Highlights of 2021 – Part III

The third instalment of some picks of the season, a chance to review some racing and apply some hindsight.

The pick here is the first week of the Tour de France, or at least most of it.

The easy pick would be to say “the whole first week”. But the opening weekend had its crashes you’re already expecting to read something like “the first week was great but the rest of the race couldn’t keep up”… and it’s true. One giant reason was Primož Roglič’s crash that would eventually see him leave the race.

The Bretagne start was cobbled together late but it’s France’s number one cycling region by several counts and so it was more a question of where. The opening stage featured an uphill finish that was accessible to a range of riders and an eventual top-3 of Julian Alaphilippe, Michael Matthews and Roglič to prove this. But we’d seen crashes, including one from a spectator brandishing a sign so far into the road it took out Tony Martin and he took down many other riders with him and you know the rest, right up to and including the spectator being arrested, tried and fined this month.

Out of the picture in the finish on the opening day, Mathieu van der Poel was very much in the limelight. His Alpecin-Fenix team sported a temporary jersey in the mauve hue of his grandfather Raymond Poulidor‘s Mercier team. Sure it was a stunt but it was a work of genius. It linked van der Poel to both France – handy on the eve of a big race in France – and to the sport’s heritage, it tapped into something rather than demanded people notice it. But it wasn’t to be on the opening day, he was more Poulidor than Poel. Only he’d reverse this the very next day at Mûr-de-Bretagne, going to get the time bonus the first time up the climb in what looked like a premature attack but banked him time, then launching a move again the next time up the climb that took him clear of the rest, albeit a cagey group where the likes of Pogačar and Roglič were more worried about each other.

What should have been the first sprint stage and a quieter procession on the Monday turned into something more dangerous in the finale with a series of crashes, first on the downhill run into Pontivy, and then in the finish line itself. While Tim Merlier won the stage, the talk of the town was more about the crashes and this made the Monday probably one of the season’s lowlights.

Stage 4 saw things return to normal with a more processional stage, briefly interrupted by a rider protest that was so short and confusing that you’d probably forgotten about it. All the crash catastrophe crosstalk vanished in the wake of Mark Cavendish’s resurgence.

The stage to Le Creusot was interesting on paper because of the finish via the Morvan mountains and the Signal d’Uchon but even the plain roads out of Vierzon were enough to dynamite the race as a huge group went clear; after many moves Matej Mohorič won solo in Le Creusot while behind Richard Caparaz also had a go later on that stage to give us two races that day.

Why the highlight?
Action galore. Now the Tour is still a three week race and even the first week had its quieter moments but it supplied plenty.

With hindsight?
The first week was so good, the problem was it turned out to be the best part of the Tour. It was easy to say it at the time but Pogačar’s TT stage win and then taking the first mountain stage to Grand Bornand made him both the rider to beat and look unbeatable. Now with hindsight we can assert this too.

It was a great opening week for action, things carried on throughout the race but much like the Giro the one thing missing was a GC contest. With Roglič out we didn’t see what he could do, nor what Jumbo-Visma could have done to Pogačar and his weaker UAE squad. The pre-race preview did caution that in spending months away from racing Roglič’s crash risk was heightened but this doesn’t mean he crashed because of a lack of racing reflexes, plenty hit the deck who’d spent June racing hard.

Ineos too were hit by crashes and while they had four potential chiefs, Richard Carapaz was the number one plan. But in seeing Thomas crash out, then both Porte and Geoghegan Hart struggle early mean they lost prongs from their attack, riders who couldn’t be fired up the road early to put UAE under pressure.

The opening week had finished but Mark Cavendish was only getting started. A series of exits by the sprinters created a case study in survivorship bias with Mark Cavendish able to reign like the old days and even collect the green jersey but in the first week all this was fresh rather than inevitable as later on Tim Merlier would leave and then, try as he might, Nacer Bouhanni seemed able to follow but never surpass so the sprint stages became almost an inter-temporal contest of whether Cavendish could beat Eddy Merckx rather than win the sprint.

