him atop the Grand Colombier, it was on the same climb a month later that his Tour bid collapsed. Bernal at least fared better than Thomas and Froome, their performances didn’t suggest they’d get picked for the Tour de France but we wondered if they’d get better. Either way Ineos were on the backfoot and it made the Tour more open. Whether this persists is something to see in 2021.
Perhaps the bigger lesson was how Roglič races, he looked the best in the Tour de l’Ain and won thanks to his searing finish, when he deploys this it brings stage wins and time bonuses. It’s perhaps his best weapon now but means he’s not launching earlier to take time on his rivals. His Vuelta win was built on time bonuses too, by definition a winning strategy… but a delicate one and with the luxury of hindsight he didn’t do enough to distance Tadej Pogačar in the Tour.
Elsewhere Guillaume Martin had a good race and sustained a level of form that would see him have a great Dauphiné, a decent Tour, play a valuable role for Julian Alaphilippe in the Imola worlds and then collect the polka dot jersey in the Vuelta. Richie Porte was tenacious and aggressive here which stood him well for that Tour podium. Fabio Aru came off some decent riding in Burgos and Mont Ventoux but faded in this race before quitting the Tour.
Arguably the biggest hindsight view was Tao Geoghegan Hart’s crash, he fell on Stage 2 and saw his dream of starting the Tour de France for Ineos vanish… only to ride the Giro and win in Milan and all after a series of other events happened in the background, for example Froome and Thomas’s lack of form saw Richard Carapaz drafted in for the Tour meaning he wouldn’t ride the Giro which in itself opened up the route for TGH. A funny old year.