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  • Writer's pictureTom Thewlis

A look at the Tour de France where Tadej Pogačar's reign continued

The Tour de France is over for another year, and just like Christmas as a child, it went by in a flash. As always there was the usual anticipation and build up, and then we were at the final stage in Paris. After Tadej Pogačar dramatically turned last year’s race on its head at such a late stage, this year’s Tour always had a lot to live up to. However, after the first time trial and then Pogačar’s Fausto Coppi-esque raid on day one in the Alps, it appeared that there was only ever going to be one winner. Not to detract from the brilliance of Pog, but the lack of a continually serious challenge to the 2020 reigning champion meant that the race will have certainly appeared underwhelming to some. It’s difficult to pick just one defining moment that gave the race that feel, but the crashes suffered by Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas certainly added to the 2021 race being far from a vintage edition of Le Grand Boucle.

Tadej Pogačar sealed overall victory at the end of the final time trial, although nobody was ever realistically going to challenge him. © Getty Images Sport

Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz fought valiantly when the going got tough, but neither possessed the same explosively powerful form that the young Slovenian showed in the high mountains which was ultimately the difference. On the road to Le Grand Bornand, Carapaz briefly looked like he could follow Pog until the 22-year-old flicked into the big ring on his bike and danced away into the distance. Pogačar’s ability in both the Alps and Pyrenees was enough to strike terror into anyone watching. Since the days of “he-who-must-not-be-named”, it’s been a rare sight to see a rider in the Yellow jersey that possesses quite the same killer climbing instinct. In the past, Chris Froome was certainly a force to be reckoned with in the high mountains, but even Froome in top form may have struggled to hold Pog’s wheel when he played his trademark three punch attack. Just as Armstrong once did, Pogačar this year seemed to want to test his rivals with two light, dummy attacks before hitting full throttle and pushing them off his wheel. One of the things that also really struck me about Pog this year was his ability to read other riders’ tactics and body language in such a way that always meant he maintained the upper hand.

Tadej Pogačar launched multiple attacks on the Col du Portet, eventually leaving just himself, Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz to fight for the stage. © Bettini Photo

On the stage that finished atop the Col du Portet, the manner in which he called Richard Carapaz’s bluff was masterful. How much of that was down to Jonas Vingegaard reading him first we will never know, but the moment that Pog had caught back onto the Ecuadorian’s wheel he appeared to be smiling- which said it all. Richard Carapaz received a lot of unfair flack for his tactics that day. Nevertheless, as Pogačar rightly said, that’s racing and Carapaz did what he could to try and win. Just the same as in any other sport winning a race like the Tour requires ruthlessness which is sometimes forgotten. Being honourable and coming to take your turn at the front of a leading group won’t always get the race won as Jonas Vingegaard will certainly have learned. Carapaz is a wise and astute racer who will certainly be challenging for honours at future Grand Tours too after taking gold in the Olympic road race in Tokyo.

Eddy Merckx said during the race that he felt Tadej Pogačar could join the 5-victories club and then go further, and it certainly looks that way. When you look at the figures and the records the Slovenian now holds, it is certainly staggering to see just how far Pog has come in less than a year. Aged just 22 he’s now the youngest ever double-winner of the race and consecutive winner of any Grand Tour. Furthermore, it is noteworthy to consider the fact that with the impact of Covid last year, he has now won the Tour de France twice in just a handful of months, a feat that the rest of us can only marvel at given the physical demands involved. All the signs now point to the reign of Pogačar and the Slovenian being a dominant force in Grand Tour racing for years to come. Although a glance through the history books also shows that cycling has been littered with false dawns and promise. However, a second Tour de France title certainly makes that appear more likely. The sight of a smiling Pogačar on the top step of the Champs-Élysées podium may well be something that we need to get used to for some time to come yet.

