Grand Bornand, big win. The Laval time trial was important, the Col de Romme was decisive. Stage 8 was hectic from the start with riders trying to go clear and at one point Tadej Pogačar joined in an early breakaway, a move that said plenty about the chaotic racing. The UAE team tried to control the race until halfway up the Col de Romme when Davide Formolo, grimacing in agony, could pull no longer. Out of team mates, Pogačar decided to get rid of his rivals. One attack and nobody except Richard Carapaz could or would follow, one more attack and Carapaz was dropped. Pogačar took more than three minutes on his rivals at the finish in Le Grand Bornand to take the yellow jersey with five minutes on most of his GC rivals. The next day Pogačar countered an attack by Carapaz and took another 30 seconds. This was the moment the race was won.
The chart here shows the fortunes of the top-10 overall relative to Pogačar. Only briefly did one rider in Carapaz take time on Pogačar but everyone fell away on Stage 5, and then Stage 8 shows the damage done with every rival distanced for good. Stage 9 saw Ben O’Connor and Guillaume Martin on the attack and taking back time but neither threatened to trouble the yellow jersey which is why they got room in the first place. The grey line for Jonas Vingegaard shows how he finished second by not falling away as much as all the rest as time went on and even a small gain from the Libourne TT, anecdotal for the GC but telling for a 24 year on the fourth Saturday.
Vingegaard impressed, the revelation of the race who was thrust into the spotlight. First Tom Dumoulin was out, then Roglič. He’s gone from gutting fish to filleting the world’s best riders in time trials and mountains alike. Richard Carapaz confirmed, a podium as the pre-race picks suggested, only without shaping the race except for the sight of his Ineos team setting the pace in the mountains like old times. Ineos were the dogs who did not bark, no dynamic tactics and they didn’t probe the UAE team’s weakness on the flats.
There were brief moments when Uran, Mas, Bilbao and even Kelderman attacked but they were largely reacting to events. Aussie Ben O’Connor’s chart shows him surfing the top-10, dragged down by a crash on the opening day that required stitches but catching a break on Stage 9 to Tignes and taking a valuable stage win for his Ag2r Citroën team – a stage win in the Tour is big for any team, bigger for a French team, plus a mountain stage on the weekend when audiences are even bigger is le jackpot – and showed the kind of form that earned him fourth overall. He took back six minutes on Pogačar and proved resilient for the rest of the three weeks. In the space of months he’s gone from “I hope they pick him for the Tour team” to knowing what he’ll be doing every July until his contract with Ag2r expires.
What the chart doesn’t show is the absentees. Even before a pedal was turned the 2021 Tour de France had few contenders for the overall win. Tadej Pogačar was back, Primož Roglič too. Ineos had co-leaders in Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz supported by a cast of millionaire domestiques. This blog’s preview gave these riders five and four chaining ratings and a handful of names were on one chainring in case something à la Walko might happen. Then the opening week took out Roglič and Thomas, the Slovenian a victim of the hectic racing while the Welshman crashed riding over a speedbump. It felt like there were as many bandages as Breton flags. Crashes happen all year but when they occur in the Tour they take on a different importance, calls to rewrite the sport’s rules that we rarely get elsewhere. In part the Tour de France is to blame, riders talk of the final 50km of each stage being ridden so hard that moving up in the bunch is almost impossible while braking can mean losing 20 places, no other race is comparable. One spectator with the infamous “Opi-Omi” sign felled the peloton leaving many injured and the police investigating.
The crashes were the only blot on a superb first week. Huge crowds made the Brittany grand départ a success and Julian Alaphilippe struck gold on the opening day with a stage win and the yellow jersey. Mathieu van der Poel dressed up in kit to match his grandfather’s Mercier days, a marketing marvel that wove the past with the present and made local audiences warm to this most French of Dutchmen. As L’Equipe’s Alexandre Roos noted, race director Thierry Gouvenou needn’t scour France like Indiana Jones hunting for hidden backroads, just ensure Alaphilippe, van der Poel and Wout van Aert start.
Tim Merlier won the first sprint as Caleb Ewan crashed out. Alpecin-Fenix tried to set up Jasper Philipsen the next day, only Mark Cavendish won. This you could picture before the race, to parlay a Belgium Tour stage win into the Tour, especially with a bit of Michael Mørkøv’s magic manoeuvring. But four stages and the green jersey? Who saw that coming, it felt less like déjà vu and more like time travel. Closing in on the Merckx stage record made sprint stages more interesting, mountain stages had an extra dimension to see if Cavendish could make it. His triumphs were fascinating examples of survival bias but that’s the point: others sprinters were absent but he kept upright and kept it together in the mountains when others didn’t.
The mountains competition was gripping with several riders battling. Pogačar ended up winning but this didn’t spoil the competition, it just altered the ending. It was like a nature documentary with hyenas scrapping to capture an antelope only for a lion to appear at the last minute and consume the prey whole in front of them. A fix ought to be abandoning the double points for certain HC climbs so as to reward raids but this the regulatory equivalent driving while looking in the rear-view mirrors, of fixing the past problem. The mountains competition may be a points system but it relies on the moral satisfaction of a worthy winner that can’t be captured by arithmetic. Ideally you’d have a climber such as Nairo Quintana, Michael Woods or Wout Poels enobled by holding off Pogačar for a handful of points.
