There were no great expectations for the Tour this year before the grand depart: there were only 2 people capable of winning it, people said, and they turned out to be right about the number but wrong about the people.
Jumbo Visma looked to get their Tour underway with a TT win for yellow with Wout Van Aert, but were stunned to see Belgian farmer's son Yves Lampaert gurn his way to the jersey, charming everyone with the floods of tears that burst forth as a result of his unexpectedly rapid stage: he was involved in a crash the next day and his time in the jersey was brief, but so satisfying for all.
Fabio Jakobsen was the next rider to pull on the heartstrings, holding off Van Aert for a cathartic sprint win the next day which went some (if not all) of the way to justifying the decision to leave Mark Cavendish behind: even if it was to prove QuickStep’s Tour highlight it was nonetheless pleasing to see the Dutchman bring home such an important win as the final proof that he is back after his horror crash in Poland just 2 years ago.
For every yin there’s a yang, and Dylan Groenewegen grabbed the next stage win to round out the Tour’s successful visit to Denmark, the villain of the Poland disaster also putting some ghosts to rest as he forced Van Aert into a third P2 in a row, the yellow jerseyed Belgium seemingly Saganing the race as the Slovenian watched on, unable to impose his will on the race that made his name: it took a solo attack to Calais the next day for Van Aert to finally go one better and grab his overdue win.
The Belgian held yellow over the cobbles to Arenberg despite a crash, but if he could shake it off his Jumbo co-leader Primoz Roglic was less lucky, losing 2 minutes to GC rival Tadej Pogacar in a horrid crash from the centre of the pack as some riders made contact with a dislodged hay bale at an otherwise innocuous looking roundabout. His co-leader Jonas Vingegaard suffered a Keystone Cops style farce after a mechanical forced him to ride increasingly large bikes loaned by his teammates before the team car (and Van Aert) arrived to save the day: the Belgian lost 12s but held the jersey as Simon Clarke soared to the best victory of his long career.
Stage 6 was the first GC stage, the first for the main rivals to put a stamp on the race, and Pogacar duly did so by winning the sprint on the final climb into Longwy for the win, grabbing yellow as a long range attack from Van Aert failed to defend his position, leaving him with just the green jersey and the astonishment of fans worldwide at his superhuman abilities for comfort.
The Slovenian backed it up with another win on the now-upgraded Super Planche des Belles Filles, his UAE team breaking everyone bar Vingegaard as he soared to victory at the site of his first overall Tour victory just 2 years ago, where he mugged countryman Roglic for an against the odds title. If the hilltop finish had been a vital component of so many previous races it appeared to be filling the same role once again asVingegaard showing he was the only man capable of taking the fight to the pre-Tour favourite.
Van Aert, seemingly bored at someone else getting all the attention, won the GC sprint at will next time out just to remind everyone that he could, breaking Michael Matthews’ heart in the process, while Bob Jungels soloed to victory on Sunday in the closest thing to a day off the peloton would see before the actual rest day, a chance to put something back in the tank ahead of what proved to be a brutal 2nd week.
Tuesday’s stage to Megeve saw the first disruption to the race by climate campaigners, and if a bike race seemed a surprising target for the protesters they were at least thankful that Bernard Hinault had retired from all Tour duties to his Brittany farm: Magnus Cort, the surprise early polka dot wearer, won in a photo from Nicholas Schultz for no change in the GC.
That wouldn’t last another day, though: Jumbo Visma pushed the pace all day before Vingegaard attacked on the brutally steep Col de Granon, cracking Pogacar and putting almost 3 minutes into the Slovenian as the Dane stole yellow with the stage win, igniting the GC fight as he announced his intentions.
Pogacar was sanguine the next day, admitting that he was under-fueled when it counted but adamant that it wouldn’t happen again: if he had to attack on every mountain between here and the finish then so be it, he smiled. Vingegaard was much more succinct, noting that he would simply watch his rival and try to match any moves, and the GC chess match gave space to the breakaway to go, handing Tom Pidcock the room to claim a magnificent first Tour victory on the fabled slopes of Alpe d’Huez, the emotion of the moment clear to everyone watching.
Mads Pedersen added to the Danish over-performance by winning the breakaway sprint from Fred Wright and Hugo Houle on stage 13, with the two GC rivals unable to leave each other’s side from go to whoa, before Bling Matthews mugged a heartbroken Alberto Bettiol on the final climb into Mende the next day for the best finish line celebration of this year’s edition.
If Sunday’s race to Carcassonne was a reminder that there were actually some sprinters in the race, it also served to point to one who wasn’t there, being the location of Cavendish’s record equalling victory last year. Jasper Philipsen won over whichever sprinters could actually make it to the line, but the stage will be better remembered for it’s crashes: Roglic withdrew before the start with what was later discovered to be 2 broken vertebrae, while Jumbo lost Stephen Kruijswijk with a broken collarbone while Tiesj Benoot and Vingegaard both came down heavily before having to push hard to the line.
It evened the odds a little, with UAE losing a couple of riders (and a number of team workers) to Covid: on the final rest day everyone was trying to work out which team had the strongest remaining riders, while hoping against hope that there would be no more attritional losses from a race already hit hard by the virus.
The final week got underway with an emotional win for Hugo Houle, dedicated on the line to his late brother, while further back Pogacar was true to his word as he attacked constantly, if to no reward, all the way to the line. The next day’s stage to Peyragudes was another opportunity gratefully seized by the Slovenian, who resumed bombardment for the stage win after faking a loss of power on the brutal final climb, with Vingegaard as ever stuck to his wheel as they crossed the line.
Hautacam was the last mountain stage, a last chance for Pogacar to make a move, but Jumbo played their tactics to perfection, sending Van Aert up the road in an early attack while using the remainder of the team to push the pace and break everyone else. The GC fight was in flames: Vingegaard nearly fell off his bike before Pogacar actually did, with the Dane waiting for his rival before resuming hostilities. Van Aert dropped back on the final climb before the Jumbo pair attacked, leaving Pogacar unable to fight back, and the Tour was almost done.
Friday was a sprinter’s stage, but Pogacar couldn’t help but attack once again, even if he knew it was futile: with so few sprinters remaining Jumbo somehow engineered for Christophe Laporte to come out on top with a long run to the line. Van Aert put the record right by winning the final TT, claiming enough points to beat Sagan’s points record for the green jersey, with Philipsen winning the final run to the line on the Champs Elysees to be the only sprinter to win more than once.
But all eyes were on Jumbo Visma, who crossed the line in the now traditional arms linked line formation, able to afford to give up almost a minute in the process as they demonstrated they did indeed have what it takes to beat Pogacar in a straight fight, albeit with a different rider than most expected before the race began.