Pogačar may not have won the stage to Le Grand Bornand, but after the Slovenian’s attack that day obliterated the rest of the field, there was to be no coming back for his rivals. © Reuters

The controversy of the opening weekend

It’s impossible to look at this year’s race without considering the damage caused on the opening weekend. I’m not talking about that which was inflicted at the front of the race by the formidable duo of Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel here, but the carnage caused by Omi, Opi and their sign-wielding relative. The worst thing about the whole event was that there was very little that can be done by ASO or other French authorities to stop this kind of stupidity in future. You would like to think that the majority of people would know better, however there have been far too many cases like this in the Tour’s history, often with appalling consequences. Occasionally this has even involved the authorities themselves. As brilliant as Julian Alaphilippe’s victory was, it was hard to look back on the first stage without shuddering at the moment Tony Martin collided with the woman’s sign and the devastation that followed. Hearing the list of abandonments afterwards and seeing the likes of Primož Roglič on the floor as a result left me pondering whether I had even preferred last year’s race with a lack of spectators lining the road.

Julian Alaphilippe took a stunning win on a crash-marred opening stage. © Getty Images Sport

There was further controversy later in the race with the Police raid on Bahrain Victorious’ hotel in Pau. To date nothing incriminating has been found so the likes of Matej Mohorič are of course, completely innocent until proven guilty. Mohorič is a young and talented rider, and the sacrifices young riders make on a yearly basis should of course be recognised. However, I really believe that you can’t escape the fact that no matter how well it was intended, his zipped lips gesture was really not what was needed given the circumstances. His interview alone was worth a listen and made all his points in an eloquent and understandable way.

Three highlights

Outside the battle for the overall win which always looked to be going the way of Pogačar, the race was littered with compelling individual moments and stories that made it a memorable edition. Bar the chaos on the opening weekend, Alaphilippe’s stage win was one of his best ever victories and Mathieu van der Poel pulled off a memorable win too. Added to this we saw some fantastic stage victories from various breakaways, interestingly often with one man going solo to take the win: examples being Patrick Konrad and Nils Pollit’s victories. Narrowing it down to just three is tough, but here it goes.

Ben O’Connor forged a new identity for himself as a general classification rider at this year’s Tour de France. © Getty Images Sport

As the battle for the overall victory was slowly beginning to become a foregone conclusion, Ben O’Connor’s presence in the breakaway on Stage 9 to Tignes looked like shaking it up. All of a sudden O’Connor was up the road with a real chance at wrestling the Maillot Jaune from Pogačar’s shoulders. Although it didn’t quite work out that way for O’Connor, he rode away with ease from Nairo Quintana and Sergio Higuita to take a memorable stage win in the rain which was a great achievement in itself. The Aussie had been nursing wounds sustained in the opening day crash making his win even more brilliant. From that point onwards, the Australian continued to display the same brilliant form which would see him maintain his position in the top 10 eventually finishing 4th overall. As he showed at this year’s race, O’Connor is more than capable of a solid time-trial, and he has a proven track record of being an outstanding climber as displayed at both the Giro and the Tour. Furthermore, a stage win for any team at the Tour de France is a huge result but especially so for one from France. This year’s race proved O’Connor to be a shrewd investment for his AG2R Citroën team, and the panache he showed will no doubt see him return to contest the general classification again next year.

Before heading to Tokyo and claiming a silver medal in the men’s road race, Wout van Aert took a hat-trick of beautiful Tour de France stage victories. © Getty Images Sport

You could talk all day about Wout Van Aert yet run out of superlatives to describe his absolute brilliance as a bike racer. The Belgian’s ability has been rising considerably in recent years, but to add to these three wins in one Tour de France surely sees him as being on equal footing with Julian Alaphilippe as the best racer in the world. There really aren’t any riders that can match Van Aert in modern era cycling, the Belgian literally is the Swiss-army knife of the WorldTour peloton and claimed the perfect hat trick of Tour de France stage wins at the 2021 race. Van Aert has now taken a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics and has a mountain stage, a time trial and victory on the Champs-Élysées to his name, or otherwise goals with his left foot, right foot and head. The last time a rider achieved this was Bernard Hinault in 1979. Need I say more? If his form continues, then the current Belgian national champion will be a real contender at the World Championships too.

