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.

Tour de France 2021 – Rest Day Reflections 1

In the past, it’s not been uncommon to find the first week of a Grand Tour a somewhat staid affair; cagey GC teams not wanting to show their cards too early; often an emphasis on flat sprint stages as the mountains await deeper into the race. A succession of twitchy, nervous days are spent not wanting to accede an inch to rivals, whilst aiming to keep enough in the tank for the marathon of a three-week Grand Tour.

Top dogs: the jerseys line up and share greetings at the beginning of Stage 7

The Giro d’Italia challenged that notion, providing a first week full of variety, excitement and surprises. The Tour de France however, as if embroiled in a decades-long battle for supremacy with its Italian counterpart, has completely eclipsed the Giro. And by eclipse I’m talking dark, sudden and brilliant on a celestial level. It’s had everything; danger, desperation and pure unfettered joy, and the over-riding takeaway has been the extremes of emotion that we have collectively experienced, along with the astounding unpredictability that – usually – is reserved for later stages.

The final nail in the coffin of the ‘first weeks are boring’ theory came in spectacular fashion right out of the starting blocks. Stage 1 had been tense but largely uneventful as it rolled through the rugged Breton landscape, the notable difference between this season and last the return of the fans to the roadside. A welcome return… until it wasn’t. I’ll limit the debate on ‘Woman, with Sign’ and its resulting fallout, as it has played out across the media in the preceding days, but it’s fair to say it set the tone for what would turn out to be a chaotic and devastating first week.

Two days later, Geraint Thomas crashed, taking Robert Gesink out of the race and affecting his own GC chances in the process. Later in the day it was like a dangerous game of skittles: Primoz Roglic went down in a freak accident that would cause him injuries that would later see him leave the race, Jack Haig spun out on a sketchy corner, Caleb Ewan crashed in the final lead-out for the sprint finish. These are just some of the riders who went down that day, and in the days since. There are almost none who haven’t suffered to some extent from the fallout of one crash or other, be it physically or in terms of time losses on the general classification.

Apocalypse Now

The question inevitably arose and no-one had a good answer: why is this race so turbulent, so fraught with danger? Is it coincidence, or is there something more to it?

Looking back at the racing that’s already transpired this year, there are some common themes which may lead us to at least a suggestion of an answer. Following the bizarre events of 2020, the early part of the season was once again characterised by races being cancelled and rescheduled due to covid-19 restrictions. When racing finally began, the composition of the startlists had changed. Teams like INEOS and Deceuninck were sending fully charged squads to dominate small races that would usually feature Pro and Continental teams, with maybe a development squad from a couple of World Tour teams at the most.

Full-blooded racing became the order of the day. From kilometre zero, the fight to be in the breakaway, to stay with the peloton, to make a time cut. It’s harder, faster and more brutal. As though, with the enduring spectre of further possible lockdowns and race cancellations looming, there is a kind of apocalyptic desperation to achieve any kind of success.

Add to this already volatile mix the calibre of the rising generation of versatile and seemingly infallible young riders such as Tadej Pogacar and Egan Bernal, and anarchic firebrands like Mathieu van der Poel, and what you have is a perfect storm. An ever-present, simmering chaos brewing just beneath the surface of a race, ready to explode at the merest twitch of handlebars.

The peloton can be a place of unspoken cooperation and mutual respect and more often than not this is still the case; the sport would cease to function if there were not some kind of order. But the increasing levels of chaos speak to a possible shift in the politics of the pro peloton; will it settle once again, and resume order, after the uncertainty and anxieties of covid times pass? Or is this dynamic, dangerous, high-risk high-reward mode here to stay?

The Emotional Rollercoaster

Let me draw your minds back to Stage 7. Wasn’t it fantastic? Like someone had said ‘Stop the race! Let’s just have a one day classic in the middle of a tour instead!’ A bit like the sterrato gravel stage in the Giro d’Italia, it was a novel and welcome addition, however it wasn’t the parcours that made the day; it was the unique complement of riders that dug in and formed a ludicrously powerful breakaway, which included the yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel, ripping up the rulebook as per usual, the green jersey of Mark Cavendish, grinning like he’d won the lottery, and driving it from the front like a relentless locomotive, Jumbo Visma’s very own Belgian champion Wout van Aert.

It was the joy of pro cycling, in its purest form. Top riders, having the time of lives racing one another. Pouring their hearts and souls into it but smiling and sharing jokes and conversation along the way. It was the perfect antidote to the fraught, traumatic few days that had preceded it. For both the riders and the viewing fans, stage 7 was just plain FUN.

The whole race has been characterised by emotion. Shock, sadness, anger, excitement, euphoria, regret, disbelief; it’s had all of these and more. Which is why it was something of a surprise on Stage 8, when Tadej Pogacar put on an exhibition in dominance, that I felt… nothing.

The reigning champion ttakes his claim: Tadej Pogacar strikes out for home solo on Stage 8

This isn’t to say I wasn’t impressed. It would be ludicrous for any fan of the sport to witness such a spectacle and not be rocked by the effortlessness and almost otherworldly-ness of the Slovenian’s performance. Maybe somewhere in there is the truth of it though: Pogacar doesn’t look like he’s trying. It’s easy for him. His cheeky grins and photobombing are all reminders that he’s just a kid having fun. It’s endearing and frustrating in equal measure. When Mathieu van der Poel crushes his opponents he at least has the common decency to collapse dramatically from his bike through exhaustion at the end. Pogacar’s freakish abilities are all the more impressive given his ability to walk away relatively unscathed afterwards, yet they perhaps make him difficult for some to identify with.

Ultimately, it’s about engagement. That for me is the difference between stage 7 and stage 8. Stage 7 encapsulated the joy, the pure exhilaration of top riders pushing and challenging each other all the way to the line. Stage 8 was a masterclass but it didn’t engage me emotionally and beyond a serious crash or mechanical issue it has effectively ended the race as a contest. That is why stage 8 left me flat. After the high-speed adrenaline rush of the first week of racing, to see such an effortless show of dominance and know that a race you’ve been looking forward to for months was as good as over with, in terms of the GC at least, after 9 days, was something of an anti-climax.

Yet the sport is replete with characters who have raised the bar and it would be wrong to desire a stagnant status quo; Pogacar’s ascendancy will drive others to up their game and improve. And in the meantime he will continue to dazzle and do so with the pure irreverence of youth.

Tour Stories: Part 1

Why is it that we identify more with stories of struggle and redemption? It’s not because we don’t admire these greats; history is made up of riders like Pogacar and Bernal who of course, have their own stories to tell. However, often the narratives that really resonate go beyond just winning a bike race; this has been proven time and time again already so far this Tour, and we are only nine days deep.

Dreams are made in yellow

Some of the stories are straightforward and appeal to universal truths within all of us: the importance of family; the significance of legacy, and the true meaning of the yellow jersey. Mathieu van der Poel’s victory to take the jersey on stage two, after the devastation of missing out on the opening day, united fans in their appreciation and the collective outpouring of emotion was in itself an indication of the momentous nature of the achievement.

On his Tour de France debut, the inimitable Dutchman took control of the jersey that despite his success, his grandfather, French racer Raymond ‘Poupou’ Poulidor, never achieved. The never-ending string of ‘I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying’ posts on Twitter was testament to the need within all of us to identify and connect with these transcendent athletes. Together we stood at a distance and marvelled at the raw power that van der Poel put down as he dominated Strade Bianche, but this was different. When asked who he was thinking of when he crossed the line in Mur-de-Bretagne, and he replied ‘my Grandfather of course,’ his face wet with tears, it struck at the heart of every one of us. We admire the power, the endurance, the skill and tenacity of these supreme athletes. But we identify with the humanity of their causes, their personal motivations, and this was never more evident than on stage 2.

Redemption I (The One That Wasn’t)

The redemptive nature of Grand Tour stories appeals to the kid in all of us. We want those who have been knocked down to get back up again, to have their day.

Which is why, for me, by far the hardest sight to bear witness to so far this Tour – outside of the visceral horror of the multiple crashes – was the image of a struggling Primoz Roglic losing the battle to stay with the peloton on the comparatively straightforward climbs of stage 7. With the big mountains ahead, things were not looking promising for the Slovenian who came to the Tour with his own score to settle, following the dramatic finale to the 2020 Tour when his countryman Tadej Pogacar bested him over the final time trial to steal what had been assumed to be his.

This year Roglic eschewed racing in the build-up to the Tour in order to come in fresh, and was seen in multiple Instagram videos doing reconnaissance in the Alps and Pyrenees. He would be as prepared for this Tour as he could possibly be. So when he came down on stage 1 behind his entire team it was a setback. Later that day though he was joking, about how crashes on day 1 were ‘good luck’. Yet it was to prove fallacious. When he fell again on the ill-fated stage 3, it was the beginning of the end. Did he know, at that stage, how hampered he would be by his injuries? He fought on nonetheless but by stage 8, ascending Col de la Colombiere some 12 minutes behind the GC group, he sat up and smiled at the cameras and waved to fans, and it was clear: his race was over.

He will no doubt come back stronger. It was just not to be this time around.

Redemption II (The One That Was)

Mark Cavendish recreates his celebration from his very first Grand Tour stage win, in 2008

Whatever hardships destiny has doled out to Roglic over the past couple of seasons, it’s given generously back to Mark Cavendish.

Back in the early season when it became clear that Cav’s ambition to return to pro cycling with  Deceuninck QuickStep was going reasonably well, a Twitter campaign sprung up urging the team to take him to the Tour de France. #CavtotheTour was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the past success of the Manx Missile at the Tour, but it wasn’t on the cards; already proving himself arguably the top sprinter in the world, Irishman Sam Bennett would be leading the charge for the Belgian team in France.

Fate however, had other ideas. As Cavendish’s season continued on its upward trajectory, with convincing victories in the Tours of Turkey and Belgium, Sam Bennett suffered an injury to his knee. It didn’t look serious enough to hamper his Tour ambitions, so it came as a shock when in the week prior to the Tour, Deceuninck’s team announcement did not include Bennett, but Cavendish.