The final week of the Tour is generally a see-saw ride between working out who is going to win the whole thing and the date you realise you won’t hear that song again for another year. Unless you download it as a ringtone to see if you trigger anyone. I normally hope that day comes towards the final weekend, but with the GC being wrapped up so early I found myself being wistful at almost every ad break for a week.
Years like this tend to bring out the ignorant, with their “Tour de France? Tour de Drugs more like, ho ho” commentary which is entirely immune to the insertion of any facts (such as all the other big hitters falling off in the first week) whatsoever into the conversation. Generally they tend to make me want to punch them repeatedly in the mouth while you intone “it’s 2021 you twat” like a mantra, but this year you can just sneeze in their faces and watch them run away screaming.
I had this in my old life too, when ‘fans’ who had perhaps seen a couple of results across a season and confidently advised that it was a field of greats (if the final championship table was close) or a field of monkeys (if there was a runaway winner) despite having no actual knowledge about the season or the drivers whatsoever.
If the championship was close it could just as easily mean they were all a bit crap. And alternately, in Stoffel Vandoorne’s case, he really was just that good: he is the only driver to whom, while hosting the press conference, I’ve had to admit “you’ve won so many races that I’ve run out of questions: is there anything you’d like to ask yourself?”
But I digress.
The final week felt a bit like the other riders were just hoping that if they ignored Tadej Pogačar then perhaps he’d go away, a bit like my childrens’ approach to broccoli on their plates. But to all of their combined disappointment, the skinny thing with the spiky bush on top remains in this realm, as much to annoy them all as anything else, and eventually they have to come up with a tactic to deal with it.
Ineos, thinking that their record of 7 wins v 4 losses at the Tour meant they might know a thing or two about racing, decided to do their usual tactic of sitting on the front and grinding endlessly in the hope that their pace will ultimately drop everyone off and they can simply tow Richard Carapaz to the line.
Unfortunately for them, Pogačar just sat on their wheels, took the free ride, and mostly won the stage. Embarrassingly, he overtook them a couple of times, just to let them know that their pace wasn’t hard enough and to enquire as to whether they could kick it up a notch please, like that guy who never thinks the sauna is quite hot enough, actually.
Jumbo Visma decided, rightly, that there was no point towing the yellow jersey around France, and to animate a few stages for more wins, if possible. And it was. Meanwhile Jonas Vingergaard, who had originally come along for the experience because Tom Dumoulin couldn’t start, thought he might as well see what he can do without his remaining 3 teammates, and ultimately looked like the only rider who could possibly compete with Pogačar, albeit from almost 6 minutes back.
If he’d been any closer earlier on, this would have been a very different Tour. Unfortunately for us all, he wasn’t.
And it may be hard to remember that other riders won some stages in the final week, but remarkably it’s true. Patrick Konrad livened up Bastille Day with a solo attack in the Pyrenees, the type of ride all the riders who proclaimed that they were going for stage wins rather than the GC, honest guv, ahead of the Tour should have done but all failed entirely to achieve. Sonny Colbrelli (green jersey points) and David Gaudu (mountain goat looking for a stage win for France) tried and failed to pull him in, and if it sounds unfair to say that the GC contenders (look, I know they weren’t really by that stage, but there’s not really anything else to call them) did nothing despite pulling hard away from the peloton, it’s also pretty true.
Then it was Pau, that Tour staple that still makes me think nonetheless of Formula 3, and the top 10 falling off in reverse order on Col du Portet until there were just 3, with Carapaz puffing and gurning behind the other 2, who were chatting to each other (in what language? I hope they split the difference and picked Czech) ahead, presumably saying something along the lines of “does he really think we’re that stupid? Of course he’s bluffing: let’s make him pay.” They attacked then sat up, waited for the Ecuadorean to come by before both blowing past saying “psych, lulz.”
And Pogačar won, of course.
The next day you could have been forgiven for thinking you’d put the recording of yesterday’s stage on again, with the top 3 going off up ahead, Ben O’Connor doing enough to secure 4th as the others fell back again, Carapaz attacking and failing again as the other 2 blew past again.
And Pogačar won, of course.
Then it was the penultimate sprint stage, and Mark Cavendish did his customary … no, sorry, he gave his team the day off and let the breakaway break away, with Matej Mohorič putting the hurt into his rivals and winning solo as he does, putting his fingers to his lips and zipping his mouth in honour of Lance Armstrong … no, sorry, he wasn’t born then, he was simply pointing out that he was a bit annoyed at being woken at 3.00 by the police looking for drugs by pawing through photos of his family on his phone.
And every old school fan thought oh no, here we go again before remembering that the number of drug busts in cycling are vanishingly rare these days given the extensive testing protocols, and then thought oh no, here we go again because we all know that non-cycling fans are going to come out of their holes and start bleating, despite the police finding nothing at all to date.
And then it was the time trial, and Pogačar won, of course.
Oh, actually it was Wout van Aert, proving that he can actually do everything better than everyone else. With Vingergaard taking a few seconds out of Pogačar, because he probably knows better than anyone (other than Primož Roglič) what can happen if you push too hard in the final TT.
Then, the Champs-Elysee. The final stage, the final sprint of the Tour. The stage where Cavendish would win to claim the record all for himself.
Wout had other ideas, however: the Belgian got a good lead out and attacked, Cavendish was on his wheel and tried to go around but hit the wind, and the Belgian stole the win, proving that he can actually do everything better than everyone else, on consecutive days.
And if there was a sense of anti-climax, that was only because it was. Eddy Merckx had been clearly peevish because someone had equalled his Tour win record despite being only a sprinter, joining in the festivities begrudgingly because he knew it would look bad for him if he didn’t. And now Cavendish was also clearly peevish, because he had to share the win record with someone else, even though that person was Eddy Merckx. They probably deserve each other.
The Manxman tried not to look entirely pissed off as he paraded his green jersey on the podium, while Pogačar claimed every other jersey before slinking off to eat someone else’s dinner.
And the theme song played, for the last time this year.
If the opening week felt like a month, the second week seemed closer to a one day classic, a race being rushed through on the way to a palmares entry and the next opportunity to cause mayhem. Which is probably not far from the truth, actually.
The story lines shrunk as the Tour progressed and, with all due respect to the stage winners and their career-making results, there were only 2 people anyone was talking about: Mark Cavendish and Tadej Pogačar. And perhaps Eddy Merckx, He Who Could Now Be Named (But Was Unhappy At The Comparison, Apparently), but really only as a by-product of the other two riders and their results in the race he used to own.
The Manxman got everyone talking immediately after the first rest day by grabbing his 33rd stage win on the roundabouts of Valence, spinning his rivals round like a record as he continued to hunt down the Cannibal years after he had departed the scene, and winning fans everywhere for his pithy, entertaining interviews as he rode his way to what everyone watching knew was the inevitable denouement. It was an easy way into the week, an amuse bouche as everyone looked forward to the stage we all had marked in the diary as a must see long before a crank was turned in anger.
