Tour de France 2021 - A race of epic performances and emotional clout but very little yellow jersey drama
There was no doubt Tadej Pogacar would win the Tour de France once the Slovenian won the opening time trial on Stage 5 two days after his biggest rival hit the deck. Although Mathieu van der Poel clung onto yellow with vim and vigour until the Alps, it was plain sailing after that for the defending champion. Felix Lowe on a compelling Tour which lacked a certain je ne sais quoi…
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One prominent commentator covering his 20th Tour de France said on the second Saturday of the Tour – after Tadej Pogacar had rampaged through the field to take the yellow jersey at Le Grand-Bornand – that the Tour should have ended there so it could have been forever remembered as the best-ever one-week stage race in history.
It certainly rung true. Where could the Tour go after that pulsating Pogacar performance, which capped an opening week that hit more right notes than Berlin Philharmonic, with a bigger emotional punch than E.T.?
We’d already seen the world champion Julian Alaphilippe swapping the rainbow jersey for the maillot jaune on the opening day, followed by debutant Mathieu van der Poel clinically cresting the summit at Mur-de-Bretagne twice in pole position to secure the yellow jersey which always eluded his late grandfather, Raymond Poulidor.
There was the debut win for Tim Merlier, led out by his Alpecin-Fenix teammate, the man in yellow, followed by Mark Cavendish cementing his comeback with an expert win in Fougères to take the green jersey. Pogacar’s masterclass in the time trial may have sounded the death-knell for many of his GC rivals, but Van der Poel’s spirited performance kept the Dutchman in yellow.
Cavendish then proved his first Tour stage win in five years was no fluke by rolling back the years with a second stage win at Châteauroux – the city where his Tour tally started 13 years ago while a fresh-faced Team High Road rider with a chip on his shoulder.
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In the longest stage on the Tour for 21 years we then had the awesome sight of the yellow jersey in the breakaway, with Van der Poel joined by his old cyclo-cross and current classics sparring partner Wout van Aert. Neither took the win, but Matej Mohoric’s solo victory was something to savour – and the gap meant Pogacar had a larger deficit to overturn once the race hit the mountains.
And overturn it he did – in spellbinding fashion: riding clear of the his GC rivals in the rain before picking off escapee after escapee on his way to finishing fourth at Le Grand-Bornand, the Belgian Dylan Teuns making it back-to-back wins for Bahrain Victorious as Pogacar finally donned the yellow jersey.
End the Tour there, it was said. Not only could it get no better, but the ultimate outcome had already been decided. As a take, did this have legs? Let’s take a closer look.
Did the Tour go downhill after the opening week?
Before we even start answering this, there’s the not-so-small matter of Stage 9 to Tignes. Had we ended the race the day Pogacar soared into yellow, it would have been a race without any summit finishes devoid of any HC climbs.
For Ben O’Connor’s sodden ride to Tignes alone, it would have been worth stretching out the 2021 Tour a little longer. The Australian secured a Tour stage win on his debut and even flirted with taking over the race lead – providing the only day during Pogacar’s entire two-week reign where his lead was remotely questioned.
But it doesn’t stop there. End the Tour after Stage 8 and we wouldn’t have got to see Cavendish complete his seemingly impossible task and match Eddy Merckx’s record by adding another two sprint scalps to take his tally to 34: an outcome which would have been ridiculed had anyone predicted it prior to the race.
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We wouldn’t have seen Wout van Aert win in the Belgian national colours over the double ascent of Mont Ventoux – and then, after a week burying himself for Danish debutant Jonas Vingegaard, adding a TT victory and a bunch sprint in Paris to complete cycling’s equivalent of the perfect football hat-trick: left foot, right foot, header.
We wouldn’t have seen Nils Politt lifting his bike skywards after soloing clear of the break on the hot stage to Nîmes, or Bauke Mollema employing a similar tactic and going early, with conviction, and without a bike computer, on the rolling stage to Quillan.
We wouldn’t have seen Sepp Kuss become the first American in a decade (since Tyler Farrar in 2011) to win a Tour stage, nor would we have seen Patrick Konrad soloing to glory to become only the third Austrian stage winner in history. We would have been deprived the sight of Pogacar picking up his first ever stage win while in yellow – the first of back-to-back summit wins in the Pyrenees ahead of Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz, the Slovenian’s two podium bedfellows.
