If the Tour de France is an exercise in hierarchy then Tadej Pogačar sits comfortably on a yellow throne but practically everything else is still to be decided.
Pogačar probably can’t be beaten in a straight uphill contest. He is comfortably ahead, he could lose two minutes on each summit finish and lose another minute in the time trial and still win in Paris. He’s got time to give away. Aside for illness or injury there’s still a chance to ambush him and his team but for neutrals wanting more of a contest this feels like a hope rather than a likelihood.
For all the others there’s a difficult balance. Like the children’s game of musical chairs they’ll dance when they hear the music but never want to stray far from a seat in case they lose their place. So when Ben O’Connor attacked on the Collada de Beixalis it was Wilco Keldermann who chased because fifth and sixth place are at stake. When Rigoberto Uràn attacked – nobody can say he’s ended up second overall by just following – it wasn’t to shake Pogačar but to see if rivals like Carapaz or Vingegaard can be distanced. Now can Enric Mas get past Alexey Lutsenko isn’t Front-Page-of-L’Equipe action to write home about, but these skirmishes will be interesting to watch in the coming days. The problem for all the podium contenders is Pogačar as if they attack then he rides across, tows several others with him and the original attacker is then subjected to moves from rivals and pays for the move they made. For many of the podium contenders though there’s an asymmetry, they’d like to move up but they really don’t want to move down and this invites caution.
The exception ought to be Richard Carapaz. A Giro winner armed with a strong team, it’s the podium or bust and the key to shaking up the top-10 ought to be Ineos. They keep trying the same the mountain train + Carapaz attack routine, it’s as if Carapaz has a battering ram but can only keep aiming at the same part of the Slovenian fortress that has withstood everything already, rather than looking for other means. Pogačar probably can’t be beaten uphill although they can keep trying. But we know his weak point is his team, they can’t control the race if they can be dropped then there are valley roads and descents to exploit.
Jumbo-Visma could be a factor but seem to be playing several cards. Jonas Vingegaard is the intriguing prospect for the podium and so far the revelation of 2021. A stage winner in the 2019 Tour de Pologne, that day where he beat Hindley, Higuita and Sivakov, he was a very solid helper in the Vuelta last year tipped for good things. This year his stage win in the UAE was good but he didn’t look like a Tour podium contender at all. Of course Roglič crashed out and Tom Dumoulin’s having a complicated season. Now he’s got a shot at the podium, his attack on Mont Ventoux suggests he’ll like the summit finishes and he had a great time trial in Laval. There are no Jumbo supermarkets in Denmark which may explain why the team has been racing on several fronts, helping Sep Kuss and Wout van Aert into breakaways as opposed to all in for the Fishgutter of Thy.
The mountains competition is wide open and a contest between four riders. Wout Poels has the jersey and a small lead, plus he’s got a team with the likes of Matej Mohorič and Dylan Teuns able to launch him into a breakaways and act as uphill leadouts. Nairo Quintana has only two team mates left, Arkéa-Samsic could use a team car now rather than the bus. Meanwhile Michael Woods is strong but tactically and technically error-prone but Dan Martin can be an effective helper. Wout van Aert probably doesn’t need much help, the question is whether things are now too mountainous, he can pick his days or might even think saving energy for the Libourne TT and his Olympic ambitions. All will be looking to get in the breakaways and note the summit finishes of Stages 17 and 18 are both HC-rated climbs and have double points, 40 points to the winner each day. So while they’ve struggled between picking up polka-dot points and stage wins, now both go together. Arithmetically it’s still possible for a rider who hasn’t scored a point yet to win the two upcoming summit finishes and shoot into first place; practically much less so but this illustrates how the competition is far from decided.
One area where the hierarchy is settled is the sprints. Mark Cavendish rules the roost and each day rival seems to fall by the wayside, and if Jasper Philipsen, Cees Bol or Wout van Aert are superstitious this might worry them. Cavendish can’t bank on reaching Paris with three mountain stages to come but has passed every test so far. The green jersey competition is alive, albeit indirectly with Michael Matthews aiming for intermediate sprints but if he were to win them all in the next three days with nul points pour Le Cav he still won’t pull ahead in the competition. Some have asked if Bike Exchange can make the pace so hard that Cavendish misses the time cut but this is hard to engineer, first Cavendish has to be dropped and isolated and then sufficiently distanced, all while a lot is going on.
Finally the start of each stage should be worth watching in the coming days. With UAE unable to control the race we can expect waves of riders trying to get clear. 15 out of 23 teams are still chasing a stage win and if we cross off Paris and the Libourne TT then there are four chances left.