The Giant of Provence isn’t raced often in the Tour, with the organisers leaving years between visits to make the legend grow, to scare the shorts off the newer racers as they rode their way towards the monster that awaited down south. And this year, for the first time ever, it was to be crested twice in one stage, the usual single trek deemed not sufficiently terrifying for the sadists who created this year’s route.
“What stage are we going to watch in full this year?” Rima asked, needing a partner in crime to justify her absence from work for a day (and someone to also ensure she doesn’t back out under the weight of her work piling up at the studio, needing the jours ans more than usual). There wasn’t any choice to be made, and when Vince pointed us towards the only pub in the area that was showing the race every day it was as though the gods were smiling upon us, with glorious weather for the longish walk and a beautiful new beer garden awaiting us.
We decided against riding there, because we’d have to come back eventually. Sensible, if slightly boring.
If anyone was going to put a dent in Pogačar’s aura it was going to be here, but how would they do it? Alaphilippe went early, looking like he was on a kamikaze mission until it became clear that he was soaking up the sprint points to protect teammate Cavendish’s green jersey tilt, but then typically kept going because he’s Loulou, because he can. Wout Van Aert eventually chased too, and if it didn’t look like a Woutable stage on paper we enjoyed the windmill tilt (along with some lovely pale ales).
Behind the crazy people in the break there was stuff happening, but none of it made any sense either: Ineos were grinding away en masse out front, breaking up the GC competitors but for seemingly no one other than the yellow jersey, who they should really have been attacking. Pogačar simply sat on the wheels and waited for them to finish, happy that someone else’s team was doing the work that his was unable to do, and the inevitable attack he would make when they were done.
Out front Alaphilippe was pedalling squares, looking for all the world as though he was an acid trip made flesh, while Wout finally got bored of sitting on the break and left, grinding his way up to an past Kenny Elissonde, putting the lie to the presumed knowledge that an all rounder like the Belgian champion could compete on these sacred roads with a climber. Wout finally made it to the end alone, looking for all the world as though he had just popped down to the corner shops for an ice cream as his rivals were shredded across the beast behind him.
Back in his wake Richard Carapaz decided to attack before realising that he had nothing left in the tank with which to do so: Pogačar smirked and glided by with Jonas Vingegaard, the Danish rider who was now nominally the leader of Jumbo Visma despite his lack of experience at this level. This lack was soon made real when he attacked the Slovenian, opening a small gap on the way up to the 2nd summit but seemingly forgetting about the descent on the other side.
Pogačar simply ground his way up, deigning to wait for Carapaz and Rigoberto Uran before the trio reeled him in before the line, sliding past just to stick the knife in. End result in the GC: no change, other than some others falling further behind.
Next up was another sprint stage, but the crosswinds tore up the peloton and saw a breakaway of 13 riders go, with everyone else behind deciding they’d had quite enough drama the day before, thanks very much, and allowing them to go. Even Cavendish admitted that he could have just about gone with them, but with a teammate in the break and a target on his back he decided to sit up and have a bit of a rest.
The crosswinds turned to a tail, with breaks within breaks going and taking a push with them, the lead group getting smaller and smaller until eventually it was just Nils Politt out alone for the last 50km, his rivals unable to do anything about the gap and conceding the win from a distance as the German and his seemingly aero efficient teeth flew on to his first Tour stage win.
Then Carcassonne. And Cavendish. And history.
“It’s not real, you know,” he blurted in the interview the day before. “It’s just been made to look like that.” But what is real is that the Manxman now has the same number of Tour stage wins as Eddy Merckx, which doesn’t mean there’s a comparison between the two other than their endless hunger for winning, albeit in completely different ways to each other.
Cavendish is probably the best sprinter of all time now, as controversial as it is to compare and contrast across the years, and given that the modern version of a sprinter is indeed a modern construct then perhaps it’s not saying a lot. But he’s won at every grand tour, at the World’s, he’s won Classics, and he’s been around for longer than most riders are allowed, at the sharp end for large chunks of his career. So maybe it’s too early to say it, maybe it’s the sort of thing you can only say after someone has retired, but who’s got that sort of time to wait? He’s going nowhere but on now, so we might as well salute him and get the GOAT trophy polished for when he finally decides to leave, in a few years time or so.
And then Bauke Mollema won the Queen Stage. Solo. Probably because someone suggested he couldn’t, so he said “hold my beer.”
Guillaume Martin tried and failed to stay with the Dutchman, but still pushed himself up to second on the time standings. And if the rest of the GC contenders looked as though they didn’t care, it was only because they didn’t care: everyone knew he’d fall back down the standings, although most wouldn’t have said it would happen the next day. But the philosophical French auteur clearly likes to keep everyone guessing.
Sepp Kuss, free of his Roglič bodyguard duties, soared to a breakaway victory into Andorra, the only deviation away from France for the entire race, and if he didn’t have it all his own way given the looming presence of the ageless Alejandro Valverde, the American had enough in the tank to grab the win in his adopted hometown.
Meanwhile Ineos tried and failed to dislodge Pogačar once again, although they did drop a few rivals a bit further down the timesheet again. I guess they’ll take whatever they can get, these days. On the final climb the usual gang of Carapaz, Uran and Vingegaard took it in turns to attack the Slovenian, who each time grunted “bothered” as he caught and passed them again, just for laughs. He is seemingly happy for anyone outside 10 minutes to attack on any stage, if only to annoy those who are nominally his rivals (albeit all sitting 5 minutes down and looking as though they’re in a different race entirely).
And now? Another rest day, another chance to say nothing at length to the surviving media scrum via Zoom, another chance to come up with another way to try and fail to break Pogačar in the final week. See you tomorrow.
First weeks in the Tour are always boring, aren’t they? Everyone says so. Oh, and there are too many crashes in the first week too.
Well, one of those things was correct.
The Tour is normally a book unfolding in front of us: each stage a chapter helping to build the narrative arc of the overall story, propelling us to the (hopefully exciting) conclusion, with a gentle wrap up in Paris and a sprint finish to send us on our way with a smile on our faces and a look ahead to the Vuelta, the Tour’s goofy, hyperactive younger brother.
But this Tour is something else. If I’d have to call it anything I’d say it’s a string of adjacent blog posts. Sure, I would say that, all things considered, but hear me out. Each stage has been a complete story in itself and, if there is an overarching narrative to this year’s Tour, it’s not yet shown itself to the reader, and possibly not even to the author.
Unless the story is simply that Tadej Pogačar is the new Eddy Merckx. And let’s hope it’s not that, just to give us something to look forward to other than years of crushing domination.