Returning to the race that means so much to him, and the race in which he had taken an incredible 30 wins, was huge news for Cavendish himself and for the sport as a whole.

Following illnesses both physical and mental which hampered him in 2018 and 2019 and his stuttering attempts to get back to form in the early 2020 season with Bahrain-Maclaren, it seemed as though everything was falling into place at the right time for Cavendish. He was clearly enjoying racing again, brimming with confidence, and overflowing with praise and respect for his team mates. When he crossed the line first in Fougeres he achieved something that he himself admitted was beyond his wildest dream, and wrote himself into the history books with the comeback story of the modern era. When he did it again two days later in Chateauroux, the place where he took his first ever Tour de France stage 13 years ago it was clear: this was Mark Cavendish’s Tour de France.

Other Things that Happened

Lest we spend too long on the serious, let’s not forget the weird and wonderful side notes that make this sport so odd, and unforgettable in equal measure. The memorable moments that stood out beyond the drama of the crashes and the euphoria of the victories, that might otherwise be forgotten.

Neilson Powless prepares to take to the road once more following his off-road adventure

Neilson Powless rode into a bush

The Deceuninck-QuickStep bus got stuck in the road and had to be dug out with a digger

A flying umbrella almost caused MVDP to crash

A lorry got stuck on the final climb of stage 8 and almost caused the stage to be neutralised

Peter Sagan managed to save himself from the worst of a crash by holding onto his handlebars the entire way down in a show of extraordinary bike handling

After a 30-minute time trial, star-crossed rivals Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel finished within one second of one another. Further proving they are in fact completely inseparable, they charmed us all on stage 7 by laughing and joking together, being stuck to one another like glue even in the final stages of the race

Alpecin-Fenix quietly went about their business as the world fell apart around our ears. Assured and confident, fitting in effortlessly amongst the World Tour teams around them

Brent Van Moer went from being about to ‘do a Taco’ on stage 4 when the peloton closed him down and turned it into a ‘Gino Mader’ moment instead. If it wasn’t for the winner being Mark Cavendish, cycling fans may never have recovered

Everyone fell in love with Ide Schelling as he fought for mountains points, grinned at the camera and wore the polka dots with style

More on these subjects and more in future posts – follow my blog to be notified of new posts so you won’t miss a thing – drop me a line on Twitter @writebikerepeat to give me your opinion on any of the topics I’ve covered here, or anything else cycling-related.

Thanks for reading!

Agent of Chaos II: The Legacy Edition

The narrative around MVDP and his participation at the Tour de France has shifted quite dramatically over the past few months. As early as last December he said the Tour was ‘very inconvenient’ and once again in February, before the beginning of the road season, the Alpecin-Fenix rider stated that he would ride the Tour de France out of obligation to his sponsors, but that the Olympics would be his primary goal for the season, and his preparation for the Tour would be on the mountain bike. He went as far as to state that “I considered skipping the Tour. For me the best way to go to the Olympics in my top shape would mean skipping it but I think that the sponsors and the team want me to be there so I understand.” (CyclingNews, 2021)

Roughly translated, he would do his duty, but perhaps, arguably, his heart would not be in it. There was never any secret over his major goal for 2021 being the Olympic mountain biking in Tokyo, and if he rode the Tour, it was likely he would leave early in order to adequately prepare for the Olympics.

There followed a brief interlude in which the IOC said they would impose a mandatory two-week isolation period for all athletes competing at the Olympics, prior to the Games. This meant that no cyclist would be able to ride both the Tour de France and the Olympics. It was a bind for many, but given his earlier statements, it could perhaps be viewed as a reprieve for van der Poel, as he would not have to worry any longer about his obligations.

However, that was later revoked, and we were back to the original plan. In May, while some went to Romandie, some finished out the one-day races or competed in stage races that had been shifted due to covid restrictions, Mathieu turned his focus to mountain bike training and attended two World Cup events as part of his preparation.

Following that, he participated in the Tour de Suisse. Mathieu emerged from his short mountain biking interlude in devastating form, taking two stage wins in his inimitable style and the yellow jersey in the process.

I spoke at length in part I of this article about Mathieu’s psychological profile, which is striking in how much it appears to set him apart from other riders. Mindset plays a crucial role in all sport, yet for Mathieu van der Poel, his success seems to derive from a decision that he makes – to win or not to win?

The same could be said of many riders – it’s common for cyclists to target specific stages that suit their body type, or particular skillset, or those that take place over familiar terrain, the so-called ‘home advantage’. Yet they do not always have the physical prowess to back this up. Deciding ‘today, I’m going to win a stage’ is a luxury very few bike riders are able enjoy.

Turning Tides

Somewhere along the line, between the relentless, grim, mud-soaked cyclocross season, where road cycling and the glamour of the Tour were a million miles away, Mathieu van der Poel changed his mind. Taking the yellow jersey in Switzerland can’t have hurt this process, giving him a taste of what he could achieve in France.

However, his intent was declared in iconic style as on the night of the team presentations, Alpecin-Fenix unveiled a special kit, purple and yellow in tribute to Mathieu’s late grandfather, beloved French cyclist Raymond Poulidor. Poulidor never wore the yellow jersey and suddenly, after the reticence, the uncertainty, the indifference, a different van der Poel emerged: one with something to prove. It was personal, now. It meant something.

It was a foregone conclusion that MVDP would at least target a stage win at the Tour; MVDP does not attend races to make up numbers. The first couple of stages in Brittany looked on paper to be perfect for his skillset: tough, undulating terrain and weather conditions that would suit a cyclocrosser better than a mountain man or rouleur.

Following news from the UCI that Alpecin were permitted to wear the jersey for stage one of the race, it was very easy to sit back and wait for the inevitable to occur. He had to win it. Surely? Fate dictated this outcome. No other would do.

Yet it wasn’t to be. Amidst a day that will be remembered largely for the horrible crashes that decimated the peloton, MVDP was able to remain in contention, but it was Julian Alaphillippe who took the win, creating a story of his own, a win for his newborn son and the first Frenchman to sport the maillot jaune after stage one for twenty years.

Another day, a second chance

Northern France is reminiscent of Belgium in many ways, and much like stage one, stage two resembled a one-day classic, albeit with less in the way of cobbles and farm tracks. The parcours was lumpy, with a double loop of the gruelling Mur-de-Bretagne, an enticing prospect for the one-day specialists among the bunch along with the green jersey hopefuls, as a sprint finish wasn’t completely out of the question.

Once again, the expectation was that the sharp end of the race would see the famed ‘big three’ of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphillippe battling for the win, with the stronger, more climb-hardened sprinters such as Sagan and Colbrelli perhaps pushing them with thoughts of green or perhaps even yellow. Yet the GC race too was already on, with Roglic and Pogacar watching one another and INEOS Grenadiers keen to remain in contention after a tricky first day.

Cycling so often delivers on a story, where other sports fall short. It’s the reason we love it and come back for more time and time again. And so, the foregone conclusion was played out, not on the first day, where chaos reigned and Alaphillippe played out his own personal narrative arc, but on day two. Back in his regular jersey, with nothing to prove and the pressure off, MVDP timed his attack to perfection. On GCN, Carlton Kirby suggested that he was done for the day after the first attack appeared to fail and the bunch closed him down.

Not so. In hindsight it all became startlingly obvious: he was playing the long game, collecting the bonus seconds, then conserving his energy, following his train, waiting. He would need a lead. Not a big one, but a lead. As the leaders passed under la flamme rouge, MVDP sat up and looked around. He took his time over it, relatively speaking. He was looking for his rivals. Most likely, he was looking for Julian Alaphillippe. Looking at the prize that resided on the back of the Frenchman. His prize.

Sonny Colbrelli tried an attack with 850m to go and Mathieu jumped on it. Then, with one final look behind, he saw Alaphillippe buried in the bunch, and he stamped on the pedals and injected the fearsome power that we have all come to recognise as practically unassailable. And so it would prove. But he left nothing to chance, punching the entire stretch of the final, never letting up despite having the stage victory in the bag. Because we all knew now, that wasn’t what he was here for.

As he crossed the line, Mathieu van der Poel pointed to the sky, and in an instant, cycling history was made. He had played it to perfection. It was not chaotic or spontaneous, as so many of his past wins have appeared, from an outside perspective. It was calculated and assured. It was a beautiful, poignant and unforgettable moment in a Tour de France that, on day two, is set up to be one of the most memorable ever.

Hopefully we will find out, once the heightened emotions have abated, just what it was that changed his mind. The #MerciPoupou jersey was a nugget of marketing genius from Alpecin-Fenix to say the least, but was it Mathieu’s idea? Did he realise the significance of this chance, or did someone suggest it to him? No matter, in the end, as he set out not just to win a stage, but to win the yellow jersey. It would not matter if he was only in it for one day; the symbolism of the act of pulling on the jersey and riding with it during the race elevated it above a mere stage win. It would be a kind of destiny; a familial passing on of the torch. A legacy.

What happens next doesn’t matter. Mathieu van der Poel is not at the Tour de France to stand on top of the podium. There’s every chance he may not even make it to Paris, as he will likely make good on his promise to give everything to his Olympic goal. This moment though, this moment will last forever.

Tour de France 2021: Three-Word Preview

To coin a phrase drawn from American sports, sometimes life throws you a curveball. When you record a frankly top notch Tour de France preview for a podcast and the recorder cuts out after 20 minutes, that’s a prime example.

Such a fate befell myself, Inigo Hawkings and Nathan Hardy of the Quicklink Podcast team last night as, after around 75 minutes’ worth of prime content, we realised the technology had failed us. The course preview was safe, but our chat about the riders and our predictions is lost to the digital wasteland.

I don’t have time to give you a full preview of the 184 riders that will line up for the Grand Depart tomorrow, so here’s a speedy run-down: no over-thinking, no time for that. Just three words per rider (or team). Some are race predictions, some more overall thoughts, and some come from the lost podcast. All alphabetised for your convenience.

Have a read and why not share your own three-word predictions with me over on Twitter @writebikerepeat – I’d love to hear from you.