Nor would we have seen another Mohoric masterclass on the road to Libourne – capped with arguably the most crass of celebrations in recent years: an Armstrong-esque finger-to-the-lips followed by the shut-it zip motion across the lips, the 26-year-old’s two-fingered salute to the police who raided his Bahrain Victorious team hotel in the early hours of the morning before. Mohoric choosing to do this after a 200km out ahead of the race, having already ridden in the breakaway onto the Tourmalet the day before, just hours after the police raid, adding further grist to the mill.
'That was brilliant!' - Mohoric takes win and sends pointed message
We wouldn’t have seen Pogacar hijacking what was shaping up to be a mildly interesting polka dot jersey battle between Wout Poels, Nairo Quintana and Michael Woods; nor would we have seen Cav34dish take a second green jersey one decade after the first – despite missing out on becoming the Tour’s all-time stage winner on the Champs-Elysees, perhaps irrevocably so.
Yes, the yellow jersey battle was more stale than last week’s croissants, with the biggest winning gap since Vincenzo Nibali in 2014 when the Italian beat Jean-Christophe Peraud by 7’39” and the gap back to 10th place was 21’15”.
Yes, the green jersey competition – for all the efforts of Michael Matthews and sprinter-cum-climber Sonny Colbrelli to throw a cat among the pigeons on the lumpier stages – was done and dusted the day Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan touched wheels and came down in a painful tangle on the home straight in Stage 3.
Yes, the double-points system for summit finishes renders your king of the mountains competition utterly pointless when a climber of Pogacar’s calibre can simply light up the final climb and secure the polka dot jersey at the same time as strengthening his grip on both the yellow and white.
And yes, only 12 riders and eight teams won stages – and only 141 riders made it to Paris after a succession of crashes which altered the landscape of the race.
But, despite all that, we had epic performances, stand-out stories, emotional sucker-punches and sub-plots aplenty pretty much every day. And even those few days where the breakaway didn’t go the distance and we had a regular bunch sprint, the Cavendish-closing-in-on-Merckx narrative kept things fresh, while the persistent aggression of the likes of Franck Bonnamour, Ide Schelling, Brent Van More, David Gaudu and Mohoric kept us entertained even in the brief lulls between flashpoints.
'Love and respect' - Cavendish and Merckx embrace before Stage 19 start
Organisers in a pickle: what next?
It’s crazy how fast cycling can move on. Chris Froome’s era of domination is now well and truly something of the past, the Israel Start-Up Nation rider battling on after a crash on the opening day to finish the ninth-slowest rider in Paris, over four hours behind the rider who’s now halfway to matching the Briton’s Tour haul, which he should match four years before Froome won his first.
Just two years ago, before Pogacar had even turned a pedal on the Tour, Froome was consigned to a domestique role at Sky as Egan Bernal took, aged 22, what many predicted would be his first of multiple Tour triumphs. A combination of Froome’s crash and Bernal’s back injury – plus the meteoric rise of Pogacar – means it’s now the Slovenian who’s been tipped by the likes of Eddy Merckx to win the Tour more than the current record of five times.
It’s not Christian Pruhomme and ASO’s duty to ensure this doesn’t happen – but the Tour organisers do have an interest in making the spectacle as gripping as possible. Over the years, they have often tailored the route to suit a particular style of rider – whether that’s Miguel Indurain, Bradley Wiggins, or, more recently, one of the long list of French riders carrying the flickering beacon for the host nation.
But what could Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou do to create a Tour that doesn’t suit Pogacar? They’d have to not only scrap time trials, but also summit finishes – and this after a Tour which only included three mountaintop finishes in the first place. And what would a Tour look like that didn’t suit Pogacar but did suit someone else?
It’s hard to think of a route that exists. As such, the onus is to keep on throwing up something different in the hope that other teams will adapt and take the fight to UAE Team Emirates and their current star rider, who is under contract until 2026.
Pogacar: ‘I cannot describe how happy I am’
The race we want to see in 2021: Bernal vs Pogacar
Hope for the neutrals comes in the form of a showdown between the double champion Pogacar and a fully fit Egan Bernal, the last man to win before the Slovenian’s debut victory. The Colombian showed flashes of his former self in winning the Giro d’Italia in May – although did so, like Pogacar, without anyone really challenging him.
If Ineos Grenadiers could iron out their obvious creases and regroup around Bernal, then we might see a veritable challenger to Pogacar’s hegemony. Jumbo-Visma, too, have some big decisions to make with regards to the pecking order surrounding Primoz Roglic and the man who excelled in the Slovenian’s absence, Jonas Vingegaard.
