Tour de France 2021 – Blazin’ Saddles - After such a great opening week, where do we go now?
A more bombastic opening nine days to a Tour de France you will struggle to find – with tears, emotion, comebacks, drama, surprise and setbacks aplenty. But with Tadej Pogacar now sitting pretty in yellow, could this turbo-charged race run out of gas? Felix Lowe on how the best opening week of a Tour threatens to segue into the most boring two weeks in the race’s recent history.
Tour de France week one: On-board camera highlights and behind-the-scenes action
Some six minutes after Ben O’Connor propelled himself up the general classification with his marvellous solo victory in Tignes, the imperious – “unreachable,” in the word of Sean Kelly – Tadej Pogacar rolled over the finish line of Stage 9 to extend his lead, once again, over all his major rivals ahead of the rest day.
“At the end of one of the most intriguing, fascinating and entertaining first weeks of a Tour de France you are ever likely to see, Tadej Pogacar is the undisputed leader.” So said Eurosport’s Rob Hatch on the comms as the yellow jersey cemented his position after an opening phase he has pretty much ridden flawlessly – avoiding all obstacles in his wake while his rivals have succumbed to a litany of setbacks, from crashes to crises in self-confidence and the brick wall that is Pogacar himself.
Where last year Pogacar only overturned his 57-second deficit to countryman Primoz Roglic on the penultimate day of the Tour, this time round Pogacar took yellow on the second Saturday of the race with 13 stages remaining, prompting that man Roglic to pack his bags and call it a day.
The fact that Pogacar’s nearest rival now is the Australian O’Connor, whose solo win saw him rise to second place at 2’01”, just underlines how hollow the GC battle could now become – and that’s by no means any disrespect to the Ag2R-Citroen Tour debutant, whose highest Grand Tour finish to date, lest we forget, is 20th in last year’s Giro.
Tour de France week one: On-board camera highlights and behind-the-scenes action
First week fireworks: a scriptwriter’s dream
Speaking to Orla Chennaoui during The Breakaway after Mark Cavendish’s comeback win at Fougères in Stage 4, GCN’s Dan Lloyd put the Manx Missile’s emotional 31st Tour stage win into context with the previous three days of the Brittany grand depart:
The script was written for today in the same way as it had been for the opening two days of the race as well – but it hasn’t made it any less exciting watching it unfold. They’ve read the script and delivered their lines like true Hollywood stars so far. It’s been magnificent.
Magnificent is an understatement. Topping Julian Alaphilippe’s victory in Landerneau in the rainbow stripes took some beating, but Mathieu van der Poel swashbuckling himself up the punchy Cote de la Menehiez above Mur-de-Bretagne (not once but twice) in pole position to take the victory and yellow jersey that always eluded his grandfather Raymond Poulidor – well, that more than topped it.
'I have no words' - Van Der Poel in tears after epic Stage 2 win
We then had the delight of Van der Poel, in yellow, leading out teammate Tim Merlier – another Tour debutant – to victory at Pontivy in Stage 3, only for Cavendish to roll back the years and take a first victory on the Tour in five years, plus the green jersey.
But still the mind-blowing narrative arc of this Tour continued to unravel, with Pogacar writing the next chapter with an awesome display of strength in the time trial – while Van der Poel dug deep to hold on to the maillot jaune by a symbolic eight seconds. Add to that a second victory for Cavendish in green, then – preposterous as it sounds – a stellar breakaway one day later that included former Grand Tour winners, plus both the yellow and green jerseys…
It was this stage, to Le Creusot, the longest at the Tour for 21 years, that added a sumptuous plot-twist that kept fans on the edge of their seats: a reminder of Pogacar’s fallibility as his UAE Team Emirates squad were forced to chase down as – most notably – classics duo Van der Poel and Wout van Aert rode clear towards the finale in pursuit of the worthy winner, Matej Mohoric.