But let me show you what I mean.
Stage 1: it’s always a nervous one, the first, and this year was no different. Well, other than allez opi omi, that madly long sign that took out Tony Martin (in probably his last grand tour with Jumbo) and skittled the peloton, putting poor old Marc Soler out with 2 broken arms; it’s the spectator involvement on that level that’s new (and wasn’t dog based, for once). Not that they needed the help: 8km from the finish there was a touch of wheels and another huge chute which put more contenders out of the standings already.
Not that it bothered Julian Alaphilippe, who blew everyone apart because he fancied a spell in yellow and to suck his thumb in front of the world in celebration of his first child, breaking the heart of Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman was wearing grandfather Raymond Poulidor’s team colours (along with his team: good work in getting the sponsors to go along with that) in anticipation of his taking yellow himself. Did the malédiction de Poupou continue? It certainly looked that way as the various teams patched their wounds and got ready for another grand day out in Brittany, with all eyes on Primož Roglič after sprinting to third to pick up the bonus seconds and get his psychological challenge underway.
Stage 2: it was always going to be about the Mur, that fabled climb which intrigues and terrifies in equal parts. And so it proved to be, but not in any manner expected by anyone watching, other than perhaps spectrally. At the bottom of the climb MVdP attacked, leaving everyone wondering if he’d forgotten that they were to ride up it twice: he looked back at the line as all of the favourites followed in his wake, wondering at how he could have made such a rudimental error.
Only it wasn’t: 18s back at the start of the day, the Dutchman realised (even if no one else did) that he needed to take the 8s bonus on the first summit to give himself a shot at yellow, even if it meant he had to win again. And win he did, propelled forward as though with divine assistance, pointing to the sky in honour of his grandfather as he brought the yellow jersey home to the family, laying the curse to rest as he did so. Alaphilippe could only laugh at the implausibility of the hijack, applauding the panache that saw him lose the jersey after just one day.
Stage 3: back to black, or at least the grey of the Breton tarmac, as crashes abounded once more, and if they were less spectacular than those of the opening stage there was no doubt that they would have a much bigger impact on the race. First Geraint Thomas went down on a speed bump, taking out a teammate and a couple of Jumbo riders as he dislocated his shoulder: the Welshman fist bumped road captain Luke Rowe in recognition that his race was run, but astonishingly the medics pushed the bone back into its socket and he was able to continue, albeit gingerly. But Robert Gesink was less fortunate, as he was soon loaded into an ambulance and retirement with a broken collarbone.
If losing an important teammate looked bad for Roglič’s ambitions, worse was soon to come: the Slovenian was knocked off his bike by Sonny Colbrelli as he attempted to get into position for the sprint, and there was no doubting the damage he suffered in the fall. Another crash removed Jack Haig from the race before the most horrific of the day, as Caleb Ewan touched wheels with stage winner Tim Merlier at the final corner, hitting the deck violently and removing Peter Sagan from the sprint as he did so. The Australian’s kit (and skin) was shredded as the ambulance took him to the hospital to treat his injuries, leaving everyone thinking more about the best sprinter in the world than the impact on the GC.
Stage 4: let’s just have a few words for Brent Van Moer. The Belgian rode a magnificent stage to animate the race in the breakaway, and while everyone else realised it was a futile gesture no one had mentioned it to Van Moer, who raced on ahead as though his life depended on it. And with the impact on the sprint teams from the previous day, the closing kilometres became a cat and mouse game, with no one able to predict the result. At 1km he was still there, puffing and pushing, as the peloton hauled him in, second by second.
But, Mark Cavendish. No one had any expectations of him ahead of the race, but equally no one begrudged him a retirement run out ahead of his adoring fans, all hoping he wouldn’t be too embarrassed in the sprints. He hadn’t been there at all the day before, probably fortunately, but if an interim sprint for bonus points suggested he was in form it was nothing compared to the final run, where old school Cav sliced between the Alpecin Fenix pair, narrowly avoiding the heartbroken Van Moer as he propelled to the line by a bike length for Tour win number 31 and the green jersey.
Stage 5: time trials are always boring. But. Pogačar had only ridden the celebratory stage into Paris in yellow last year, and clearly had targeted this stage to rectify that problem: the Slovenian crushed everyone on the way to a dominant stage win, breaking Stefan Kűng’s heart in the process by stealing the top spot, and everyone waited for the coronation as MVdP and Wout van Aert finished their stages, the pair known for many talents but time trialling not being hereto among them.
Until now. The pair were inseparable as ever as they rode their individual races, both putting in herculean efforts to retain yellow and a podium position and denying Pogačar for another day or two. Roglič was respectable in 17th, considering his injuries, and Thomas lost time on a stage which on a better Tour would have seen him push up the standings. Unfortunately for the Welshman, he is emphatically not racing at that Tour.
Stage 6: Cavendish won his second stage of this Tour, putting him up to 32 wins overall. He’s only 2 wins off He Who Can’t Be Named, and who would bet against him matching, or even surpassing the record? The finish was in Châteauroux, where he claimed his first Tour win along with another the next time through, and he had enough mental capacity remaining as he sliced his way through the sprint battle to replicate the finish line celebration, ensuring another how it started/how it finished meme could be released into the world.
Meanwhile in another part of that world, Pogačar stayed out of trouble, while Roglič and Thomas struggled on to the finish line. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Stage 7: I mean, what the fuck? That wasn’t supposed to happen with 2 huge stages to follow, but we should know by now that the normal rules of racing no longer apply: the new breed of racers do things that were not possible back in the days when training meant riding up a mountain and back, and this stage is living proof of that. Waves of attacks saw the first 50km take only an hour to pass until a group of 29 accidentally snapped the elastic, with MVdP, WvA, Cav and many other hitters suddenly out and away, leaving UAE floundering in their wake.
Matej Mohorič and Brent van Moer eventually got away from the breakaway, with the Slovenian going solo to claim a full set of Grand Tour wins and the floods of tears that came with it, while behind him MVdP and WvA twinned their way to first and second in the GC. Roglič was ejected out the back, while Ineos tried and failed to put a dent in the forcefield around Pogačar, who proved he only needs a team for the entry form to join the race.
Stage 8: Wtf part 2. In biblically bad weather the breakaway went, with Wout Poels the least desiccated by the cold to claim a rare win (and the climbers jersey) for himself after many years of well paid domestic service at Sky/Ineos as his rivals shook themselves apart, while back in the peloton the race result was forming.