Mark Cavendish’s successful return to the Tour de France provided a timely reminded to never give up. © Bettini Photo

If someone had told you a month before the Tour, that Mark Cavendish would return to the race and come away with 4 stage wins and the green jersey you’d have laughed and called them mad. Only one other person would have believed it, and that was Cav himself. The brief hiccup in losing to Van Aert on the Champs-Elysees shouldn’t detract from his fairytale return to the race. Considering Cavendish didn’t know he was riding the Tour 10 days before the start, four stage wins, the green jersey and tying the record number of stage wins with Eddy Merckx is an incredible achievement. Cav has nothing left to prove in his career, he’s already a legend of the sport and will be remembered forever regardless, even if the record breaking 35th stage win never comes. He could retire now and relax in his greatness, but no doubt he’ll be back to go one better.

Final conclusions

All things considered, this was a memorable and exciting edition of the Tour de France. Each stage of the opening week was utterly gripping and full of moments to keep viewers interested. Mathieu van der Poel certainly helped with that when he got himself into a breakaway along the way. The weekend in the Alps was the moment the race was over, with Pogačar’s raid on the stage to Le Grand Bornand where he claimed the Yellow jersey. Pog took more than three minutes on his rivals that day, making it look effortless in the process. This was a sign of a great champion indeed and it certainly would have got the cycling Gods smiling as they watched on. That was followed by him taking 30 more seconds on Richard Carapaz the next day as he countered a move by the Ecuadorian and at that point, second place looked the best outcome for the rest of the favourites.

Tadej Pogačar will go down as the overall winner, but there will be questions hanging over his competitors during this race. What would have happened if Primož Roglič hadn’t crashed? The opening weekend saw Roglič in the thick of the action, but once he’d hit the tarmac a few times he was clearly hanging on. The same would be said for Geraint Thomas. We were not treated to the intense, three-way battle we all expected but both had shown brief signs that if they hadn’t crashed, their race winning form was there. You don’t just win a race like the Tour de France with good form, staying on your bike is a part of it and that’s just one of many things that sets Pogacar apart.

After losing Roglič early on, Jumbo-Visma were able to count on Jonas Vingegaard to push Tadej Pogačar all the way. © Bettini Photo

Strength in depth in your team is also vital and this is where Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma were complete polar opposites. For all their talk of aggressive racing beforehand, Ineos, bar Richard Carapaz, never really showed up. After all, money won’t buy you everything and selecting a team of previous Grand Tour winners isn’t the secret code to victory. Once Roglič and Robert Gesink had abandoned the race, Jumbo-Visma slowly began to come to life and to respond as they did to such misfortune was remarkable. Jonas Vingegaard proved his worth by taking second overall, and there were of course resounding stage victories for Wout van Aert and Sepp Kuss.

This year’s edition also showed a real need for an overhaul of the king of the mountains competition. The battle between Mike Woods, Nairo Quintana, Wout Poels and Van Aert was compelling and made for a great backstory behind the lack of GC action. However, for all the graft and guile that they displayed, it did feel a shame that none of the aforementioned won the competition and held the jersey in Paris. A way to rectify this would be to scrap the double points rule at the top of HC mountains which would effectively give other more out and out climbers a chance.

The battle for the King of the Mountains jersey made for an excellent side-story at the 2021 edition of the race. © Getty Images Sport

Back in May, Egan Bernal’s runaway victory at the Giro led to us wanting to see him in action against Pogačar. In various ways the Tour resembled this year’s Giro, with rain-soaked mountains, regular breakaway wins and a runaway winner to top it off. The highly anticipated battle between the two of them, with Primož Roglič added in for good measure, will certainly be the grandest of spectacles. Although given his ability to fight for himself when isolated from his teammates, Pogačar already has the upper hand and has shown just how tough he is to beat during both of his Tour victories. On his numerous Tour de France stage wins in the mountains he has always been capable of powering himself to victory, whereas Egan Bernal occasionally grew tired towards the Giro finale. Dani Martínez had to shepherd Bernal through his worst moments at the Giro whereas Pogačar seems able to go it alone when needed. If they are all present at the Tour’s Grand Depart in Copenhagen next year, and if there is a TT along the way, it will feel very much like the race is Pogačar’s to lose.

Despite already having the race effectively won, there were to be no gifts to his rivals as Tadej Pogačar won the final mountain stage at Luz Ardiden. © Getty Images Sport

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