ALAPHILLIPPE, Julian: parcours a gift?

ARANBURU, Alex: Astana’s great hope

BUCHMANN, Emanuel: something to prove

CAMPANAERTS, Victor: value for money

CARAPAZ, Richard: do not underestimate

CAVENDISH, Mark: stage four winner?

CHAVES, Esteban: GC? Go on…

COSNEFROY, Benoit: spotty jersey owner?

DEMARE, Arnaud: so last year

EWAN, Caleb: sprint boss incoming

FROOME, Chris: invaluable resource, respect

GAUDU, David: coming of age?

GOGL, Michael: …and Michael Gogl

MARTIN, Guillaume: French curse prevails

NIBALI, Vincenzo: old guard, fading

PEDERSEN, Mads: inconsistent, chances remote

POGACAR, Tadej: nowhere to hide

PORTE, Richie: disrupting alphabetical providence?

ROGLIC, Primoz: tale of redemption

SAGAN, Peter: single-minded: only green

SOLER, Marc: leader in waiting

THOMAS, Geraint: just stay upright

URAN, Rigoberto: in-form rider?

VAN AVERMAET, Greg: forever golden Greg

VAN AERT, Wout: week one yellow?

VAN DER POEL, Mathieu: smash and grab

VAN MOER, Brent: my long shot

VINGEGAARD, Jonas: deadly if fit

YATES, Simon: here for Tourmalet

A few words on a few teams…

BAHRAIN VICTORIOUS: on a roll?

INEOS: too many chiefs

MOVISTAR: déjà vu again

TEAM DSM: teamwork = dream work

QHUBEKA NEXTHASH: everyone’s second team

Agent of Chaos: the Unfathomable Mindset of MVDP

The psychological burden of performing at the top level in any sport cannot be underestimated. It’s understandable that it’s sometimes neglected, given the physical strains that the body must endure, but it undeniably takes a master of both the physical and psychological to perform at an elite level in any athletic endeavour.

Nowhere is this more evident than in cycling, where the complex web of team tactics, personal form, varying parcours, myriad rules and regulations, weather conditions and mechanical elements all add to the daily grind of an already incredibly demanding endurance sport.

Mathieu van der Poel is arguably a master of both of these disparate elements. Physically he is both intimidating and inimitable: there is no-one quite like him, and his presence in a race is an irritant. He is an agitator, an agent of chaos, in the same vein as Julian Alaphillippe yet with a truckload more wattage and a wholly different mindset.

Quite what that mindset is, is either a slippery, ever-changing intangibility, or breath-taking in its simplicity. Via a look back at his 2021 season so far, I plan to try and corner the market in MVDP psycho-analysis and ascertain the answer to the question: what on Earth is he thinking?

CX Lone Wolf

In the winter months, MVDP can be found in the muddy fields of Belgium and the Netherlands, still belligerently excelling at the thing he’s been knocking out of said muddy parks since he was a kid. From the perspective of a road cycling fan, the stoic loyalty that MVDP and Wout van Aert seem to display to cyclocross must seem faintly charming, but it’s the discipline that many riders from that neck of the woods cut their teeth on, and the rugged parcours and short burst, high intensity efforts are a solid foundation for building resilience and lasting fitness across all disciplines of cycling.

In cyclocross, Mathieu is a lone wolf. Like all crossers, to a point. It’s a difficult sport to work in teams, and CX riders operate with a less strictly defined unspoken rulebook than regular road cyclists. Team dynamics and politics are eschewed in favour of just getting the hell on with it. Your teammate falls? You ride on past. As a member of Alpecin-Fenix, Mathieu does have team mates in cyclocross races – sprinter Tim Merlier and Gianni Vermeesch are regulars on the scene – but you wouldn’t know it once the riders hit the parcours.

In the 2020/21 cross season, of 13 races in which he participated Mathieu won nine, and came second in four. And this represents a relatively poor season by his standards, in a discipline in which his dominance is breath-taking.

The World Championships in Ostend represented the pinnacle of MVDP’s mastery of all terrains; whilst Wout van Aert struggled in sliver medal position, and everyone else was left behind, the enduring image that the race left behind was of a solitary, moody, enigmatic loner powering his way through the sand while the North Sea crashed in the background, like a mobile emblem of a modern sporting god. (Not to overstate things, much).

Conclusion: MVDP is perfectly happy to go it alone

The Strength of Many Men

From taking on cyclocross races to working for team mates on the road, Mathieu proved no man is an island by working for his team in some of the early season races. Even when riding in service of others though, he couldn’t swerve the headlines. Leading out Tim Merlier in the final stages of Le Samyn, Mathieu’s left drop handlebar snapped and was left hanging off, forcing him to race the final few hundred metres clasping the stem of his bike instead. Jokes circulated about the immensity of his power and, when viewed alongside the majority of mostly slender pro cyclists, he does appear to be almost too big for his bike. Canyon recalled those models in the wake of the incident but the fact remained that no-one else had broken their handlebars, had they? If anyone was going to do it, it was MVDP.

Conclusion: MVDP is freakishly strong

Wattbomb

Unofficial sixth monument Strade Bianche was the first opportunity of the 2021 season to see the big hitters vying for supremacy. Along the iconic sterrato the cream rose to the top and that cream unsurprisingly included Mathieu. His feeling on the day was never in doubt, as he launched successive attacks to distance his rivals until only two remained, Julian Alaphillippe and Egan Bernal.

Neither of them could come close to the explosive power that he detonated up the final short, steep climb of Via Santa Caterina, though. All the words have already been written about this race and I’m not going to attempt to outdo them, but my favourite of all the words written was ‘wattbomb’, coined by Thomas de Gendt to describe the exploits of MVDP and the emerging breed of super-riders who are dominating cycling on every front.

As Mathieu’s power data from Strava was released following the race it became the only suitable description of the most pure, visceral, violent delivery of power through a bike that had been seen in some time.

Conclusion: MVDP does not have the body of a mere human.

I was cold

Tirreno Adriatico followed. MVDP is not a GC racer, most likely he won’t ever be a GC racer, but his intentions as to stage wins are never in doubt: he wants them. And if he wants one and you, another cyclist, are of a similar mindset, prepare to be disappointed.

The stages on Mathieu’s hitlist are of a certain type: rolling, punchy, hilly, call it what you like – if it’s bumpy but not mountainous it’s right up his street. Uphill kicker to the finish line? Even better. After coming second behind the original master of these types of stage, Alaphilippe, on stage 2 of this year’s edition of Tirreno-Adriatico, Mathieu went one better on stage 3, crossing the line with his arms folded in the ultimate boss pose. His form clearly hadn’t deserted him just yet.

Stage 5 clearly suited him too, but what didn’t suit him, or anyone else for that matter, were the weather conditions. It was a truly disgusting day in Italy’s early Spring and torrential rain soaked the riders as they ploughed round the hilly circuit of Castelfidardo, the skies dark and ominous; it looked grimmer than a Tuesday night in Grimsby.

With just over 50km remaining in the race, a gel packet hanging from his mouth, Mathieu van der Poel kicked from the front of the race and no-one followed. It was to be the decisive move, as despite a late chase from Tadej Pogacar, which given another few hundred metres might have been successful, Mathieu made that insane attack stick to take the stage.

The story doesn’t end there. Sitting at home, watching the chattering teeth of Wout van Aert as the rest of the leading group of chasers dragged their sorry corpses over the final section of the race, we cut to shots of Mathieu laying on the ground having pretty much fallen from his bike, so spent was he after emptying the tank in filthy conditions for 50km, alone. In the post-race interview when asked what possessed him to attack from such a distance, his reply was simply to state ‘I was cold’.

Further studies have yet to be launched into at what point being cold became the drive to continue, despite the horrific conditions and the fact he had nothing left in his body whatsoever, but it’s clear that on this basis, we can conclude that Mathieu van der Poel does not think like the rest of us mere mortals.

Conclusion: MVDP does not have the mind of a mere human

Wardrobe Mindgames

Eyebrows were raised at the wardrobe selection of the Dutchman prior to the first Monument of the season, Milano-San Remo. He opted for white bib shorts, the first time since the 2019 Amstel Gold Race, where he had confirmed his presence on the World Tour stage by taking his second victory in a classic in the space of two weeks.

Although the shorts were originally used for tactical reasons, according his father Adrie van der Poel, to enable him to stand out from Luxembourg champion (at the time) Bob Jungels, word of mouth alleged that the white shorts were a symbol of positivity for Mathieu; like lucky pants, the word was that if MVDP is wearing the white shorts, it meant he was feeling good.

This was unconfirmed following Milano-San Remo; he showed well in the race but didn’t take the victory. As the spring classics wore on, the perceived mindgames went on. At the E3 Saxo Bank Classic at Harelbeke he wore black shorts. Was this a statement that he wasn’t feeling good? Or a double bluff? Were we all reading too much into this? And while everyone was busy discussing Mathieu’s shorts, had he moved on and was busy concentrating on the race? Er, probably.

Conclusion: MVDP does not care what anyone thinks about his shorts (or maybe he does)

I missed Wout

The rivalry between Mathieu and Wout van Aert is no secret. However the media paint it, as friendly competition or fierce enmity, any race in which both are competing takes on extra significance. Following the E3, a race dominated by Deceuninck-QuickStep and resulting eventually in a win for Kasper Asgreen, Mathieu admitted ‘ik heb Wout gemist; ik heb hem nodig. (I missed Wout; I needed him).’ Van Aert had suffered a puncture and lost touch with the leaders and it was clear from Mathieu’s repeated looks over his shoulder that he was somewhat lost without the familiar sight of the black and yellow of his rival’s Jumbo Visma kit holding his wheel, as per usual.

The post-race interview had cycling fans fixating on its significance. Was it an honest admission of a lack, or more mindgames? Did he miss his rival because van Aert is normally the one he uses to pace himself, before leaving him in his wake? Was it a dig at Wout for not being able to keep up? Or a genuine expression of regret that the one man he truly views as an equal was not able to keep pace and make a race of it that day?