If UAE still don’t look a team so much as a collection of lucky individuals (and Brandon McNulty, who appears to be after Geraint’s crash record) Pogačar just kept going, waiting for the race to make an attempt to break him. When Richard Carapaz finally attacked the Slovenian just slid in behind him, sat on his wheel for a bit, said ‘is that all you’ve got?’ before attacking back, dropping everyone and almost catching the leader before sensibly pulling up a little on the final sodden descent, allowing Poels his crumbs and putting 3.20 into the Ecuadorian as he finally claimed yellow again, leaving the rest of the race scratching their heads as they looked forward to what now looked a much longer race than previously planned.
Stage 9: The one where Pogačar decided to let someone else get ‘close’ in the GC, just to have an ally for the rest of the Tour. More horrendous weather, with Ben O’Connor proving AG2R Citroen right in throwing all that money at a non-French rider by claiming another emotional stage win as he laid waste to the breakaway and claimed second in the GC, while behind him UAE were happy to let him get enough time to propel the Australian ahead of everyone until Pogačar slapped the peloton for daring to challenge him, soaking up the half-hearted attacks before riding off alone to put another half a minute into his rivals, as though he was a vindictive parent in a kids race who had got bored with it all and wanted to get home to watch the football.
Meanwhile MVdP and Roglič were gone, the former finally slipping out of yellow and leaving to concentrate on his Olympics preparations, the latter to see if there are any more bandages at home, while Thomas continued madly on, Sisyphus working for his team at last, if not for himself, as he found something resembling form if you squinted hard enough.
So what now? A rest day has never been so badly needed, but what can be done about the GC? UAE’s Australian DS has pulled a blinder from his couch at home by pulling AG2R into the fight, and it’s easy to see the human racers fighting each other for the podium and studiously ignoring whatever madness is next generated by The Pogačar. Is the race over? It’s hard to see how anyone can beat him (other than himself), but we can only hope that the other directeurs have jumped on WhatsApp to formulate their group attacks to come, or to take a leaf out of O’Connor’s playbook and to hope that UAE aren’t up to the chase.
And in the meantime, there are some great stages to come, with Wednesday’s double Ventoux a particular high-light (sorry). Will Cav claim some more stages? It’s hard to bet against it, but you can be sure that the remaining sprint teams, such as they are, will be trying to make the race so hard that Cavendish is dropped out of the time limits: look to Bike Exchange and Bahrain in particular to try and grinch the race and upset fans worldwide.
The only thing that is certain is that it will be worth watching. Second weeks being boring? Unheard of mate.
You walk up the hill from the carpark towards the cathedral, you and all of the others emerging from all corners into the square. You’re all arriving in fits and starts, two here, three there, and you feel alone arriving by yourself until you see them in the cafe, until they see you, until she walks across to hug you. The hug last forever, because neither of you want to be the one to end it: if you end it, maybe it will be real. Maybe you will actually be here for the funeral.
It ends, because it has to, and neither of you thinks you ended it, and neither of you mentions it, because that way no one need wear the blame, because like most things after all these years it can go unsaid. And then you talk, or maybe she does, and it doesn’t matter either way because, after that heinous weekend all that matters is you’re together, you and everyone, to think and reflect and deflect all of the detritus that has fallen on your all since that day.
But you’re all early, too early, and you have to stand around and wait for the sign to turn and enter the cathedral, you have to wait for what seems like an eternity, you and everyone slathered in black under the last of the summer’s sun, absorbing the steaming heat without comment because it seems the least you can do, all things considered.
It’s not until the sun starts to drop behind the buildings encircling the cathedral that people begin to walk towards their places inside, family on that side, drivers and officials on this: you lead some of the younger ones across, the ones who were in the same racing programme and who didn’t know where to look, and you meet a few of the older ones, the ones who you used to work with, the ones who are men now but still look as stunned as the boys behind us.
Hello, you say to them, willing yourself not to say how are you, because you already know. Hello, they reply, how are… they start, choking on the words before completion, the PR training from the big paddock, and from us before that, shutting down a questionable quote regardless of the audience. You all walk around to the south entrance in silence, knowingly, until you get to the big door and there are some other drivers milling around, trying not to say the wrong thing, trying to absorb a little comfort by proximity with each other.
Misery loves company.
You walk in and find your seat, the first one in the fourth row, and the silence drops on you like a tarpaulin as everyone makes their way to their place and waits for what none of us wants to happen.
Eventually you hear a noise, a bell in one tower, then another, and another, and another. The sound peels in turn around the cathedral, sounding like it’s from another church entirely, and a lonely dog barks in the distance for comparison.
And then, nothing.
The bells stop, but nothing happens. A cough from the front row, a wordless request, but nothing more until the priest starts to speak, the cadence unchanging, and then, almost by surprise, the coffin appears, surrounded by its carriers, who bring it to the centre of the cathedral and leave it on the stand. Someone surrounds it by whatever those curtain things are called, and places four large candles around the coffin. At least it looks aerodynamic you think, and then wish that you hadn’t.
And then his helmet is placed on top of the coffin, and suddenly it’s real. The tears come before you even notice.
The priest speaks, calm and steady, and he calls the others up to talk. His father is first, a slow, deliberate cadence as he wills himself against all reality to get to the end without breaking, a challenge he could never overcome. He asks for applause, not for himself but for his beautiful son, and the cathedral almost falls over itself to comply, to give some relief from the pain from what is happening before itself.
And then his girlfriend steps up. She starts to speak but the pain is too raw, too enormous to contain within the frame of a small human, and the tears break upon the shores of her words. You were crying too, almost silently, not wanting to upset his team boss in front of you, but when the heaving sobs hit the back of your head from your friend behind you there is nothing you can do to keep it inside: full, fat tears rolling down you face as you merge with the pain flowing all around you.
Jesus, you think, imagine how much worse it would be if you could understand French.
The drivers in the front row, the famous ones who were following you to press conferences not so long ago, sit there rigid with shock. They don’t know what to do, you think, and you wish you could walk over and give them a hug to make them feel better, or feel confused, or just to make them laugh again, like the old days.
They know all too well already what cameras see. Cameras see everything. Even when they’re not pointed at you.
Julie gets an awful, well-meaning but bone-gauging round of applause too, unrequested but delivered in love, an aural hug for comfort, and she can’t go on. The speeches from here go smoother, more polished, with a sombre Prost speaking for the racing family as the real one wept in the front row, the two portraits of their lost son looming over everything.
You try not to look at the helmet, because you know it will make you cry. You fail.
The drivers carry his other helmets up to the altar, placing them in front so carefully one by one before scurrying back, happy to have played a part and not to have messed up their responsibilities, and we all wait for the priests to finish their roles, to let us approach the coffin, to let us escape.
Eventually, timelessly, you’re allowed to join the queue, one side to see the family, the other to bless the coffin. You pull to the right automatically, and before you know it you’re there, touching that drenched French flag, and you feel the electric shock of recognition of where you are, of what you’re doing. You’re moved to the right to allow the others through, and then pulled back across to the left, watching as others hug the family.