Highlights of 2021 – Part I
Highlights of 2021 – Part II

26 thoughts on “Highlights of 2021 – Part III”

  1. ‘. . . so the sprint stages became almost an inter-temporal contest of whether Cavendish could beat Eddy Merckx rather than win the sprint’.

  2. I’d add the first mountain stage Pod attack was something amazing and not really seen this days.

    Also cav wins are only interesting because of his name and the record, because this tour had the most boring sprint stages and green jerseys in the last decade, at least Sagan did stuff to win it. ASO needs to rewind the anti Sagan changes, they didn’t work and made it worse.

    • I agree about the green jersey race and the detrimental effect of the changes ASO implemented to make things harder for Sagan. Perhaps someone who has followed the TdF for longer than I have can explain what the point of those changes were. For me, Sagan’s domination of the points jersey competition, coming along with his years of dominating in general, served to raise the stature of the green jersey and make the Tour more interesting. It seems to me the points jersey wasn’t nearly so coveted until he set his record. Especially when compared to the polka dot jersey competition, which often seems a silly sideshow of second-tier climbers trying to game the system to score the jersey.

      • How one man dominating as in: “Sagan’s domination of the points jersey competition, coming along with his years of dominating in general, served to raise the stature of the green jersey” actually raised the stature of the points jersey escapes me as I remember Sean Kelly and others being fairly keen on it back-in-the-day.
        Perhaps some reading up on the history of LeTour is a good idea? You could start here https://bikeraceinfo.com/tdf/tdfbook1.html though of course there are many, many fine books on the subject 🙂

        • It appears to me that the points jersey was a lot like the KOM jersey is now, a relative footnote meaningful to a limited number of riders, few of whom are major players in the overall race. It seems to me the popularity of Sagan, and his streak of consecutive jersey wins, raised the stature of that competition with the public in particular. And now other riders want in on it, to the point that Cavendish (who I don’t think had really targeted the jersey in previous years) really kneecapped his quest to break Merckx’s record to snag the jersey last year (i.e., he took chances and burned energy he really didn’t have to spare to secure the jersey, with the result that he wasn’t as fresh as he needed to be on stage 21). And now WvA and MvdP, among others, are keen to target the jersey, since it’s become a prestige marker for a dominating all-around rider.

          Yes, I know there were riders in the past who targeted the points jersey, just as there have been teams who targeted, say, the team competition in the TdF, but it seemed much more of a consolation prize than a primary target. History question for you – when Sean Kelly (or even Erik Zabel) was winning points jerseys, were there entire teams dedicated to keeping him from winning the way Quickstep and others have worked to keep Sagan from succeeding? The sight of Morkov in last year’s TdF nearly putting Sagan into the barriers to deny him a single extra point at an intermediate sprint is the kind of thing I mean. Some of the intermediate sprints in recent years of the TdF have been as dangerous and contentious as the final sprints in other world tour races. Can you point me to a history book that shows such behavior during Kelly’s time?

          • “Can you point me to a history book that shows such behavior during Kelly’s time?”
            What, so you don’t bother learning anything else in the process?
            Sorry, I don’t know of any “Cliffs Notes” on LeTour and yes, I do know this is a classic old-fart answer to your question but when the shoe fits….:-)

          • Larry, it’s really hard to have a dialog with you because you insist on not responding to what someone writes, but instead on being snarky and tangential. The ideas that Sean Kelly took the TdF points jersey seriously, and that the stature of the jersey has been raised (in both the eyes of fans and of riders) by Peter Sagan, are not contradictory nor mutually exclusive. I have read plenty of history about the Tour and pro cycling back in the day. The competition for the green jersey is rarely mentioned except to perhaps note that Merckx was so dominant that he won it several times, and is the only person to finish with the yellow, green, and polka dot jerseys (figuratively) on his back.

            To my mind, the intensity of the competition for the green jersey in recent years is an indication that it has now a big deal, a prominent goal in and of itself, in a way that it didn’t used to be. I may well be wrong about that — the battle of the points jersey may always have been cutthroat and hotly contested. If so, I’d love to hear some examples of that. And I’m asking that generally, not of you, Larry. You’ve made it clear that you’re not interested in anything other than being insulting.

