Tour de France 2021: Rest Day Reflections II

The second week of a Grand Tour traditionally sees the turning of the screw; the ramping up of pressure, on whoever holds the yellow jersey, and those who are in close proximity. If the first week is attritional and the final week is a full-blooded attack, the central week is the firing of shots; the ordering and re-ordering of the top dogs, and the rising to the top of the cream.

At least, that’s usually the case. This year it’s been a strange affair; following Tadej Pogačar’s formidable statement of intent on stage 8, the GC competition has been effectively nullified, with the teams who had hoped to have an impact on the general classification hurriedly reassessing their plans. Meanwhile, Pogačar looks comfortable in the yellow jersey, untroubled by the burden of carrying it all the way to Paris. Which begs the question: is there anything anyone can do, to dislodge the heir apparent?

The Achilles Heel of Tadej the Invincible

The initial reaction to Pogačar’s dominance must surely have been to ask: how can we beat him? What is his weakness? In the Basque country stage race back in April Jumbo Visma proved that a young, naïve team and poor tactics were UAE Team Emirates achilles’ heel. They broke down Pogačar’s resistance and wore him into the ground, with Primož Roglič winning overall and Jonas Vingegaard, Pogačar’s shadow for the latter part of the race, coming in second to his team mate on GC.

This tactic has not been so useful at the Tour. After putting down an incredible time to win the opening time trial, then proving beyond reasonable doubt that he would be unassailable in the mountains on stage 8, Pogačar has forced those teams who would wish to oust him to think again, and come up with new ideas. And in some cases to completely alter their goals and begin to aim for podium places rather than the yellow jersey.

Was it really all over though? Of course, staking a claim so early in the race has its disadvantages; two weeks is a long time to defend a jersey regardless of your lead, and having to look over your shoulder as the entire race hunts you down takes a certain kind of mettle to endure. It was widely accepted that unless he came off his bike – an outcome not inconceivable in itself given the drama of the first half of this Tour de France – Pog had this one in the bag.

No-one is invincible though… are they? The Slovenian admitted on the day he took yellow that his own worst enemy in the race might be himself, but so far there are only two things that have caused him any trouble whatsoever: the heat, and Jonas Vingegaard.

The heat proved tricky on the Ventoux stage but surprisingly Pogačar seemed to cope with it admirably on the Andorra stage, so he may have overcome this particular weakness. INEOS Grenadiers may or may not be exacerbating the situation with their questionable tactic of grinding away at the front of the peloton; their faith in Richard Carapaz to take a podium spot over-riding their desire to make Pogačar and his team work – are they simply working for second place, or do they have an audacious plan to overturn Pogačar?

The only occasion that Pogačar has looked uncomfortable so far was on the second ascent of Mont Ventoux on Stage 11; then, it was Vingegaard who inflicted the damage and gapped him. It was to no avail ultimately, but four days later in Andorra, Jonas was able to turn the screw once again, testing Pogačar and his GC rivals in the process. Whilst these attacks are not producing the kinds of differences that will alter the outcome of the GC race, it’s comforting to know that the young defender of the title may not be infallible after all.

The Aert of the All-Rounder

King of the Mountain: van Aert on Ventoux

There will always be space for the specialists in cycling; the time trial aces, the pure climbers, the sprint kings. All these roles have a place in a sport that is as complex and varying as the terrain it traverses, and a Grand Tour is all the richer when these purists are given their chance to shine.

A GC contender though, must be made of sterner stuff. Those who rise to prominence must be able to perform across multiple disciplines, or at least hold their own in those areas that may not suit their physiology.

Now though, we are witnessing a shift. There is something very exciting happening at the heart of cycling right now. A new breed of rider who can do it all is rising to dominance, so-called ‘newer humans’ – a term coined by former rider turned pundit Pete Kennaugh – who are overcoming the older breed of GC riders, who specialised in one discipline and muddled through in the rest.

Wout van Aert is arguably the most complete example of this multi-discipline mastery. He is a fantastic time triallist; he won in Tirreno-Adriatico in a strong field and was in the top five at the time trial earlier in the Tour. Not forgetting he was second only to Fillippo Ganna in the 2020 World Championships. He can sprint, either in a select group or in a bunch – he has beaten pure sprinters on numerous occasions under pressure.

And he can climb. Last year he played a significant role in Jumbo-Visma’s dominance at the Tour, working as mountain domestique for Primož Roglič, and this year he’s proven he can do it alone too, winning on Mont Ventoux, a stage which, on paper, very few would have had him down as a favourite for. He also performed so well in Andorra on stage 15 that he now finds himself in with a real chance of taking the mountains jersey, should he be allowed to target that goal moving forward in the race.