And then his brother looks at you, unseeing through sheets of tears, and thanks you for coming as the magnetic force pulls you together for a hug, your eyes unable to contain themselves once again.
The rest happens in a blur: outside, talking unhearingly to the others you hadn’t seen before, the coffin removed for burial as the media buzzes wordlessly behind the barriers, the walk to the wake, asking the drivers to write in the condolence book and explaining they should just write what they would say to him if he was here, pretending not to notice the tears as their pens hover unmoving over the page, waiting until they’re collected again before going over to make a joke, to break the ice, to bring everyone back.
Drivers write as slowly as writers drive, you offer. They laugh, mirthlessly but appreciatively, finishing their paragraphs before letting the others take over.
Eventually it’s time to go, time served, time to head to her place for the evening. Come on, she says, there’s nothing more we can do here, let’s go and have a drink. It’s another hour in the car but it’s almost unnoticed after the emotional tsunami of the day.
Her baby daughter is there, the perfect distraction asking who this stranger is invading their house, and her husband escapes unannounced before returning bearing pizzas. The bottle of wine is already opened and soon consumed, a brandy each to chase it, but both of you are already falling asleep, too tired to consume the volumes of drinks you promised each other. Within thirty seconds of getting into bed in the guest house you’re already asleep, the messages unread as your phone rises and falls on your chest with your breath.
It’s not until lunch that you can finally speak about him, in that tiny restaurant opposite the church which was open when the one she wanted you to see was closed. It’s just that he was living the way he dreamed of living since he was a kid, you start, that he found a way to do what he always wanted, despite not really having the means to do it.
But he was always the clever one, she replies, he could always see the things the others couldn’t.
He had to, you revert, he never had the resources of the others. That’s what was so impressive about what he did.
Yeah, she sighs, but we’ll never know what he could have achieved, now.
We won’t, you agree, but maybe that won’t matter, after the pain is gone. He was an example for us all: he knew what he wanted to do, and he knew how hard it was to get there, and how few people actually made it, but he was trying anyway. And all the steps he made were deliberate, were for a bigger cause, were steps on the way to his ultimate target.
I don’t want to say that he was living his perfect life, that it was alright to die in that life, because that’s bullshit: it was not alright, it will never be right. But he was doing what he had to do to achieve his ambitions, and how many of us can say that? You and I have been in this little world for a long time, we know how hard it is to get to the big paddock, and how hard it is to stay there. And maybe he wouldn’t make it, who knows, but is there anything he didn’t do towards his goal?
No, she concurs, and more than that, he was still him. All of the work he was doing this year, all of the planning he was putting in for next year, all of the people he had to see, all of the work he had to do with his team, and he was still … him.
Exactly, you blurt out a little too loud. He was living this perfect life, for him, and he refused to allow it to change him. He was still sharing all of his data with his teammate, because he wanted her to be better, because he knew it could only reflect well on him. He was living his life, and he was like a perfect beam of light, a shining example for all of the rest of us.
Because we all forget what it is we really want from our lives, we all compromise and do things we wish we didn’t have to do, because we need money to support our lives or our families, or to pay the mortgage, or any number of other grown up things we need to do.
And now he’ll never need to do these things. He’ll never need to compromise, he’ll never let us down, he’ll always be an example of how you can live the life you want, as long as you decide what it is you want to do, and then give everything you have to achieve it.
I can’t imagine not missing him, she gulps.
Me too, you sigh, avoiding her eyes, but maybe that’s the incentive we need to live a better life, a life more in line with the ambitions we always held but let go of when times get tough. Maybe his example can make all of our lives a little better.
You look at your watch and you know it’s time to go. You hug again, wanting it to never end, but you know it has to. Because the rest of your life is waiting, and you need to show him that you can live it to the full too.
Or at least try.
Anthoine Hubert has died after succumbing to injuries sustained during the Feature Race at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The BWT Arden rookie was 22 years old.
The Frenchman, born 22 September 1996 in Lyon, was a well-loved member of the paddock, staking his place in the FIA Formula 2 Championship this year on the back of his previous two years in the sister GP3 Series, culminating in a thrilling title win last year at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi with ART Grand Prix.
Hubert grew up in a motorsport loving family, with his father François competing in rallies in France before Anthoine took the inevitable step into karting, initially in the French Cadet championship before moving up to the CIK-FIA U18 world championships, finishing 3rd in 2011 and 2012, the latter year just behind Henry Easthope and close friend and rival Charles Leclerc.
The following season a step up into cars was an instant success, with Hubert easily winning the French Formula 4 Championship, claiming 11 wins from 21 races to dispatch countryman Jules Gounon on the way to the title. The proud Frenchman, a member of the FFSA Academy, looked set for a glorious career as he turned his attention to Formula Renault in 2014.
The season was to be a difficult one, although a follow on year in the category saw Hubert pick up 6 wins in 2015. A move to the FIA Formula 3 European Championship with Van Amersfoort was promising, although a difficult season saw the Frenchman claim a single win and 2 more podiums in a championship dominated by Lance Stroll, Maximilian Günther and George Russell.
With budgets difficult to find, 2017 needed to show an upward trajectory, and a seat at the GP3 Series reigning champions ART Grand Prix promised to give Hubert the boost he needed. Sharing a team with George Russell, Jack Aitken and Nirei Fukuzumi could have been the downfall of many drivers, but the Frenchman set to the task with his usual intelligence and determination, showing the team and his rivals that he was going to push as hard as he could.
Hubert claimed 3 podiums to finish 4th behind his teammates, and if it was clear that bad luck and the lack of a win frustrated him, it was equally clear that the consistency he showed across a difficult season would hold him in good stead in a return to the series.
2018 saw the Frenchman return to work with his countrymen at ART, and a new affiliation with the Renault F1 which promised the potential of a full-time membership of their junior programme was all the incentive he needed: Hubert claimed 2 glorious victories, at home at the Circuit Paul Ricard and at the Silverstone Circuit, along with 9 more podiums to bring home the GP3 Series title, the last man to win the championship ahead of a merger with the FIA Formula 3 Championship for 2019.
The Renault junior deal helped the Frenchman step up to the FIA Formula 2 championship, signing with BWT Arden ahead of pre-season testing. Hubert as always worked diligently with his new team and engineers to learn the car, and to let them know what he needed for the new season.
His talent was clear from the outset: in Race 1 in Bahrain the Frenchman lost his radio link to the team, but nonetheless put in a superb drive in blazing conditions to grab P4 on his debut, stunning his team and their rivals and laying down a marker for what was to come.