          • Guilty-as-charged. Your reply to my reading suggestions was like college students my wife used to describe who wanted to skip the drudgery of reading the whole book and just have the prof point out the relevant chapter/page/etc. to make it quick and easy for them…as in Cliffs Notes.
            I no longer have my extensive library of cycling books, but even if I did, why should I do the work for you if you’re too lazy or don’t care enough to bother?

          • I think everyone got your laboured Cliff Notes joke the first time Larry and unlike a fine Italian red, it wasn’t much better with time or a second glass. Shame you must always be so belligerent when people express views you don’t share. It’s healthy for people to have different ideas and all that happens when you tell them they are lazy, uneducated or wrong is that you diminish the value of this comments section and blog in general for others. Diversity of thought and opinion is something to be celebrated, not jumped on and blugeoned into submission if it differs from your own personal tastes. Deeply tiresome stuff.

            I won’t be checking if you respond btw so you may as well not bother.

  3. This week did have a lot although MVDP attack was perhaps the best part.

    Caleb went for a gap that was not safe. He ruined his own season, green jersey contest and perhaps somebody else’s race.
    I feel strong about this sort of risk taking. It doesn’t take to much more for somebody to really seriously get hurt. Sprinting is dangerous but when your out of position except it and try again tomorrow. He should have received a suspension as well.

    I thought that ineous made a mistake on the opening stages that broke up. Porte was the 2nd string captain but perhaps should have been protected before Thomas. As boring as he can be to some he came into the race with form which thomas did not. Perhaps if porte had not being doing leadouts and had the team dedicated to helping him though the hectic stage he would not have lost time in that first week. Of course i am not suggesting he would have won just he would have been better than Thomas.
    Seeing him do a leadout which drops the team leader seemed to highlight a questionable decision.

    • Should I re-read your comment to try and get the significance to whatever point there might be in your calling Ewan Caleb and Richie and Geraint Porte and Thomas? 🙂
      But since I have no experience whatsoever of being there in a sprint finish and very little understanding of how it actually feels, looks etc when you are a sprinter smack in the middle of the action, I have to ask:
      Is it at all possible to see (in real time) the difference between an acceptable (within the letter and the spirit of the rules and an unacceptable risk (or a risk greater than that which is tacitly accepted by all)?
      Is Ewan prone to taking greater risks and to going where it isn’t safe to go – or did he take a risk that was acceptable at the moment when he took it but turned unacceptable (because he had slightly misjudged the relative speeds and the lines of the rider/s next to and in front of him) right after he had committed himself to the move that caused the crash?

      To me it looked like any other unfathomably fast and tight situation or any other (potentially) race winning move that one can see in at least every other sprint finish. That is to say: I couldn’t see any difference and I wouldn’t have seen it as a particularly risky or unsafe move if Ewan hadn’t crashed.

      NB I’m not arguing that you’re wrong, I’m just trying to increase my meager understanding.

      • The ineous thing is just pointing out that if ineous had backed a different horse it may have added some excitement to the other weeks.
        As to Caleb Ewan. Sprints are fast but Caleb would have known that the gap on the inside was super small to non existent and had a good chance to be a problem. There is a reason the leadout rode down the inside to force everybody to go the other side. He went anyway. Accept that you have lost today and move on without taking silly risks. With a single crash you can lose a lot more than you stand to gain and as it turns out cost others as well (it also contributed to the end of any real green jersey competition).

  4. Agreed with Flávio above. I’d be as generous as to stretch the good mood in order to include the Ventoux stage, which was fine enough, both for Van Aert’s feat and the fleeting sensation of a possible crack in Pogi’s armour (although I was actually rotting for him rather than the Danish surprise). We end up including one more dull stage win for Cav, but that story was all about *repetition*, so why not?
    PS I also agree with Flávio about the now absurd green jersey rules.

  5. “It was a great opening week for action, things carried on throughout the race but much like the Giro the one thing missing was a GC contest”.