For all the promise shown on his debut Grand Tour, the young Dane never really troubled Pogacar – save for the final kilometre of Mont Ventoux – but did so without a dedicated team behind him. The fact that Jumbo-Visma could regroup after the early departures of not only their Plan A, but also the veterans Robert Gesink, Tony Martin and Steven Kruijswijk – taking second place on GC and stage wins for both Van Aert (x3) and Sepp Kuss – goes to show their strength in depth. Find the right balance, and there’s another team who can make the battle for yellow interesting again.
Egan Bernal is not quite the same rider we saw dominate the 2019 Tour de France and win yellow.
Image credit: Getty Images
Ineos, on the other hand, plummeted once Geraint Thomas hit the deck – which was strange, seeing that the Welshman may not have been their Plan A anyway. Richard Carapaz did admirably but, on his own, was no match for Pogacar or Vingegaard, while the team (in stark contrast to their adaptability in the 2020 Giro) showed themselves unable to shake things up and change tactics once the chips were down.
If Ineos come back with a fully fit Thomas alongside Carapaz in support of Bernal, with the likes of Filippo Ganna and Adam Yates in the wings, and the outlook could be very different.
Crash course in handing yellow over on a platter
We’ll never know what may have been had that spectator not stood out in front of Tony Martin and brought down half the peloton – setting in motion the balls which led to a litany of destruction. Raced over the narrow roads of Brittany and with apparently very little concern for rider safety, Stage 3 to Pontivy proved an early turning-point of the race.
Both Roglic and Thomas went down in separate incidents which effectively ended their campaigns, while the second pile-up near the finish ended the GC chances of Jack Haig and Miguel Angel Lopez and sprint chances of Arnaud Demare. Caleb Ewan hitting the deck on the home straight and taking Sagan with him saw two more sprinters taken out of the equation – opening the doors to Mark Cavendish on his return to WorldTour racing.
There can be no denying that the crashes denied us the opportunity to see some more competitive sprints, as well as a fuller field competing for the top 10. But this is something we say most years. The nature of the sport is that riders will hit the deck and dreams will be shattered. And for every Roglic or Thomas disappearing from the GC picture, we had riders like O’Connor or Vingegaard rising to the occasion.
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Was Cavendish really that good?
Cavendish’s four wins were a glorious subplot and a real feel-good thread for the race, the Manxman’s joy and selflessness becoming infectious and a pleasure to watch. But as Cav himself kept on reminding the fans – his wins would not have been possible without his team. And as the pressure rose with that 35th win hanging over his head, so too did stress get the better of the 36-year-old perfectionist – as we saw with that unsavoury hissy fit with his mechanic ahead of Stage 19.
Presented with his final chance to surpass Merckx – on the Champs-Elysees and in green no less – Cavendish was unable to stick to the script and deliver what could well have been an unparalleled final chapter, the perfect platform from which to bid the sport (or, at the very least, the Tour he so clearly loves) farewell.
With the Deceuninck-QuickStep train crowded out, Cavendish was separated from his leadout man Michael Morkov and found himself boxed in on the elongated home straight in Paris. In a mano a mano battle between weary legs and without any support, Cavendish’s age and fatigue caught up with him, and he really was no match for the might of Van Aert.
It was a sprint which perhaps added a little caveat to Cav’s previous wins – a reminder that, for all his brilliance and for the undeniable character of his comeback, Cavendish is not the same sprinter of old. Take the train away – and throw in a rider who had been kept back during the opening two weeks – and things become difficult: he needed the Wolfpack as much as they needed him.
There was also nice symmetry in it being Van Aert who denied Cavendish from bettering Merckx’s record: Van Aert, who won over the double ascent of Ventoux, in the time trial and on the flat in sprints – in a way his Belgian predecessor did over the course of his reign of invincibility.
Mark Cavendish, in green, battles the time cut in the Pyrenees with four Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates in Stage 18 of the Tour de France 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Missing in action
Believe it or not, but Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Belgium’s Oliver Naesen (AG2R-Citroen), Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-PremierTech) and France’s Cyril Gautier (B&B Hotels p/b KTM) were all in the Tour.
In fact, while other apparent under-performers crashed out (Movistar’s Marc Soler) or were always playing catch-up (Marc Hirschi of UAE), all of the above made it to Paris with the exception of Fuglsang who woke up ill on the morning of Stage 21 and decided it wasn’t worth risking his Olympic aspirations. The Dane later cited a bad reaction to the Covid vaccine as the reasons behind his low-key race.
Best team: Strong case for Jumbo-Visma
Having lost Roglic, to all intents and purposes, as early as Stage 3, followed soon after by the old guard (Messrs Gesink, Martin and Kruijswijk), Jumbo-Visma still took four wins and saw their outsider Plan B come runner-up on his debut.