Hubert’s ability to absorb information and apply it in the limited track time before the races helped the Frenchman bring home 2 wins, in Monaco and once more at home in Paul Ricard. Up until now, he is the sole rookie to have achieved such an accomplishment. His consistency was on display again with 9 points finishes across 16 races this season.
If it was this consistency and fierce intelligence, allied to strong speed, which was the benchmark of Hubert in the car, it was his sense of humour, loyalty and easy going nature out of it which drew everyone in the paddock to him, and what makes his loss so difficult to comprehend for his friends and rivals alike.
Bruno Michel, the FIA Formula 2 CEO, noted “Everyone in the Formula 2 family is heartbroken at the loss of Anthoine. He was a joy to work with for these 3 years, and I will miss his constant smile and his sharp intelligence that made every encounter with him enjoyable, and our hearts are with his family and the BWT Arden team.”
Teams and drivers from across the world have also paid tribute to the French racer, showing the depth of emotion felt across the motorsport world at the loss of this talented and extremely likeable young man. Today’s Sprint Race has been cancelled out of respect for Hubert, who is survived by his father François, his mother Nathalie, and his brother Victhor.
It turns out that you can stare at a blank page for far longer than you thought. Because the alternative is writing this, and if you write it then it must be true. If you don’t write it, does that mean it didn’t happen? Have a drink and start. You know that’s it’s true, as much as you want to believe that it’s not.
Anthoine Hubert died today, in Race One at Spa-Francorchamps.
Sometimes life just seems so unfair. Today is one of those times. Anthoine, that funny, smart, engaging, incredibly shy, resolute, slyly sarcastic, seriously quick, faultlessly polite, kind, determined, beautiful little French maestro is gone at the age of just 22, and like everyone who knew him I’m just head-foggily numb at the prospect of trying to understand that fact, and that I won’t get to see his smiling face again.
I missed the start, it doesn’t matter why, and then I saw a message saying there’d be a crash, a bad one, and I checked to see what had happened. These are still my guys despite being out for a while, and I had to make sure they were okay.
They were not okay.
The last, best, memory I have of Anthoine is in the green room behind the podium in Abu Dhabi after Race One of last year’s GP3 Series, just after he’d won the championship at the end of a long, fractious seasonat ART, the win silencing all the noise and leaving him aloft in radiant peace.
The (fake) champagne had been sprayed, the public display of emotion was done, the other drivers had headed back to the paddock and Anthoine sat there, alone, trying to absorb the enormity of what he’d done. Alexa and I stood just inside the doorway, not wanting to intrude, but how do you not ask how it feels to have achieved such a monumental life goal?
“I don’t know,” he replied, candidly, “it’s … too much, you know? Amazing, but … it’s a huge emotion. Probably I will take it all in, but…” Alexa came over to break the ice, asking “so, can we get a photo with the last ever GP3 champ?” and he beamed, his face radiant as he pulled us in, and a little piece of what it meant seemed to fall into place.
I first met Anthoine the year before, when he formed a corner of that famous ART quartet in 2017. George Russell, Jack Aitken, Nirei Fukuzumi and Anthoine Hubert. It’s easy to see now, and probably even then, that it was going to be a tough year for the Frenchman: he’d managed to land a seat in the best GP3 team, and yet it was hard to see how he would even make the podium at the end of the season.
And so it proved, but in a year that would be difficult for any driver with teammates of that calibre Anthoine still held his head high: the lack of a win rankled, and those of us who saw him behind the scenes could see how much it hurt, particularly with the bad luck that befell him over the season, but the talent that saw him claim the F4 title was still clear to see.
2018 had to be his year, and despite new teammate Nikita Mazepin claiming that he was gunning for the title in his rookie year the smart money was on the Frenchman. He got the monkey off his back with a fine win at home in Paul Ricard, got another one in Silverstone, but it was 11 podiums that formed the spine of his title winning year.
I saw him again, on the grid of the last race and at the party afterwards, but it’s that time sitting alone with his thoughts that will stay with me: so quiet, contemplative, and then that smile, so pure, so true.
Most people thought he’d stay with ART for the step up to F2, but the racing world doesn’t work like that. I admit I hoped he’d do better than where he ended up, at an Arden team that was on a low ebb from a brighter past, but he got his head down and went to work, pulling every splinter of information he could from testing before the start of the season.
And, frankly, 2 wins (in Monaco and again at home in Ricard) in that car is an astonishingly good return, and it shows again how clever Anthoine could be: if he can’t get the best seat in the championship then why not go further back, where expectations are smaller and the spotlight of publicity that bit dimmer? If he does well in such circumstances it can only show all the brighter the talent he had in spades.
But motorsport can be so heartbreakingly cruel, and now we’ll never know how far he could have gone.
In my old job it was hard not to like most of the drivers: it was my job to make them look good after all, and the ones who didn’t need much help in that regard made my life that little bit easier. And every year we had drivers with who it was just easy to get along, who were fun to work with, who just made our lives a bit more interesting.
Anthoine was one of those drivers, the rarer ones, who had everything you need to push for the heights of the motorsport world: he was fast, he was clever, he learnt from everything he did, and he had an easy manner and effortless charm that brought everyone in his circle a little bit closer.
I saw the crash, and I tried not to think the worst: over 15 years in the paddock I’ve seen crashes, bad ones involving drivers I liked, and the fates have somehow prevailed to keep them safe. I saw the news on Twitter, an F1 journalist wanting to beat his rivals to a scoop, and I tried to believe that it wasn’t true. And then I saw the FIA confirmation, and I just wept.
I’ve thought of Anthoine all night, his face and his beaming smile circling around my head the whole time. I thought of that photo, and then when I saw it I cried again. I didn’t get to see him in Silverstone: I walked down to Arden and thought I saw him sitting out the back, and I smiled and waved until I got a bit closer and realised it wasn’t him.
“Anthoine’s brother? Yes, I guess I look like him…” Victhor beamed at the fact that someone had confused him for his big brother.
His poor family. The thought of their pain is simply pulverising.
I’ll catch up with him later, I thought, either here or at another track. And right now, I can’t imagine how I won’t. But Anthoine, that shy French lad with a winning smile and a talent bigger than we’ll ever know, has been taken from us far, far before his time. And writing those words the tears in my eyes, and the pain in my heart, tell me that I’m starting to believe that it’s true.
I miss you already Anthoine. Rest well, my friend.
It's bullshit, of course it is, but realistically what could they do? The weather gave the organisers no choice but to call off the stage, and the need for a result of some sort meant rolling back to the last time zone, but no one was racing to that spot and the result, such as it is, could probably satisfy nobody but one man alone, the man who was handed the overall win on a plate.
It was a stage of disappointment throughout. Pinot fans, including myself, were heartbroken (if not entirely surprised) when Pinot stepped off the bike and led sobbing to the car after a thigh injury meant one of the overall favourites was out before the stage really got going. Nibali attacked, as Nibali does, but no one believed it would amount to much, probably including lo squalo, and it was only a matter of time before he was brought to heel by the peleton.