    I guess this is about the whole race – also because I think that it’s just fine that the first week isn’t too much about GC, although some early GC glimpses are always a good ‘aperitivo’.
    Anyway, considering the two GTs as a whole, albeit both were clearly dominated by a single rider, I’d say that the Giro still was much more interesting. At least Bernal cracked more substantially in a given occasion, and he also happened to be attacked from far.
    Besides, after the Ventoux stage the Tour’s GC top ten barely moved, wasn’t it for Urán downfall and a shortlived leapfrog forth and back by Guillaume Martin. At the Giro at least we had some podium movements and later top-ten shifts well into the third week – not much, yet something more than what we (didn’t) see at the Tour.
    The TdF’s first half, one of the very best in years and years – the second one, one of the most insipid (ever?).

  6. If you take out Cav’s wins not sure any part of the tour was a “highlight of the year”. Certainly all the issues around “crashes” added to the usual Tour media hullaballoo but not sure the race really really was up to much. The Giro had more memorable moments, the Montalcino stage must have been the “stage of the year” and there was an element of tension right until the end even if overall it was not as good as 2017 or 2018.

    • It’s indeed a shame that the Montalcino stage doesn’t make the cut at inrng. I suspect that other dirty road will get that 5th available spot.

      All in all, the first week of the Giro was also very vibrant (Taco’s victory was a thriller, Mäder’s victory was a sumptuous display of teamwork) – and probably had that little GC spice added more often than the Tour’s (Bernal’s attack on the dirt to Rocca di Cambio; Ineos – or, well, Ganna – destroying the field in the wind *and* uphill 70 kms from the line on the Castelluccio plateau; big guns trading uphill blows as early as Sestola).

      Yet, I guess that *the Tour is the Tour*, it always has got a bonus… plus, and even more important, when it strikes well above the now long-established expectations of a drab first week, the impact is no doubt more notable – while at the Giro it’s rather the other way around, that is, when you got a normal to mediocre first week as in 2019 or in 2020, it’s easier to feel utterly disappointed. So, 2021 was just a Giro’s first week “as fine as usual”, while the Tour was easily felt as jawdropping… some void stages notwithstanding (as inrng acknowledged above, by the way).

      Z Kelly below also explains quite well how the MDVP added value worked, not only from a technical POV as we saw in stage 7 but also from an emotional one since the very first day (and before).

  7. The VdP story from the first two days is so beautiful.
    I was trying to explain it all to a friend of mine. She knows something of the sport but this needed explaining.
    First I sent a pic of VdP and Pou-Pou….
    Grandpa is Raymond Poulidor “The Eternal Second”.
    N Jacques Anquetil won the Tour 5 times,after him Merckx won 5 times. Poulidor “Pou Pou” to the French rode against them both Anquetil when he was younger then Merckx. He passed last year but the French loved him more than any rider.
    He rode 14 tours never won never even wore the yellow jersey. 3 times 2nd 5 times 3 rd.
    The Boy is Mathieu VanDerPoel. Current phenom and young gun.
    4 x world Cyclocross champ. Now riding the road too. Where he has won 3 of the biggest races including Flanders.
    So little Mathieu is riding his first tour and is a favorite to win and take the jersey on the first day.
    He gets special jerseys made for him and his team for the day. Same colors as Pou-Pou.
    So little Mathieu VdP you’re just a lad. And you think you can just waltz right into the yellow Jersey on your first day ?? And make special team jerseys for the occasion?? The Gods don’t care who your Dad or Grandpa is. The Cycling Gods are too cruel to let that happen and it didn’t.
    Because no one man can be above the Tour.
    Stage 1 was beautiful The World Champion and new father wins alone on top a climb and takes the Jersey. But it’s overshadowed by Mathieu Not Winning.
    2nd stage finished on a climb that they had to do twice. Mathieu took a time bonus the first time up and then wins the stage and the Yellow like his grandpa had never done.
    If this had happened on day 1. It would be too good to be true.
    So the Gods recognized his talent and his lineage and gave him his due.
    He cried during the interview I think everyone did. Me included. Then he sat by himself and balled like a little kid. It was beautiful. He had asked for too much and was denied. Then he came back next day and did it the hard way in his normal jersey.
    What a beautiful story. What a sport!!!

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