Tough choice to pick the last of five highlights from the year but the Tour de France’s penultimate stage stands out, above all as a moment of sporting drama, but also a healthy exercise in forecasting, bias and review.
You know the story of course, pre-race pick Primož Roglič was on course to win the Tour de France, he’d seen of the other riders, his team was the strongest… only he was sacked on the Planche des Belles Filles by Tadej Pogačar…
…But perhaps you’ve forgotten some of the details on the day: Roglič started the day with a 57 second buffer on Pogačar and the course was a 36.2km time trial featuring three parts, first a flat section, then a rolling part up and then down the Col de Chevestraye and then the final climb of to the Planche des Belles Filles, a 6km climb at 8.5% but with some long steep parts that make it a 16-17 minute effort.
Jumbo-Visma provided early reassurance with Wout van Aert setting the best time and then Tom Dumoulin going better. Then Pogačar started and then Roglič. Pogačar was up at the first time check by 13 seconds, or almost 1km per second. Extrapolate and this wasn’t putting the UAE Emirates rider in yellow and besides, perhaps he was deliberately forcing the pace knowing this second place overall was almost guaranteed so why not push Roglič and see if he broke? Only Pogačar kept on going, taking more and more time and by the second time check he was 46 seconds up, just 11 seconds off the yellow jersey with the steep climb of La Planche to come. A quick bike change added to the sense of speed and Pogačar never seemed to flag. By contrast Roglič looked pale and seemed to be spinning the gears like a child on their first bike with a derailleur. Back at the finish line Dumoulin and van Aert looked on and could see what was happening.
Why the highlight?
A moment of drama, a huge reversal. And in the Tour de France. You can be surprised when an upstart sprinter comes through a tiny gap to win a semi-classic, but the Tour is a gradual affair, a Bayesian contest with daily iterations. Of course Pogačar started the day in second place rather than 30th overall – and we’ll look at why this shouldn’t have been a surprise in a moment – but watching it happen in the moment was great sporting drama. It was the way it unfolded too, Pogačar was up at the start and closing in which set up suspense from the start. But this was the story of a day rather than three weeks, the 2020 vintage doesn’t compare to 1964 where Anquetil and Poulidor kept getting an advantage on each other then losing it, nor 1989 when LeMond and Fignon swapped the yellow jersey several times.
This perhaps is the more interesting angle. There are two stories, ex ante and ex post. On the morning of the stage almost everyone – including this blog’s stage preview – seemed to think Roglič would win the the Tour de France and he had a very good chance of winning the stage too. You can see why: Roglič had made winning time trials part of his route to many stage race successes, and Pogačar didn’t have that kind of pedigree. Pogačar perhaps had a shot at the stage win, he’d beaten Roglič to the Slovenian title after all but that was months before and only once as opposed to a trend. Roglič had a better bike and more experience in time trials both for himself and his entourage.
Only now, ex post, we can tell the story the other way around. This was a 55-60 minute time trial where Pogačar “only” had to take back one second per minute to take the yellow jersey, hardly mission impossible. The Slovenian national championship had told us who was faster in a time trial that ended up a hill. Plus Roglič excels in stage races but is prone to fading in the final days too and he’d been on the boil since the Tour de l’Ain so with all of this we can see why the win can be explained so easily. The lesson here is that when a plausible outcome doesn’t happen we can quickly rewrite the story to suit, a point of interest in sports punditry but surely more significant in other fields like politics or pandemics.
Also with hindsight there’s satisfaction in the rest of Roglič’s season. It wasn’t easy to watch him collapse after crossing the finish line that day but while others would have taken a long holiday, he went on to take Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Vuelta.
The Giro was a bit of a slow burner for the overall but having two riders tied for time on the last day was something a team of Netflix scriptwriters probably wouldn’t get away with and it made for an enjoyable final few days. If the “fight for pink” was slow there a lot of stage battles to enjoy every day, breakaways firing up the road all the time and among them Peter Sagan’s stage win in Tortoreto was a masterpiece, he’s had plenty wins in his career but must be up there with his Tour de Suisse triumph over the Grosse Scheidegg.
The Strade Bianche races were great but largely one rider shows: Wout van Aert was so good he reduced the suspense; a similar story with Annemiek van Vleuten but Mavi Garcia was the surprise factor. The men’s World Championships were enjoyable, just happening was impressive given the late switch to Imola and Julian Alaphippe made the one attack he was going to make and it worked but he was chased hard all the way. The women’s GP Plouay was good. The Tour’s stage to the Pas de Peyrol won by Dani Martinez was one of many lively days with attacks all the time, perhaps the best day of pure sport but many stages were hectic. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was enjoyable too; ditto the French championships for men and women. La Course was a textbook case where the strongest rider doesn’t automatically win the race, van Vleuten could drive the pace uphill behind Nice but was outsprinted. Lastly just having so many races is something to be grateful for, many were cancelled but enough were kept going this year to help keep the wheels turning, be they sporting, physiological or financial.
Any more highlights, any omissions? Please share below…