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.
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.
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.
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)
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 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.