'Not just about Roglic and Pogacar' - Emotional Mohoric claims Tour de France Stage 7 win
Mohoric cast in the lead role for a day was a nice touch by the Tour gods on their typewriters – albeit, were this a Netflix drama, a contrived turn-up for the books that would have been widely panned for being overly sentimental. For it saw the Bahrain-Victorious rider – just weeks after crashing out of the Giro with a sickening head-over-heels tumble on a descent – remind the world that there was more to Slovenia than Pogacar and Roglic, as the 26-year-old completed his clean sweep of Grand Tour stage wins in style (and did so in a race where he couldn’t hug his top-tube on a succession of descents).
The bonus of Stage 7, too, was that Pogacar’s perhaps inevitable rise to yellow was staved off as the 22-year-old dropped three places ahead of the first weekend in the high mountains. It also allowed Van der Poel, one of the stand-out stars of the race, to enter Saturday’s stage to Le Grand-Bornand not only in yellow, but with his old friend, the Belgian champion Van Aert, still just 30 seconds behind him and with a realistic sniff of taking over the yellow.
The heavens opened over the Jura mountains and into the Alps – but it did nothing to dampen the spectacle. We had former winners and race favourites riding in the gruppetto, sprinters and green jersey contenders battling to avoid the time cuts, plucky outsiders riding in the break – all while the white jersey rampaged through the field, picking off escapees one by one on the Col de la Colombière.
That Dylan Teuns held on to make Bahrain victorious for a second day running – all while remembering his own grandfather, who died a week before the Tour – was a nice touch. Pogacar clearly understands the benefits of not being too greedy, too. His fourth place after decimating his GC rivals was enough to put him in the yellow jersey that he only got to wear on one occasion during his triumphant debut Tour in 2021.
'Here he goes!' - Pogacar attacks away from peloton
As ITV’s Daniel Friebe, the co-founder of The Cycling Podcast, would tweet that evening: “Stop this Tour tonight and just call it the greatest one-week stage race in history.”
Friebe had a point. Ending the Tour at Le Grand-Bornand would probably have brought about the same result as we’ll see in Paris – without the genuine fear that, at least in terms of spectacle, it’s going to be all downhill from here.
That’s probably harsh on O’Connor; the 25-year-old’s exhibition ride on a sodden Sunday to Tignes saw him enter the GC fray while taking his first win for his new team. But we’re now in a strange position where a double ascent of Mont Ventoux and four days in the Pyrenees may have no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the Tour: a season of Love Island where everyone is happily coupled up with over a fortnight to go.
The plight of Roglic and Geraint Thomas in the opening days of the Tour goes to show just how quickly things can change in cycling. A week ago, we were still musing over whether Roglic’s decision to forego racing after the Ardennes and instead train at altitude could act in his favour; as it happened, the 31-year-old never even reached the Alpine bolthole in Tignes where he put in the hard yards.
Would a heavier race programme have helped Roglic stay up on two wheels after his clash of shoulders with Sonny Colbrelli in Stage 3? Maybe. But there’s no way of knowing so it’s irrelevant. What we do know, for sure, is that his compatriot is in the kind of form that would have taken some beating even if both Roglic and Thomas avoided the tarmac, were fresh and at their best.
'He's shown no weakness today' - O'Connor wins stage 9 as Pogacar turns it on
But, on the flip-side, take Pogacar and his nearest challenger O’Connor out of the equation, and we have a top five on a knife-edge coming out of the first rest day:
1 Rigoberto Uran 2. Jonas Vingegaard +14 3. Richard Carapaz +15 4. Enric Mas +39 5. Wilco Kelderman +50
Those riders – plus the next three or four on GC – must now ride as if Pogacar and O’Connor don’t exist and they’re targeting yellow, not the final place on the podium, and we could still see some exciting days ahead.
“It’s not over – there’s plenty of excitement to be had yet.” While the opening week will take some beating, we all need to hope that the hollow hopefulness of Brian Smith’s assertion after Stage 9 may ring true. The battle alone for the top 10 – not to mention stage spoils – should keep things ticking along, even if you sense that the only thing that could make Pogacar wobble now is a cardboard placard-holding spectator trying to get on TV while saluting their grandparents...