In the end, Asgreen took the win, and the story-tellers among us were left to paint rose-tinted narratives of a man whose fight went out of him, once he didn’t have his number one frenemy to play with any more.

Conclusion: MVDP has hidden depths (or maybe he just likes to mess with us)

The One Where it Didn’t Work

The Tour of Flanders. Arguably the most desirable Monument for the CV of any rider from Belgium or the Netherlands, possibly even overall. Mathieu was wearing the black shorts. But there was no doubting his intention. He was part of an elite group of leaders that struck out with 44km to go in the race and a short while later, when Kasper Asgreen attacked that group, just as he had in Harelbeke a few weeks earlier, van Aert and MVDP were not going to let him go so easily.

The three stayed together until 13km to go when they dropped van Aert; Mathieu presumably deciding he didn’t miss him anymore, and the day would end in a two-up sprint. On social media fans agreed; it was a foregone conclusion. There was no way Kasper Asgreen could best Mathieu van der Poel in a sprint. Yet when the cat and mouse began, it was MVDP on the front, with Asgreen looking confident in his wheels. When Mathieu opened up his sprint with just under 250m to go it seemed early – but he was confident, of course. What could possibly go wrong?

It went wrong. With around 30m to go, he ran out of gas. It wasn’t something we were used to seeing and as Asgreen held his nerve to charge over the line and raise his arms, it was as much of a shock as his wattbomb attack in the final stretch of Strade Bianche had been. He was not, after all, infallible.

Conclusion: MVDP makes mistakes, sometimes (or maybe he doesn’t)

Turning up the Heat

Mathieu makes no secret of the importance of disciplines outside of road cycling, and in what will finally (hopefully) be an Olympic year, the Mountain Biking World Cup took over in May, as MVDP moved away from road racing to focus on off-road.

Despite his dominance in his first race, winning the short course in Albstadt, the cross country race a day later was a different proposition. Mathieu attacked early but faded in the latter stages of the race and was clearly suffering with the heat. Despite riding with his World Cup leader’s jersey open, he was overcome by the conditions and couldn’t stick with the pace. It turns out, he doesn’t fare well in hot weather, something that he’s going to have work on in the run-up to Tokyo if he’s to stay the course with the best of the rest.

Conclusion: despite being one of the toughest guys on the circuit, MVDP has delicate sensibilities

Ripping up the Rulebook

And so to the latest participation for the Agent of Chaos: the Tour de Suisse. His first road race in two months, and it was clear once the opening time trial stage was over, that Mathieu was in good form.

The stage wins were just the start. Following the opening day’s time trial, Mathieu snatched victory on both the second and third stages (wearing white shorts, it must be noted). This meant that heading into day four, he would be wearing the yellow leader’s jersey.

Mathieu is nothing if not a showman and he gleefully exposed the unwritten rule of not allowing serious GC contenders to get away by not only getting away, but taking the yellow leader’s jersey of the Tour de Suisse with him. This, in case you needed the reminder, is the first leader’s jersey he has ever worn in a stage race. Even more surprisingly, on the face of it, the peloton let him.

Of course, it was pantomime. Merely an entertaining charade, and with the serious climbing still ahead, Mathieu thanked his breakaway mates and was subsumed by the bunch, popping straight out the back and clearly intending to phone in the rest of the stage. But wasn’t it fun while it lasted?

Conclusion: MVDP laughs at your so-called ‘rules’

The very next day, Mathieu retired from the race with a ‘mild cold’; whether to preserve his form for the Tour and Olympics, or as a precautionary measure for his health, even the choice of words by the Alpecin-Fenix media team felt like black comedy. For the godlike MVDP to be unable to compete due a cold let alone a mild one strikes at the heart of everything we’ve come to understand about him.

So what is the truth? Is he on another level, a finely tuned machine, or a hothouse plant that needs careful nurture?

Whichever analogy you choose to employ there’s no way around the contrariness of the man: he doesn’t like the heat, or the cold; he doesn’t enjoy climbing, and he doesn’t excel at time trials; he’s simultaneously the fussiest, most specifically designed rider who, on paper, only has a chance on very specific types of stages.

And yet.

Any race he is involved in is instantly more entertaining as a result of his presence; the rulebook will be shredded, the outcome unpredictable as the other riders around him respond to his presence and he effectively becomes the centre of the universe around which the rest of the race orbits.

On a good day he can obliterate entire fields of the world’s best riders. And he has a lot of good days. Before the Olympics where Mountain Biking is his focus, he targets the Tour de France. Whether he will stay the course is uncertain but there is no doubting his intention – to come away with stage victories at his first grand tour. He will be the Joker in the pack once more, disrupting the GC teams, interrupting the green jersey competition, and providing immense value for money for the fans. No doubt there will be debate when he inevitably steps away from the race to focus on his Olympic ambitions, but for as long as he’s there, he will light up the race in one of myriad possible ways.

So what can we say about this man, to sum him up? To borrow a famous quote, he is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.’ It’s impossible to pin down quite what makes MVDP what he is, but a few calculated guesses might get us closer:

  1. He has supreme belief in his own ability
  2. He does not seem to care for planning or strategy
  3. He most certainly does not care for doing things the ‘right’ way

So what is the ‘key’ to solving Mathieu van der Poel? At its most simplistic, it is to expect the unexpected. So don’t look away for a second. Do not adjust your sets, cycling fans, because as long as he is involved, we will never, ever be bored; and you do not want to miss a single moment of MVDP magic.

The Giro, George and Me

It’s been a week since the 104th Giro d’Italia concluded yet its after-image lingers on. I, like many other devoted cycling fans, am trying to readjust to life no longer revolving around five hours of dramatic racing every day for three weeks solid. Even the quiet days had their own unique way of working into your soul, what with the ever-changing spectacle of the Italian scenery rolling past, and the constantly shifting patchwork of stories that combined to weave an unforgettable narrative of sporting achievement at its finest.

I was effectively writing full time during the course of the race, fitting in watching the race and producing daily reports for TJV Supporters around my usual commitments, and whilst some days were a struggle (making a pancake-flat stage sound interesting) there were many others that inspired me, days when writing didn’t feel like work at all, but a necessary expression of pent-up emotion.

Although the reports necessarily centred around the exploits of Team Jumbo Visma, I’d like to think they were about more than just one team’s performance, but rather a select story from the wider picture; a zoomed-in view of just one of the many unfolding, contrasting, parallel narratives on offer as each rider’s individual race played out, and we, as fans, brought our own emotions and experiences of the race to that story.

It’s for that reason that I have decided to share a couple of my favourite pieces from the race here. The pieces I enjoyed writing the most weren’t always the easiest, but they were the ones where there was an emotional resonance to the day’s action, and for me, that emotional connection is everything. It’s why I love the sport and it’s why I do what I do.

Please check out these two reports for a flavour of the rollercoaster journey of hope and disappointment that I lived as the race progressed. Of course, the protagonist is one George N Bennett, whose ill-fated GC campaign took an early hit at the hands of inclement weather and didn’t get much better from there. But he was undeterred and focused on the opportunities that presented themselves, and as a devoted follower of the Kiwi champion I never gave up on him, either, as you will see from the below accounts…

Stage 8 – Foggia – Guardia Sanframondi (170km) – 15th May 2021

Prologue

Cast your mind back to 14th February, 2021. It’s Valentine’s Day. More importantly, it’s the New Zealand national road championships, and on a beautiful summers’ day in Cambridge, George Bennett sets out alongside his Jumbo Visma teammate Finn Fisher Black with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. He’s missed out on gold in the time trial by 0.7 seconds but that’s not where he’s expected to achieve; it’s here, on the road. He’s missed out on this title for the past ten years, through bad luck, injury or simply losing out to better riders on the day. The race starts; 174km stand between George and the right the wear the silver fern of his home nation on his back for the rest of the season.

And then it happens. Disaster strikes as the strong New Zealand team Black Spoke drive the peloton hard and George loses touch with the main group. To be dropped so early in the race could spell disaster for the Jumbo Visma man, who doesn’t have a full team around him like Black Spoke, or some of the other local teams. He has Finn Fisher Black though, a man who can pull across short distances like a train, as he’s proven, smashing the U23 time trial to take gold two days prior and obliterating the elite men’s time in the process. He works selflessly as a domestique to reunite George with the main bunch. George won’t let this go again. He has four chances in all on the course’s single climb, the French Pass; four chances to make a difference and break clear. Because he’s a climber; that’s what he does.

Hold that thought, as we return to the present to catch up with the day’s action at the Giro…

Stage 8

It was another warm, sunny day as the race reached its southernmost point in Italy. Rolling out of Foggia, the riders faced a punchy stage, reasonably short at 170km, and with no major changes in the GC after yesterday’s sprint stage, Jumbo Visma’s best placed rider was still Tobias Foss at 18th in the standings (George Bennett stands at 31st).

Breakonomics

Watching a breakaway form is fascinating. It’s a kind of organic process whereby riders break loose like they’re being shot at random from a cannon; they test, and are brought back, until the peloton somehow, collectively decides that the ‘right’ group of riders have moved away.

This Giro in particular has been favourable for the breakaway, with three winners coming from breakaways so far, and the unwritten rules surrounding who will go each day, particularly on a day like today, are undoubtedly complex. When the pressure is on, mistakes can be made, and the peloton have to be alert to any potential violation of these rules. Take today for example, when Egan Bernal found himself in the huge breakaway that attempted to pull clear early on in the stage, and he was immediately informed in no uncertain terms he should not be there; it would simply not do. And so it goes, and so it goes again, until eventually, something sticks.

Except today, it didn’t.

On a long straight road with crosswinds at times forcing the riders into echelons, chaos ensued. With the pace constantly high, it became less about which riders would form the breakaway, and more about trying to keep the race from splitting apart irrevocably. It was intense and at one point the split between the two groups was a concern for the pink jersey, as well as some significant names in the GC. Yet again, the fight to bring things under control succeeded, for a while.