Each stage was compelling, think of the race out of Vierzon on the longest stage of the race as the UAE team struggled to chase a maxi-breakaway. Or the race to Nîmes won eventually by Nils Politt after a wild start and then attacks throughout the final 50km. Bauke Mollema got a fine wine and Patrick Konrad’s stage win in Saint-Gaudens was a masterclass. Such were these stages that every time an early breakaway stayed away it was won by a rider who had gone solo, as if it was some kind of last-man-standing competition. But they lacked the GC battle as well, there were no crosswind ambushes.
Suspicion is as much a part of the Tour de France as sunflowers and agrarian art displays; the cartoon above is from L’Equipe in 2013. It falls on the race leader, the logic that performance-enhancing substances are most likely to be linked to the best performance to the point where practically nobody else is asked questions. As Pogačar’s power grows he’d do get UAE managers Mauro Gianetti and “Matxin” Fernandez pensioned off, if only for PR purposes. Pierre Carrey – no troll – rang an alarm bell in his article for Le Temps (paywall) saying suspicion levels inside the peloton are high. But suspicions of what? In the past the rise of EPO was obvious, ditto blood doping, the only question was who was doing it and whether the media could print it. Now nobody knows what the means and methods are, there are guesses but separating the signal from the noise is impossible and we’re left in an epistemological quagmire that doesn’t bother other sports. Still most sports aren’t raided mid-event by the police either and the Bahrain team roust was real. We’ll see as the OCLAESP seem to be to policing what Pierre Rolland is to racing: they make big moves but actual results don’t follow. A “win” for them though would be seismic.
This was a compelling Tour with a gripping opening week and barely a dull day, things were always happening with many stages active from start to finish, every day felt à bloc. Yet not a memorable Tour because of the lack of a contest for the yellow jersey. The best grand tour vintages can combine action for stage wins and the secondary jerseys and subplots galore but the sine qua non is a contest for the overall lead that goes to the wire. 2021 had everything except this.
History will record Pogačar as the clear winner but it was also a Tour of absences and ghosts. Roglič’s crash deprived us of a Slovenian duel; his ride in the Laval time trial suggested that underneath the Tutankhamun costume his form was probably there. Jumbo-Visma made up for his absence, especially with Wout van Aert doing a Merckx in taking sprint, time trial and mountain stages, a feat not seen since
1974 1979. Ineos crashed collectively too but entire teams were discreet. Astana and Movistar used to shape the Tour de France, this morning’s L’Equipe rated Astana’s Tour as lowly as Intermarché-Wanty and DSM; while Movistar were so far adrift they finished 9th on the team rankings won by Bahrain.
One fool on the opening day aside, it was a delight to see the public back and France reopened. Covid didn’t loom like a viral broom wagon waiting to cart away the infected as it did last year. The green jersey contest was interesting from the start with Caleb Ewan taking the first intermediate sprint all the rest that followed with the sprints. The polka dot jersey was contested until the last mountain stage. However the yellow jersey contest was over quickly, it was like watching a murder mystery film where the criminal gets exposed one third of the way rather than than a cliffhanger or the shock of last year’s plot twist. The other GC contenders were engaged in rearguard moves to defend their positions: understandable but not what dreams are made of.
In many ways this Tour resembled the Giro. It rained a lot for starters, and we had a runaway winner in May too, leaving the satisfaction to come from the daily contests to win stages. But where Bernal often looked invincible with the backing of a solid team, Pogačar left the impression he could have coped by himself. And where Bernal had a wobble on the road to Sega di Ala, Pogačar’s worst moment seemed to be losing a few seconds on Mont Ventoux which he took back on the descent. The Giro ended leaving us wanting to see Egan Bernal go up against Pogačar in the Tour. Now this contest isn’t as mouthwatering, a Slovenian triumph beckons as long as there’s a time trial en route… and 2022’s Copenhagen’s grand départ begins with a 13km time trial.
Pogačar may look like a Disney child actor with impish tufts of hair poking from his helmet but there’s a cannibal inside. He has grabbed two wins from two opportunities and the manner of wins suggests an era is starting, he can handle mountains and time trials and seems unflappable the rest of the time.
It leaves us with second order questions, if the Tour’s damp weather suited Pogačar would he suffer in a heatwave? The Slovenian managed to avoid a lot of the post-Tour media merry-go-round last year because of the pandemic, will he have a bad winter this year? In the meantime rival riders and teams spend winter gaming plans for 2022 and target other objectives? What would it mean for Ineos if they are no longer a Tour-winning franchise in the eye of team owner Jim Ratcliffe? What precious talents can upend our assumptions, can Remco Evenepoel challenge (answer: he’s doing the Giro) or what about Tom Pidcock, is he a grand tour contender? What next for Vingegaard? And who is the next Vingegaard hiding in plain sight on a World Tour team roster? It feels as if we finish the 2021 Tour knowing who will win next year, or at least we think we know and we haven’t even seen the route yet.