But it’s worth remembering that the last time the Tour took on the descent of the north side of Ventoux to Malaucène, Miguel Indurain, in yellow, fishtailed his back wheel and almost fell off the edge of the Giant of Provence. On Wednesday. the peloton will take on this descent twice – so even if Pogacar is showing signs of climbing better than everyone (albeit on a level inferior to Dan Martin in 2018 – just to add a little perspective to his ascent of the Colombière) then he could still be found out going down.
We have also seen that his inexperienced UAE team are pretty useless when it comes to wresting control of the peloton – and so as early as Tuesday’s Stage 10 to Valence, where the Mistral wind could provoke some serious splits, the yellow jersey could find himself under renewed pressure (Pogacar has previous when it comes to crosswind chaos).
Ineos Grenadiers earned much scorn on Sunday when they tried to take on Pogacar on the long final slog to Tignes – only to appear as if they were working for the yellow jersey as if his contract were up in 2021 and he shared an agent with Richard Carapaz.
While the remaining two summit finishes – and the Stage 19 time trial – will play into Pogacar’s hands, there will be opportunities beforehand to chip away at his very few weaknesses: most notably the intriguing Stage 14 through Cathar castle country to Quillan next Saturday ahead of the first two Pyrenean stages to Andorra-la-Vielle and Saint-Gaudens.
It could be while gunning for the podium that riders like Carapaz and Uran find themselves back in a genuine GC hunt should Pogacar – by virtue of the current scriptwriter’s proclivity for deus ex machina – hit the deck or suffer the kind of misfortune that many others have suffered since the start in Brest.
‘Stupid! Chaos!’ – Fan causes huge crash that brings down entire peloton
Green and polka dot jersey battles both thrilling subplots
If yellow – and by default, white – is beyond anyone not called Pogacar then at least we seem to have bona fide showdowns on our hands in both the remaining jersey classifications.
From written-off has-been to the world’s fastest man on two wheels (again), Cavendish’s comeback Tour has been an emotional rollercoaster – as seen by the 36-year-old’s tears of relief on battling to avoid the time-cut with his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates on Sunday. Having not ridden mountains like these for years in a competitive framework, the Alps were always going to be the major obstacle between Cav and the continuation of his fine run of results.
The good news – albeit from a negative perspective – is that there are fewer riders now standing between Cavendish and both Eddy Merckx’s record and a second green jersey crown, what with Tim Merlier not starting Stage 9, Arnaud Demare and Bryan Coquard missing the time cut, and Caleb Ewan crashing out in the opening week.
Cavendish in tears after crossing the line just in time
But after expertly extending his lead to 66 points over Jasper Philipsen by getting into Friday’s break, Cav now finds himself with Michael Matthews and Sonny Colbrelli just 38 and 47 points behind. The Italian champion, in particular, showed his versatility by taking 20pts in the intermediate sprint on Sunday before taking third place on the stage to add another 15pts.
While Philipsen’s hopes have taken a dent by the departure of his Alpecin-Fenix teammates Merlier and Van der Poel (key components of his train), what will keep Cavendish on his toes is the consistency of Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni in the bunch sprints, plus the uphill capabilities of both Matthews and Colbrelli. Throw in Peter Sagan – who usually comes good at some point during a Tour – and the fact that Van Aert may now find himself in a position to compete in the sprints, and we have some interesting battles on the horizons.
What’s more, the subplot of Merckx’s record – and the genuine possibility of Cav beating it on the Champs-Elysées – could make up for a GC battle lacking in fizz.
As for the polka dots, Nairo Quintana is in the hot-seat of a competition that reflects the limits of his current ambitions and capabilities – with another five riders in with a realistic chance of pushing him all the way: Michael Woods, Wout Poels, Sergio Higuita, Guillaume Martin and that man O’Connor (should, as expected, his podium push fall by the wayside).
Of course, bigging up the secondary jersey competitions could also be seen as an attempt to gild the lily and hide the truth: that the most spellbinding opening to a Tour in recent years could well morph into a dull yellow jersey parade all the way to Paris for Tadej Pogacar.