In the end, it took over 60km and countless false starts for the breakaway to finally form and be released. The collective sigh of relief was almost palpable as the peloton, who had raced an average of 50kph over the first 50km of the race, were finally able to settle into a more relaxed pace. A further outcome was that the breakaway themselves were able to build a sizeable lead; comprised of nine men, they had amassed an impressive seven minutes by the time they hit the first categorised climb of the day, the cat 2 Bocca Della Selva.

The climb came and went without incident, as did the following 43km of descent, except for Fernando Gaviria who fell off and had to chase himself back onto the breakaway group, whose lead was looking unassailable.

Back in the peloton Groupama-FDJ controlled for the maglia rosa, Attilo Valter, and the other GC hopefuls remained attentive alongside them, yet after the exertions of the early part of the day, and with a serious foray into the mountains beckoning on tomorrow’s stage, no-one was inclined to attack.

Victor Campanearts, Giovanni Carboni and Alexis Gougeard all tried to go clear but ultimately, it was young Frenchman Victor Lafay who won the day with a well-timed attack on a split group of riders with nothing left to give, bringing glory to Cofidis after an 11-year dry spell at the Giro.

Kiwi Stealth Mode

He had some problems today, did our George. Early on in the race he was spotted (by me) being paced back onto the bunch after seemingly having been dropped. For all I know, it could have been a comfort break. But it set the nerves jangling. It wasn’t the only time he was to be distanced, suffering a mechanical with around 65km to go. Yet he was there at the finish with the main contenders, and didn’t lose any more time to the leaders. Sure, he’s currently giving away 8.55 to the pink jersey, and it doesn’t look good. But it didn’t look good that day back in February, in Cambridge…

Remember where we left him, back with the bunch in New Zealand, waiting for his chance to make it count? Let’s rewind once more…

Each climb he pushed and each climb he couldn’t quite make the difference. Ironically, he finally broke clear of the group on the flat, with just 8km remaining in the race. When they least expected it. When he rode over that line to claim the victory he did it alone, and he did it by digging deep, just as he did last year in Gran Piemonte. And the victory was sweet, because it was hard fought, and because it was a long time coming.

So what’s the connection, I hear you ask?

It’s like the Giro in miniature: it’s early days, and George is in the weeds. He’s struggling and as far as his rivals are concerned, he’s done. I can’t claim to have any idea what’s going through George’s head at this stage in the proceedings but I sure as hell know he’s not giving this up without a fight. Whatever stubborn streak has kept George going through adversity time and time again throughout his career, it will kick in at some point. He’s come back from worse than this. Maybe not to win, but to survive. He’s fought for others and he’ll fight for his chance to stay with the best. He’s wearing the fern on his back that he won, striking out alone on the roads of New Zealand, and he can use it to his advantage.

He can hide.

He’s not wearing the bright yellow and black target that the others are used to seeing. He can slip through unnoticed, like a Kiwi ninja, and steal back seconds, maybe minutes. Let the sun shine, and our George will have his day.

They won’t see him coming. They don’t see him as a threat. And they sure as hell don’t know what he’s capable of yet. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself. But there’s no way I’m giving up on him after a few early setbacks. Can you all say the same? Can it be possible to hang on to a shred of hope, for a while longer? Can we all agree to engage Kiwi stealth mode, and will George (quietly) up the mountains tomorrow, and over the next two weeks, and who knows… with luck (and some ninja skills) it might not be over, just yet.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Stage 14 – Cittadella – Monte Zoncolan (205km) – 22nd May 2021

Today, of all days, can I ask a favour of you, dear readers? Can we dispense with the formalities and cut to the chase, please? It’s been a hell of a day for all of us.

So bring to mind, if you will, the image of Edoardo Affini.  He’s 186km into a race where he’s gone all out for his team mate George Bennett. He’s working on the front of what remains of the breakaway, eleven men, heading into the hardest climb of the Giro d’Italia so far. 19km to go and he’s emptying the tank, his face stretched into a grimace, teeth bared, the body that has held solid for four hours in the saddle starting to rock. Yesterday, he saluted fans in his home town, then in the final, was metres away from his own stage victory. Today, he uses up every shred of himself in service of his team mate.

That’s where we are, right now, the fans of this team. We’ve made it two thirds of the way through a grand tour which has been notable for its disappointments more than its successes. And it’s hard to take. We’ve seen our boys fight in the GC, in the sprints, and in the breakaway, and so far, they have not had to chance to raise their arms, and we are suffering with them.

Still, Edoardo doesn’t give in. He sticks it out through the pain for another 5km. Finally, the gradient kicks up as the group begins the ascent of the Zoncolan, and he peels off, almost coming to a standstill. With 13.8km to go his day is done and he sends George Bennett on his way. We don’t see him again until much later when the peloton passes him by, as he drags himself gradually to the summit alongside Jacopo Mosca, Bauke Mollema’s support rider.

That’s us, people. We have given our all. We’ve poured out our support just as Edoardo Affini has done for his team mate. And this team mate, George Bennett, has done the same for others time and time again in the past few years, and now it’s his turn in the spotlight. He’s been in the breakaway a number of times, and today faces the sternest test of the Giro so far in the form of the formidable Monte Zoncolan. A peak which defeated him back in 2018, when he had a mechanical going up the more popular Ovaro route. A score to settle, and a point to prove to his doubters, after he came so close two days ago on stage 12.

He keeps his legs moving. He turns the pedals. He climbs. With 11.3km to go he is digging deep, at the front of the group, jaw set, fighting the mountain. Just 200m later, Bahrain-Victorious’ Jan Tratnik goes. His face is a mask; it’s easy, or perhaps he’s a master of deception. But he goes. Will he stay the course, or blow up before the line? Next to go is Eolo Kometa’s Lorenzo Fortunato. He’s riding in his first Grand Tour, and as he stands up and sets off in pursuit of Tratnik, it’s clear he’s feeling good.

George, along with Bauke Mollema, Alessandro Covi, and Nelson Oliveira, keep up their pursuit; yet the gap does not reduce. Behind, the peloton are gathering speed, shedding those who are not in it for the long haul. Jumbo Visma’s Tobias Foss and Koen Bouwman are still among their number.

And so back to us, the fans. Those who go through every agonising kilometre as if we are riding it ourselves. We keep watching, with our hearts in our mouths, biting our nails, hoping. Always hoping. Tratnik ploughs on. Fortunato catches him, and the two work together for a while. Still, either one could blow up as the altitude gathers rapidly. Is it over? Never. It’s never over. If you stop hoping, you might as well turn off the TV because cycling is not for you. Behind, the maglia rosa looked secure on the wheel of his everlasting chain of domestiques, while Aleksandr Vlasov reaped the rewards of his team working from the front all day. Yet in climbing terms, there was still an eternity to go.

It’s not as though George didn’t look good. He looked great. The other three riders with him looked good too; testament to their confidence that the breakaway that they had committed to so long ago still remained clear of the peloton. Yet the two ahead eked out their lead with the distance to the finish line trickling down. Time was almost up.

With 2.3km to go UAE’s Covi broke free, around the same time that up ahead, Tratnik blew. Back in the peloton, it seemed impossible to believe that Egan Bernal still had two domestiques working in front of him and had barely begun to work yet. With 0.9km to go at the front of the race, Simon Yates finally stuck his head into the wind and had a dig. Yates was the pre-race favourite for many but for perspective, fourteen days of racing have passed and he’s been invisible.

He works but Bernal goes with him. Behind front-runner Fortunato, the somewhat revived figure of Jan Tratnik looms. Still nothing is certain and it reminds us how decisive these gruelling climbs can be. But into the mist Fortunato rides, staying strong enough to sit up and raise his arms over the line, snatching the first grand tour victory for Alberto Contador’s Eolo Kometa and continuing the incredible run of unexpected wins of this Giro.

With just a few hundred metres to go Bernal powers away from Yates to finally launch his own attack for home, once again affirming his dominance in the GC contest. He passes George on his way. George finishes in 7th and gains a few places in the GC. Tobias Foss, who we haven’t seen for some time and must have been dropped on the final, loses a few to fall to 11th spot with a five-minute deficit.  Koen Bouwman is 21st with a creditable performance too.

What can we take from all this? Like Edoardo Affini, we pour our souls into the pursuit of glory, and also like Affini, the final result is completely out of our hands. Like George Bennett, we endure. We keep going, despite the pain and the inevitability of the outcome, and the uncertainty of how others riders in other teams are feeling, or might react. Despite all this, we stay strong ready for another day of battle. Tomorrow is another day of battle. Be proud of what the boys have achieved and steel yourselves for more disappointment. And if, just if, the unthinkable happens, and we have a win to celebrate at some point between now and next week’s arrival in Milan, it will be so, so sweet.

*

It wasn’t to be, in the end. The closer the race drew to the final stages, the more intense the GC battle became, and hunting for stage wins was cancelled out. I wanted so much more for George, who has spoken about the race since, acknowledging it was the biggest opportunity of his career and to lose out because of the weather was incredibly difficult to take. Who knows what the future holds; the Olympics is the next goal for New Zealand’s finest and then the question of his future at Jumbo Visma will be answered, as his contract expires this year.

His performance at the Giro might feel like an anti-climax but it comes off the back of his most successful season as a pro, winning Gran Piemonte and coming second in Il Lombardia, before assisting Primoz Roglic in his defence of the Vuelta and then beginning this year by taking the victory his national championships. George is a valuable domestique, a brilliant climber and a smart and experienced team player and he undoubtedly has more to give; where he will be at the end of the year is unclear, but I don’t plan on getting off the rollercoaster anytime soon.

On the Deception of Time, as it Yields

Photo by Roman Pohorecki on Pexels.com

The starter’s hand is a barricade, separating the rider from his conquest. The hand is raised in front of his face, fingers extended, slicing the sun’s rays into wedges that warm segments of his face as it dips in concentration.

The clock ticks inexorably, time pressing forward, closing the gap between before and after. How much time expires in between these two points is down to the rider: his body; its power, its will, its limitations.

The rider visualises the finish line. How to compress his body so the air will sluice around him, how to trick the clock, perform impossible feats of sleight of body as he slides between particles, an aero-dynamic fugitive from time itself.