So how do the other all-rounders fare, by comparison?

Pogačar is a machine but he hasn’t tried his hand in a bunch sprint (although I wouldn’t put it past him). Julien Alaphillippe and Egan Bernal are both fantastic all-rounders too and while both have improved in recent seasons, neither have what it takes to excel in a time trial, or would be seen in the final stages of a serious bunch sprint (although both have a fast finish).

Most closely matched to van Aert in terms of experience and physiology, Mathieu van der Poel has incredible power and can endure a lot of pain, but he’s just not built for climbing, and currently it’s difficult to imagine him making it through a three-week Grand Tour. The fact he managed to produce a brilliant time trial despite rarely having tested himself in this discipline might be the push he needs to persuade him to make the move to longer stage races – however with his interests in cyclocross and mountain biking, it might simply not be on his radar.

The future is bright for the man from Herentals, but with his focus on cyclocross and classics riding, his traditional comfort zone, the question will be asked: while he certainly has the physical capability to push himself to compete for general classification, does he want to? Is this where he sees his career heading? Wout has signed 4-year contract with Jumbo Visma and with Primož Roglič still arguably their main leader and a number of younger contenders for GC such as Tobias Foss and Jonas Vingegaard rising through the ranks, will Wout’s ascendency take him all the way to the top level in the sport?

King Cav

Triumph over adversity: Cavendish takes his fourth stage despite a titanic struggle

After writing about his redemption story in last week’s piece, Cav has gone on to further success, equalling Eddy Merckx’s record for the most career Tour de France stage wins, and the fairytale that – if there is any justice in the world – will end with him raising his arms on the Champs Elysee, continues to unfold with almost textbook precision.

This is what makes the story all the more remarkable. The relative ease with which Cavendish has slotted back into Deceuninck’s team set-up is truly astounding. Prior to the Tour de France few would have argued against the claim that Irishman Sam Bennett was the fastest man in the world. Caleb Ewan may have had something to say about it but as yet, the two have not faced off this season. No-one would have put Cavendish within touching distance of the pair, despite coming back from the brink of retirement from the sport to form a part of DQS’s second string during the early part of the season.

Now though, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t meant to be at the Tour at all. It’s hard to believe that there might be a sprint finish in the race that he won’t win. Because he has won them all so far, bar the very first one, which Tim Merlier snatched in the wake of a the chaos of stage 3.

The first victory on stage 4 in Fougeres, was unbelievable. A dream in and of itself; to take just one stage of the Tour de France after such a lengthy break and to prove his form in such dominant style, made everyone sit up and take notice. The next win, at the site of his very first stage win at the Tour, Chateauroux, was destiny at play. His win in Valence on stage 10 proved the unwavering discipline and team ethics of DQS; the lead-out was pure poetry, and Cav’s deference to his team-mates that day, as it has been all along, was testament to how much he believes in them, and they in him.

His most recent win though was cut from a different cloth. Cavendish had a rough day on stage 13.  Fighting against the wind, the heat, and the spectre of the time cut. When the race finally arrived into Carcassonne, the Deceuninck sprint train was not quite as well drilled as it had been on stage 10. However it was still executed with expertise, and incredible foresight in the face of another difficult finale. Cavendish fought for the wheel of Michael Mørkøv, working around other riders and his own ragged exhaustion. His post-race interview said it all; he was completely spent. Yet still he pulled the win out of the bag, manoeuvring a tricky final stretch to come through victorious.

Team or no team, it has still been Cavendish who has crossed the line first four times so far this tour, and that is no small thing. With two sprint stages remaining, it’s hard to see how anyone will get around Cavendish and prevent him from becoming the rider with the most Tour de France stage wins of all time, and surely a contender for the greatest British sports person of all time. It would be the realisation of this dream that has so quickly become expectation, rather than hope, for the large majority of cycling fans who have been witness to the most incredible comeback in sporting history.

The Final Word…

With six stages still to go, there’s plenty of time for new chapters in the crazy, unexpected story of this Tour de France to be written. Will Pogačar or Cavendish be the enduring memory from this edition of the Tour? Can anyone challenge either of them to take something from the last week of the greatest test in the cycling calendar? And with the Olympics looming, how many riders will cross the line in Paris? Oh, and why does MVDP wearing the maillot jaune feel like at least a hundred years ago?

Drop me a comment here or on Twitter @writebikerepeat to chat about these or any other cycling topics – and as always, thanks for reading.

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