Bahrain Victorious also bounced back from losing GC man Jack Haig by winning three stages, none of which through their sprinter Sonny Colbrelli (who nevertheless had a very busy race). The police raid at Pau slightly soured things – and was exacerbated by Mohoric’s reaction, which ensures that this is a story which will no doubt rumble on.
With five stage wins, a day in yellow, the green jersey and a 12th place on GC for Mattia Cattaneo, Deceuninck-QuickStep probably just pip Jumbo-Visma to the prize – especially for masterminding the return of a sprinter, Cavendish, who was written off years ago by most.
UAE Team Emirates deserve much praise, too, for proving that Pogacar was not simply a lone ranger, but one backed up by a capable support cast – with the likes of Rafal Majka, Brandon McNulty and, once back from injury, Marc Hirschi, all very impressive.
What stands out, though, in terms of a team-centric outlook, is that the 14 top riders on GC all came from different teams - something that has never happened before in the history of the Tour, the previous record being 11 different teams from the top 11 in 1970.
Tadej Pogacar entouré de ses équipiers de la Team UAE Emirates.
Image credit: Imago
Most disappointing teams
Carapaz and Ineos would have probably accepted being beaten by Pogacar prior to the Tour, but they wouldn’t have conceived the Ecuadorian finishing behind Vingegaard. But the Danish debutant, despite being left to his own devices by Jumbo-Visma, showed up Carapaz, who couldn’t finish things off every time his Ineos team came to the front and piled on the pressure.
It’s not a singular flaw, however: Carapaz may have not been strong enough to beat Pogacar or Vingegaard on the two Pyrenean summit finishes, but he can’t be blamed for his team’s inability to weather down the opposition despite their heavy presence on the front. As things went, the Grenadiers came across as simply leading things out for the man in yellow.
That Ineos could not respond in the same manner as Jumbo-Visma following their early setback with Thomas underlined their two-dimensional issues.
Other teams failed to catch fire: Israel Start-Up Nation’s gamble on Froome didn’t appear to pay off, EF Education-Nippo were left with nothing once Rigo Uran crumbled in the Pyrenees, Cofidis are still without a Tour stage win in 13 years despite Guillaume Martin’s top 10, Team DSM were the antithesis of their swashbuckling incarnation in 2020, Lotto Soudal were severely hamstrung once Ewan went home, Astana-PremierTech had little joy besides Alexey Lutsenko’s stealthy top 10, while TotalEnergies, Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert, B&B Hotels and Qhubeka-NextHash all got in breaks but to little avail.
Movistar, though, gave Ineos a run for their money by, well, failing to have a run at the prize money – at least, not in relation to expectations. The Spanish team suffered from early crashes to Miguel Angel Lopez and Marc Soler, while Ivan Garcia failed to impose himself in the sprints. Enric Mas took sixth while Alejandro Valverde came close to a win the day Kuss took the spoils. But, all in all, there was more material for a comedy-of-errors segment in season three of their Netflix documentary rather than results to dig their teeth into.
Miguel Ángel López of Colombia and Movistar Team during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 15 a 191,3km stage from Céret to Andorre-la-Vieille
Image credit: Getty Images
The Zubeldia Award
For ghosting into the top 10… Well, it’s a toss up between Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-PremierTech) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious).
Any more memorable moments?
While the defining moment of the race may have been Van der Poel’s win at Mur-de-Bretagne, Pogacar’s ride up through the ranks on the Colombiere or Van Aert on Ventoux – or any four of Cavendish’s victories – there were other moments which either made the eye water or set a kaleidoscope of butterflies about the stomach.
In no particular order: Ide Schelling celebrating going over a fourth-category summit as if he’d just won Paris-Roubaix; Van der Poel and Van Aert both getting themselves into a breakaway on the Tour’s longest stage; Nacer Bouhanni posting his best ever results in a Tour stage on consecutive days with a third and a second in the opening week; Vingegaard dropping Pogacar on Ventoux; Dylan Teuns remembering his grandfather; the Wolfpack gathering round their man in green through the mountains; Cavendish hugging Bradley Wiggins; Cavendish hugging Eddy Merckx; Cavendish, generally, being in a far better mood; Valverde congratulating Kuss on his win; Pogacar holding up compatriot Roglic's race number as a tribute during Stage 21; Froome not taking the easy option and giving up; Nic Dlamini battling to the finish in Tignes after a crash, doggedly getting to the end despite missing the time cut by 40 minutes.