The starter’s hand quivers, poised for action. In a few seconds he will begin the five second countdown, and once his fist is closed, the rider will be released from limbo, freed onto his natural habitat; the road.

The clock slows. Time is elastic; it toys with him, mocks him. He is no more its master than he is master of the wind, or the slick patches lurking on the shady corners in the final stages of the course, ready to steal his wheels from beneath him.

The rider is a bystander as the past unravels in his mind: folding the yellow and black jersey, tucking it neatly into his kit bag. Pulling on in place of it the purple points jersey that he has won the right to in silent reverence as he considers his achievement. Shouldering the burden of expectation for this last day of racing, as he warms up, alone with his thoughts, just as he will be on the road.

The starter’s hand moves. One by one, his fingers fold, the wedges of sunlight converging in a monumental glare that slams his retinas and fuels his muscles with purpose. The last finger closes, the arm drops, the buzzer sounds…

Go, go, go.

They tell you it’s you against the clock. To be the fastest man, you must post the quickest time.

Narrow frame, head low, shoulders tucked, elbows in, legs pump, breathe… breathe… breathe…

It’s an illusion though, a conspiracy of players in a game you aren’t a part of.

You are lean, you are light, you are strong, you are fast. Power, cadence, rhythm, drive, control, posture.

This is not a competition. It is a triumphant symbiosis of mechanical virtuosity synchronised with a honed body and the killer instinct of a great white shark.

Right turn, drop knee, straighten up, power down, full watts, burn… burn… burn…

This is not science, nor is it art. It’s alchemy. Enchantment. Pure magic.

Kilometers tick down, time ticks up, lactic acid builds, pain increases.

Time holds it breath. You have the edge. Seconds split, explode into myriad shards in your wake.

You are lean. Narrow frame. Straighten up. Burn. You are aero. Elbows tucked. Left turn. Breathe.

Your body is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You whisper between moments, a streak of purple like a bruise on the horizon, a blur of wheels and subterfuge.

Giro d’Italia 2021: what have we learned?

The champagne has flowed, the twirly trophy has been awarded, and the (presumably pink) dust has settled on the 2021 edition of the Giro d’Italia. I can only speak for myself when I say it’s been absolutely exhausting, hasn’t it? As for the riders, those that made it through from day 1 in Torino to day 21 in Milan deserve at the very least a year off and long holiday. Obviously, as they’re professional cyclists, they will be back on their bikes in a couple of days and preparing for the next challenge. Because they’re bonkers. And that’s why we love them.

So what did we learn over the course of the three weeks? Many, many lessons, that I’ll summarise for you now, in something vaguely resembling chronological order.

INEOS Grenadiers proving that ‘wardrobe malfunction’ isn’t in their vocabulary

Fillippo Ganna is part machine #wattbomb

The Jumbo Visma boys know how to time trial

Sometimes, the slowest time set for a stage isn’t slow enough (see stage 2)

A Peter Sagan day apparently equals BORA Hansgrohe riding themselves into the ground only for a man named after a Mexican foodstuff to win instead

A man named after a Mexican foodstuff can win a bike race

Italian television companies are ill-equipped for inclement weather

George Bennett is ill-equipped for inclement weather (he needs at least #2coats)

Giulio Ciccone is everyone’s favourite surprise

Road furniture is terrifying

Mikel Landa and Pavel Sivakov are extremely unlucky

Watching a race enter a tunnel causes a rip in the space-time continuum causing a Schrodinger’s bike race scenario in which everything and nothing happens at once but the tension is unbearable

Gravel finishes trigger Egan Bernal’s hidden turbo mode

Look up ‘train’ in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Fillippo Ganna

It doesn’t matter whether or not you think they belong on a Grand Tour: gravel racing is an awesome spectacle and makes for incredibly exciting racing

A man who has only managed to come second in Grand Tour stages eleven times before can finally win a bike race

Edoardo Affini is such a valuable team mate, he’s worth riding up a massive mountain twice for

A man whose name translates as ‘Lucky’ can win a bike race, and trigger Alberto Contador to shout for five full minutes on social media

Slovenians know how to party

You cannot rely on the Italian Spring to produce a climate conducive to good bike racing

Italian television companies are STILL ill-equipped for inclement weather

INEOS Grenadiers are masters of putting on, and removing, rain jackets

Romain Bardet is a demon descender. (We assume. As we didn’t actually see the evidence).

Is it even a breakaway if it doesn’t contain one of the following: Simon Pellaud. Dries de Bondt. Victor Campanaerts?

If you can see Simon Yates, he’s doing it wrong*

*except on stage 17**

**and 18

Don’t make Joao Almeida angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry

Egan Bernal is a complex individual comprising class, endurance, and raw power. He is both a machine, and human

Look up ‘grit’ in the dictionary and you will find pictures of Dan Martin and Alberto Bettiol

Giant pandas are indigenous to the slopes of the Dolomites

Peter Sagan can, on occasion, resemble an angry shepherd rounding up naughty sheep

Dani Martinez can wear a medallion and still set a lightning-fast pace up a mountain. He will work for you when you have nothing left to give. Then he will shake his fist in your face and goddammit, you will work some more

Fillippo Ganna and his dog are everything

Damiano Caruso appreciating Pello Bilbao is everything

It will take more than a puncture to slow Fillippo Ganna down

Remi Cavagna could use some cornering practice

Damiano Caruso didn’t miss out on first place, he won second place

Egan Bernal is a true champion

AND FINALLY

Bike racers are crazy, and this is why we love them. See exhibit A, George Bennett, who (1) arguably sabotaged his own chances of a stage victory following a spat with Gianluca Brambilla on stage 12; (2) rode back UP Monte Zoncolan to accompany his team mate Edoardo Affini back down (3) rode over the top of the snow-capped Passo Giau in 1 degree with no gloves on, then crossed the line still wearing his food bag.

Still, I love the guy dearly, and as a partisan George and Jumbo Visma supporter, I’m comfortable ending this list with his wildly varied attributes as doesn’t the chaotic nature of this Giro d’Italia feel as though it’s adequately represented by such a character? I vote yes.

And a few things we already knew, but were reminded of…

Italy is incredible and we all want to live there

Cycling is about so much more than just a race

Passion, guts and class are what make a bike racer a truly great rider

In this most unpredictable of bike races, anything can, and probably will, happen (see: car collides with rider; Queen stage shortened due to extreme weather conditions; rider forgets to corner, etc)

When a race like this ends, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve left a small part of yourself behind in the process

Thanks for reading everyone, more Grand Tour adventures await in just under a month… join me there?

/Finito

Giro d’Italia 2021: Rest Day Reflections 2

How are we all holding up, folks? I spoke in my rest day piece last week about the nature of Grand Tours on the psyche of us, the fans; how they creep up and take hold and before long you can’t remember life without them. We are well and truly in the throes of this phenomenon now, people. I’m willing to bet if you have a significant other, friends, children, who are not involved in the cycling world as you are, that you feel a little alienated from them right now. You might have drawn closer to friends who are on your wavelength, or taken to social media to find your tribe.

Cycling is a collective sport, both on and off the road, and it’s at times like this, entrenched deep into a three-week race, that we really begin to need one another. Like the team mates that the GC contenders lean on to help them through the increasingly difficult stages, we need one another for emotional support, to vent to when the tension of the big stages is becoming all too much, and to express our disappointment to others who grasp the extreme hold that this sport has over us.

Legendary football manager Bill Shankly was once reported to say: ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’ With cycling, it’s the same. Perspective is lost to us, for now. We are committed. We’re in this for the long haul. But at least we have each other. So let’s spend some time on this rest day reflecting on some of this week’s talking points.

  1. Romance STILL isn’t dead

In my last post I talked at length about the exceptional properties of the breakaways of this edition of the Giro, and that trend has not diminished in week two. In fact, it’s becoming tradition. The longer the race goes on, the more convinced riders become that they have a chance of a stage victory, and INEOS, in their role as peloton controllers, have had no interest in disavowing them of this notion. This is the year for firsts. First grand tour; first stage win at a grand tour; first stage win for a team at a grand tour. The records are tumbling, and it’s brilliant. Let’s remember the winners of week two:

STAGE 11: MAURO SCHMID: First win of his career, first win of the season for Qhubeka-ASSOS

Following a grinding day on the gravel roads of Tuscany, Swiss Mauro Schmid beat UAE Team Emirates’ Alessandro Covi in a sprint finish leading into Montalcino to claim his first professional victory. He would begin a spectacular second week for the South African team and continue the breakaway’s winning run.

STAGE 12: ANDREA VENDRAME: First Grand Tour stage win

Following a four-man breakaway effort, AG2R’s Vendrame and Team DSM’s Christopher Hamilton fought it out to the finish after a tough day over the Apennine ridge, Vendrame proving the strongest the claim his first ever stage win in a Grand Tour.

STAGE 13: GIACOMO NIZZOLO: First Grand Tour stage win

It seemed a cruel irony given his eleven second place finishes without a win in Grand Tour stages, that prior to the stage, the odds on Nizzolo taking the victory in this stage apparently hovered briefly at 11/2. Finally on stage 13 he broke his duck, beating Jumbo Visma’s Edoardo Affini across the line; the emotion was palpable amongst the Italian crowd and Nizzolo’s team, and rightly so.

STAGE 14: LORENZO FORTUNATO: First win of his career in his first grand tour; first Grand Tour stage win for EOLO-Kometa

If you’re going to score your first professional victory, for a UCI ProTeam who haven’t won a Grand Tour stage before (and happen to be managed by a certain Alberto Contador), is there any better way to do it than atop the misty peak of Monte Zoncolan? Lorenzo Fortunato had us all out of our seats and willing him to victory on Saturday as he ground out one of the most stunning performances of the Giro so far. His winning smile and charming, halting English in his post-race interview undoubtedly catapulted him into the hearts of cycling fans around the world. A more memorable moment you could not wish for.

STAGE 15: VICTOR CAMPANAERTS: First Grand Tour stage win

Only a heart of stone wouldn’t have been moved to joy by the victory of the Belgian former hour world record holder. He’s been on fine form this season, attacking in almost every race he has been a part of, and he has been part of the breakaway a huge number of times in this Giro. His win was fully deserved after a miserable day fighting through the rain and the joy in the Qhubeka-ASSOS camp was a beautiful thing to see, as they grabbed their third stage win in five days.

*

Altogether, there have been eight stage wins that have come from a breakaway. Ten first-time stage winners and two first career wins. Two people called VICTOR have been victorious, and if that’s not a sign that this Giro is blessed by fate I don’t know what is. Italy is the land of romance and this is well and truly the grand tour where anything can happen, and usually does. Speaking of which…

2. Never a Dull Moment

Bike racing is brilliant isn’t it? Even on the days that look straightforward on paper, there is always something to talk about. The pure distilled chaos of the sport that is somehow controlled for hours upon hours of riding, day after day, inevitably spills through on occasion, and there’s no greater example of this than in a Grand Tour where the parcours varies from day to day, numerous jerseys are being contested in addition to the GC and the stage win, and the mad interjections from the outside world combine with unpredictable weather conditions to create all kinds of unforeseen scenarios. Just this week, we’ve seen…

  • Insane off-roading. Tuscany’s gravel stage really separated the bike handlers from the lesser mortals, as the frenetic pace set up by INEOS Peloton Godfather Fillippo Ganna caused the first major shake-up in the GC, thinning out a frantic peloton who spent the entire day playing catch up on a surface that few of them were comfortable on. It was bloody brilliant, wasn’t it?
  • Battling (in more ways than one). The Bennett v Brambilla saga that concluded stage 12 was bizarre and effectively resulted in both riders cancelling out their chances at taking the stage win. Emotions undoubtedly run high in races and when George and Gianluca had a disagreement over who was working in the group, sparks flew, ultimately resulting in spat across the line which had Brambilla relegated a place
  • Double mountain duty for Bennett. I poured my soul out lamenting George Bennett’s efforts in the breakaway on Monte Zoncolan in my post-race report, but was floored to discover that after the race, on sighting his team mate and helper for the day Edoardo Affini still making his way up the climb, George rode back up it himself to keep him company on his ride. Broken and beaten by the day, the two Jumbo Visma riders were united and it was truly heart-warming to see
  • Crashes happen in the most unlikely places. The chaos at the beginning of stage 15 was a primary example of the absolute madness of cycling. Sure, crashes are always a possibility and we have seen some bad ones this Giro. It’s more usual though to see disaster strike on a sketchy descent or through a town centre.

    It’s a constant source of wonder to me how there are so few crashes in the peloton itself; a thing that seems to function with a collective identity, moving together without incident for the vast majority of bike races. The crazy chasing down of breakaways that has typified this Giro somehow caused the entire back end of the peloton to come a cropper on stage 15 mere minutes after the beginning of the race, before the peloton had settled into their rhythm, resulting in three abandonments.
  • Surprise Packages. It’s easy to predict who might win a Grand Tour, but for every Egan Bernal there’s a Damiano Caruso, and this Giro has been no stranger to unexpected breakthrough performances. In week one, arguably one of the great surprises of the race was the presence in the GC race of young Italian Giulio Ciccone. Prior to the Giro, veteran climber Bauke Mollema would probably have been Trek Segafredo’s nominal leader, with Vincenzo Nibali’s return from a wrist injury hampering his ability to compete at his best. In Ciccone though, Trek had a young, aggressive rider who had clearly timed his peak fitness to perfection. Ciccone had a storming first week and, whilst he’s been quieter in week two, he’s still very much in contention in 6th position on the GC. An impressive performance from the young Italian climber who just today proved his worth on the queen stage of the race with a 4th place finish alongside Hugh Carthy. He is very much here to stay.

    Caruso for Bahrain-Victorious has come through in Mikel Landa’s stead with impressive form. He’s been a mainstay of the lead group for the entire race following the departure of his leader, and if he maintains his position, will step onto the podium at a Grand tour for the first time in his career.

    I was going to write about Emanuel Buchmann, too. The German had quietly crept up the GC standings, as he quite often does, but he finally stuck his nose into the wind this week and had a dig. It wasn’t enough to shake off Egan Bernal but it made a difference, and so it was galling to see him crash out of the race in the chaotic opening to stage 15, yet another GC contender lost to the unpredictable vagaries of the sport.

    Finally, Tobias Foss for Team Jumbo Visma has been a quiet revelation this Giro. He exploded out of the blocks with an incredible opening time trial in the Prologue and has maintained form ever since, sticking with the big guns through both flat stages and climbs and never dropping lower than 11th position on GC. Not bad for a young man riding in only his second grand tour, and a stand-out performer for Jumbo Visma whose leader, George Bennett, has failed to make the mark on the GC that the team (and certain fans of the Kiwi champion himself) would have hoped. Foss’ performance on the queen stage, finishing in 10th position on an extremely difficult day, is truly impressive and his potential over the years to come should not be under-estimated.
  • The bloody weather. Not everything can be predicted or controlled. And the Italian weather has been a thorn in the side of the riders for the entirety of this Giro. The sight of riders putting on rain jackets and setting their features in grim determination has been a constant, and combined with the crashes and the testing terrain it’s testament to their absolute iron wills and incredible resilience that there are any of them left at all.

    As for us, stuck at home, we’ve been subject to varying levels of coverage and have been left guessing on more than one occasion, and it’s given rise to some great humour and conversation on social media, bringing us back to the point about the importance of the cycling community.

    So, have I talked myself into actually being grateful for the insane weather conditions? Absolutely not. Seeing the suffering the riders have endured in the cold, and seeing rain bouncing off the road surface, is not my idea of fun. I’m already counting the days to the Tour de France and hopefully some idyllic summer sun.

3. Remco, Again

The Remco hype train somewhat ran out of steam in the second week of the Giro, as he settled into grand tour life and proved that ultimately, he was human after all. Whilst I’ll admit I was the first to hope he would show the flashes of brilliance we had come to expect from him, prior to his crash in August 2020, I’d like to qualify this with the following caveat: that I, along with the vast majority of cycling fans, viewed Remco’s return to the sport as a wonderful relief following the trauma of his crash, and from my perspective, whilst the hype around his participation in the Giro was overblown, to see him attempt his first grand tour was an exciting prospect.

Despite a great opening week, Remco returned from the rest day to the nightmare gravel stage in Tuscany, and after a quiet few days where he struggled to stick with the pace, his second week ended with him losing 24 minutes on the Passo Giau. While rumours circulate about whether or not he will leave the race, one thing is certain: he’s learning an incredible amount; but is he learning it the right way?

In a team renowned for their dominance in one day races and in sprint stages of grand tours, the paradigm shift to a general classification team will clearly take time to become fully embedded at Deceuninck-QuickStep. Their fabled reinvention, built around Remco, will presumably develop organically, along with the young man himself, however for me, they have not made the best of starts at this Giro. From downplaying Remco’s involvement in the leadership of the team prior to the race, boss Patrick Lefevre shifted his stance within the first couple of days as Remco made a promising start, and the resulting media frenzy would have heaped further pressure on the shoulders of a rider who is in completely unchartered territory.

To then undermine this by leaving him labouring alone for large portions of the gravel stage in Tuscany, and have him dropping back to get his own race jacket the following day on stage 12, does not sit well with this new found profile they are seeking to create. Rumours of unrest in the Wolfpack surfaced as Joao Almeida reluctantly helped Remco on stage 11, then finally broke free and went for his own shot at glory on stage 16, as in the intervening days Lefevre backpedalled once more, stating that if Remco needed to be sent home, he would be.

Remco himself has, from our perspective, stayed upbeat, and downplays the possibility of leaving the race. Undoubtedly it would be great to see him take on the final time trial. He was always an unknown quantity but the lack of clarity from the team’s DS surrounding Remco’s role, at a time when what he desperately needed was guidance and support, is concerning. He is simply a young man, returning to the sport after a deeply troubling accident, whose physical and psychological wellbeing are unproven in this level of racing. Even now when there is talk of withdrawing him, mixed messages are coming out, and it is hard to see whether or not the team have his best interests at heart.

Remco needs the kind of nurturing that is not in keeping with the Wolfpack mindset and, whilst they are not total strangers to a GC battle, having Julian Alaphillippe go deep in the 2017 Tour de France, Alaphillippe is a vastly different beast to Remco. The team will need to look at different strategies going forward if they are to get the best out of Evenepoel and I really hope they succeed; he is too bright a hope to be squandered through mis-management, especially if they plan to use him to spearhead their future grand tour efforts.

FINAL THOUGHT… Only five stages remain in the 2021 edition of the Giro d’Italia and it’s safe to say it’s Egan Bernal’s to lose. He’s looked utterly formidable so far and it’s going to take a monumental effort to oust him at the top – perhaps the GC could be considered now a race for second. More importantly, can George Bennett finally win a stage? Enjoy the conclusion of the action folks, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Giro d’Italia 2021: Rest Day Reflections 1

Grand Tours are strange and enigmatic beasts. They creep up on you, quietly occupying your mind as they draw closer. Once they begin, they take hold insidiously; you try to keep up with the early stages. You read an article, listen to a podcast, have an exchange or ten on social media.

A few days later and your previous life is eclipsed. Who are you, if you’re not a full-time cycling pundit? What is life, if it’s not discussing the finer points of Italian weather systems, the significance of the maglia rosa, or whether or not Remco looked a bit tired today (spoiler alert: he didn’t).

Ten days, people. It’s been ten days of our lives and yet, it’s hard to recall life without the Giro d’Italia. I’ve been writing daily stage reports for TJV Supporters, so if you’ve missed anything because of some life-altering emergency (no other reason is applicable) then please feel free to check them out here – they have a black and yellow leaning, but so much has happened in the first ten days, it’s hard to focus on just one team, even when it’s your remit to do so.

In these rest day reflections, I will summarise some of the key takeaways and expand on talking points that have cropped up in the previous week’s racing. Given the nature of this Giro so far, this could potentially be a long one, so buckle in and enjoy the ride.

  1. Breakaway Dominance

All too often in cycling races these days, the breakaway is doomed to fail. It’s the way of things; the peloton exerting order over the chaos that might have been as they slowly reel plucky breakaway groups back in, usually timing it to perfection just in time for the final.

The Giro d’Italia 2021 edition is tearing up that rule book and throwing it off of the top of the Apennines. Breakaways at the Giro are a different beast, for three key reasons:

  • They are hard fought. There have been a couple of stages where it’s taken in excess of 60km for a breakaway to form. You have to really want to get away. Once they’ve finally been established, the peloton takes longer to recover from the exertion and bigger gaps stretch out in the meantime, giving the advantage to the breakaway who don’t have as far to ride free of the peloton as the ordinarily might
  • They’ve been substantial. It’s pretty simple; strength is in numbers and where breakaways are concerned, the bigger the better. Some of this Giro’s breakaways have been like mini pelotons – day 4 had a 25-man breakaway, and unsurprisingly, they won the day through Joe Dombrowski
  • They have belief. They genuinely think they have a chance of a stage win. And it’s contagious – once one breakaway victory was recorded on the second road stage of the Giro, it became clear that this was not a pipe dream – it was a real possibility. More breakaway victories would, and did, inevitably follow.

2. Romance isn’t dead

As I talked about at length in my preview piece, everybody loves an underdog. The success of the breakaway has manifested some unexpected and wonderful outcomes, including a raft of winners that the average cycling fan had probably never heard of before this race.

With the sport increasingly dominated by big teams, it’s arguably growing more and more difficult for lesser-known riders to make their mark, but winning a stage of a Grand Tour is no mean feat, and these riders have earned their place in cycling history. Add to that the pink jersey landing on the back of young Attila Valter, the first Hungarian to ever wear the maglia rosa, and this year’s first grand tour has proven beyond a doubt that money isn’t everything – and romance most certainly isn’t dead.

  • Taco van der Hoorn wins stage 3 in dramatic style. The Dutchman’s career had faltered after he left Jumbo Visma last year, but the eagle-eyed among us will have noticed Taco in the breakaway group at Milano-San Remo, where he was one of the last men standing, and here at the Giro he raced to victory in spectacular style, treating us to a display of pure unfiltered emotion as he crossed the line. Absolute perfection
  • Joe Dombrowski beats the weather in Sestola. A rider who paled into obscurity despite a promising early career, it was a huge surprise to see Dombrowski snatch victory on a day when the horrible weather conditions had thinned the field down to just the strongest riders. He hung on to take the first stage win of his senior career at the age of 31.
  • The redemption of Gino Mader. After his heartbreak in Paris-Nice (where he was ‘Roglic’ed’ as some have termed it), Gino Mader fought tooth and nail for Bahrain-Victorious as the team united following the loss of their leader Mikel Landa to a crash. Matej Mohoric rode for Mader in the break before leaving him to take on the final stages alone. The cycling world was united in roaring him to victory and it was never in doubt. Mader took the mountains jersey and earned his place in the annals of Giro history
  • Victor is Victorious for France. With the confidence high in the breakaway, everyone had a dig on stage 7, but it was Victor Lafay for Cofidis who timed his attack to perfection, and the French and their team who have struggled in recent years had reason to celebrate their first Giro stage win in 11 years
  • Groupama-FDJ work for the jersey. There has been much talk of ‘respecting the jersey’ so far this Giro. Whatever your opinion on the matter, there’s no doubt that the French team did their leader Attila Valter proud with their stringent defence of the maglia rosa. It meant a great deal to them and they did the work. When they finally lost the jersey on stage 9 after three days in control, the sight of Valter kissing the jersey was enough to bring a tear to the eye of the most pragmatic of fans.

3. Remco rides again

I’ll preface this with the obvious comebacks that are being parroted daily in the media: it’s a three-week race. The hardest stages are yet to come. It’s Remco’s first ever grand tour and he’s only just come back from injury.

RIGHT. Now we’ve got all those boring ‘facts’ out of the way, it’s time to throw some more fuel into the engine of the hype train which, with ten days gone is very much still rolling. Remco has ridden maturely, riding within himself and using his team well, and he has taken his chances when they’ve presented themselves without leaving himself exposed. The long and short of it? He’s fit. He’s smart. And he hasn’t made any mistakes as yet.

There were rumblings suggesting he was dropped on the steep gravel section where Egan Bernal detonated on stage 9, yet if you watch Remco’s progress up the climb, despite starting out near the back of the leading group he makes stunning progress and is probably second only to Bernal. The difference between the two is negligible at this stage; Remco is working for everything, even attacking the intermediate sprint in the final stage before the rest day to claim a single second.

With the awareness of his time trialling prowess at the forefront of their minds, Remco’s rivals cannot afford to let him stay with them, which promises for some exciting attacks going into the next stages of the race. Will Remco be able to stick with them for the full three weeks? The weight of expectation he faces from the media and fans in his home nation of Belgium must be immense on the young man’s shoulders, and with the eyes of the entire cycling world upon him the question of how his body will react to the pressures of three weeks of racing remains unanswered as yet. But it’s so far, so good, and those who hoped, back at the beginning of the race, are now starting to believe in the Belgian wunderkind.

4. Rider safety could still use some improvement

I’ll keep it brief as I referred to it at length in my day five report, but in an era where the UCI are heavily involved in what riders can and can’t do during the course of a race, there are a great many further issues that are being either ignored or deprioritised, and rider safety, sadly, still seems to be one of them.

Sending pelotons going at high speed into twisting, turning town centres with the inevitable road furniture that these entail on the build-up to a bunch sprint is an unnecessary risk. The barrier issue has been addressed, albeit slowly and with varying efficacy from race to race, but until the UCI takes a stronger stance on route planning, or considers some kind of late stage neutralisation for GC riders, allowing sprinters and their trains the space to do their thing, then ultimately, we will continue to face problems the likes of which saw Mikel Landa and Joe Dombrowski crash out of the race.

Furthermore, the way the support vehicles interact with the riders is at the centre of heated debate, as ever, following Pieter Serry’s collision with the Team Bike Exchange vehicle. The driver was literally exchanging something with the commissaire’s car and was not paying attention to the rapidly decelerating rider in front. Sanctions had the driver of the BikeExchange car expelled but there has been a noticeable silence on the part of the race directors.

Matej Mohoric’s horror crash on the descent of Passo Godi early on in stage 9 raised concerns too, as the doctor appeared to offer a new bike to a rider whose had crashed so hard his bike had snapped in two and his body had been thrown head over heels in the process; thankfully Mohoric was not only alright, but somehow had the presence of mind not to just get on and continue the race.

Even the final stretch on stage 9’s gravel climb was hair-raising to watch as the motorbikes and team cars wove around in close enough proximity to the riders that one wrong move could have ended someone’s race.

What the answers are to these enduring issues are I don’t know; we can only hope they are given due care and attention by those who can make a difference, as soon as possible.

5. This sport is an emotional rollercoaster

I wrote about George Bennett on Saturday. Things haven’t been going so well for our George; he’s struggled in the poor weather conditions and shipped swathes of time on the GC, but I gathered up my hopes and poured them into the piece I wrote, and the next day, what should happen, but he goes in the break. It was immense. I felt as though I’d manifested it; brought about some kind of fabulous spiritual lift that had rippled outward through the universe, all the way to Italy. Somehow, it was even worse then, when it finally fell apart, leaving George further adrift than he had been before. My hopes raised and then dashed again, and I can’t deny my heart was heavy with the disappointment of it all that night.

All sport is laden with emotion. You’re high as a kite when your team or athlete of choice is winning, plunged deep into dark places when they’re suffering. Is cycling any different to any other sport, in that respect? My answer to that is yes. It is different: it’s worse.

The reason why lies in the rigours of the sport itself. Think of what you face, as a rider in a grand tour: you spend five hours a day in the saddle, working at high speed, across gruelling terrain, often in unpleasant or downright horrible conditions. While doing this, you are constantly judging how others around you are performing, whether you are where you need to be, how much fuel you need to take on, if you are working hard enough for your teammates; if you have the stomach for the fight. Not to mention the inevitable dangers that you face along the way; the odds are that one or two of your team mates, if not you, will be the next to crash, or fall, or suffer a mechanical. And oh, wait – that’s not just for one day. That’s every day. For three weeks. Consider what the average footballer goes through on a matchday, by comparison.

As fans we are subject to the same duration of emotional exertion. We can’t slack, as we’ll miss something: a key moment, a stealth attack, a decisive tactical move. We have to stay alert, keep our focus. Make careful mental notes as to who is where, and who is following, and what could that mean at the end of the day, the week, the tour? We gasp when they go into tight corners, hold our breath when they fly down sketchy descents; is it any wonder when they win, we shed tears of joy along with our favourites, or even those who we didn’t know were our favourites? Is it any wonder we feel deflated, defeated and desperate when things aren’t going our team’s way?

Three weeks is a long time for the riders, but they have trained for this. They are honed physical specimens, with plans and goals and data and directions in their ears all along the way. So must we become honed specimens of bearing the mental strain. We must discipline ourselves to suffer alongside those we would love to see win, and those we care less for; we suffer with them all. Because it’s not black and white; not like football, it’s not a win, lose or draw situation. It’s so much more than that. So many nuances, outcomes and possibilities. It’s all the more to love. You give your heart to something, and sometimes it will break. Yet on the days when the stars align, and everything goes the way it should, and your favourite rider is flying and you’re screaming at the television and nothing else matters… It will all be worth it.

And breathe…

With that, I’m going to leave you to enjoy the rest day – never mind the riders, I feel that after the emotional rollercoaster of the past week, we all need this brief pause to decompress before the race begins again in earnest. So give yourselves time to celebrate the victories, commiserate the losses, and refuel ready for those next all important stages.

I will be continuing to cover the race daily over at TJV Supporters, and I’ll be back next week for another round-up of the major talking points. Until then, thanks for reading, and please feel free to share your thoughts here or over on social media.