Thomas, learning from the advantages he'd given Bernal by allowing him to attack early in other stages while the Welshman was stuck babysitting Alaphilippe and unwilling to tow him back, thought he'd go himself and put some hurt into the legs of his rivals: it made sense as an attack, and it had the result he wanted when the Frenchman started to pedal squares, but when everyone else deserted the leader and started to chase the Ineos leader it started to look like a miscalculation.
If Bernal had been sent up the road first he would have been a little more tired than the others, but would have been able to rest a little as he waited for Thomas to arrive, exactly as they'd planned on previous stages. But the cards were reversed and when the GC group arrived the Welshman was unable to stay with his young teammate and could do nothing but watch as he left, with Yates in tow.
As they headed towards the top of Col de l'Iseran Bernal grabbed the bragging rights for hitting the highest summit first: if it was the Giro he'd have the Coppi prize, but it's the Tour and it meant nothing but a huge decent ahead of the final mountain of the stage. Two options were now on the table: with Geraint coming back Bernal could play the team game and wait for his leader, with the pair putting more time into Alaphilippe and the rest, or he could look out for himself, do a deal with Yates to take the stage while he put himself in yellow, and deal with the fall out in the team when he returned to the bus.
But then the rain gods descended, causing chaos (and landslides), and the race had to be neutralised, with the result taken from the top of the world.
Yates was unhappy, as he was conserving energy at that stage ahead of the final climb.
Thomas was unhappy, as he too was conserving energy and waiting to comeback on Tignes for yellow.
Alaphilippe was unhappy, because he thought he might have been able to comeback, despite all evidence to the contrary, and because his dream was over.
Kruijswijk and Buchmann were unhappy, because they probably believed they'd be in with a shot on the final climb, as they've been there every other time, and maybe this would be the stage where they could attack.
Pinot was unhappy, because he was back in the bus when his rivals were wondering if they could bunny hop a landslide.
Nibali and Aru and Martin and Porte were unhappy, because their inability to do anything of note in this Tour meant their careers were heading downhill.
Only Bernal was happy, because he'd just been handed the yellow jersey on a plate. He smiled his tiny, shy smile as they put the jersey on him, and later wept with happiness when he realised what had happened. There was one stage left to survive, the only rider who could possibly take the jersey from him is his teammate and therefore will be unable to attack, and from nowhere the little Colombian was joining the pantheon of legends.
The final week is here, and have we ever had as exciting a Tour as this one has been? Not as I can recall, and I do spend a bit of time thinking about this sort of thing. At the second rest day there are 6 riders from 5 teams in with a genuine chance of being crowned champion next Sunday, and no one predicted that at the start of the whole thing.
Particularly not me. Let’s pretend I made no predictions at all: that would give me another chance to get everything spectacularly wrong all over again. Here’s the runners:
1 Julian Alaphilippe Deceuninck - Quick-Step 61h 00' 22''
2 Geraint Thomas Team INEOS +1' 35''
3 Steven Kruijswijk Team Jumbo - Visma +1' 47''
4 Thibaut Pinot Groupama - FDJ +1' 50''
5 Egan Bernal Team INEOS +2' 02''
6 Emanuel Buchmann BORA - HANSGROHE +2' 14''
Obviously Juju has been the revelation of the Tour, setting the thing alight despite no one (including himself) giving him any chance of winning anything other than a stage or two, along with our hearts. Getting the yellow jersey was a beautiful bonus, but should he still be wearing it? To be honest he would have been better off giving it up at the TT, allowing him to recoup his strength and then push for another stage win, but no one’s going to give him that chance now.
And he’s probably exhausted. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to give up – he clearly doesn’t know how – so the rest of the GC teams are going to have to attack him. And they will.
Led, presumably, by Ineos. By their standards this Tour has been a bit of a dud, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to win it. Geraint is in P2, and if everyone is writing him off because of a slightly off day on Saturday then that’s probably the way he likes it. The Alps suit his riding style more than the Pyrenees, and he will sit and wait and watch when we get back to the mountains. And then he will attack.
Bernal has been attacking his “team leader” under the auspices of the other GC favourites getting away on a few stages this year. This won’t be forgotten by Thomas, and the long, grinding mountains will suit the Welsh rider more than the Colombian, even if the latter lives at altitude.
Pinot will be ruing his echelon disaster before the last rest day even more now, on the heels of 2 incredible mountain stages to recoup his lost time. He’s clearly the strongest climber in the tour right now, but can he really ride a grand tour without a jour ans? We’ll find out this week.
Kruijswijk has done everything he has to in his effort to banish the painful memory of that Giro snow bank, but has he done enough? He has 2 strong riders in Bennett and De Plus, with them arguably both stronger than their leader but losing time earlier that they’d dearly like to have back. The Dutchman doesn’t seem to have done much work so far to justify his GC position, but he will be tested in the week to come. And maybe the rest will work in his favour.
Buchmann. No one has discussed him, but he’s there. He stayed with Bernal when he was tested, and he’s clearly been stronger than anyone gave him any credit.
So now, to the stages to come.
Stage 16: one for whatever sprinters remain. Remember when we used to look forward to sprint stages for the variation? That’s so 2018. Might be windy, so FDJ will punch anyone who even looks like saying the word echelon.
Stage 17: So many teams have got nothing out of this stage that it must be one for the breakaway riders, including big names like Nibali, Yates and the like. Can a GC team throw a spanner in the works and attack? You’d have to think they’d be crazy to do so, but this Tour proves that crazy is simply a preview of the news. And Landa will be wanting to get onto the podium, so why wouldn’t he attack now? This stage will cause some sleepless nights.
Stage 18: Col de Vars. Col d’Izoard. Col du Galibier. If Alaphilippe isn’t already broken there’s little doubt that the others will attack today. Should suit Pinot (who still needs to find some time) and Thomas. Buchmann will probably sit on their wheels all day, scaring the shit out of them as he looms constantly, or might jump over to Bernal as he attacks his leader again on Galibier.
Stage 19: Col de l’Iséran. The highest point of the Tour. Bernal will need to attack, but will he have help from Landa or one of the other teams looking to save their Tour with a stage win?
Stage 20: Val Thorens. Should be a Thomas style climb, but frankly who knows what condition everyone will be in by then. It’s the last chance to find some time, so everyone will attack: there’s no other choice. Whoever survives this will be a rightful winner.
Stage 21: Should be just a photoshoot and a trundle to the Champs Elysees. Which means that, because it’s the 2019 Tour, it will be a full gas attack between the 3 remaining riders who have 10 seconds between them at the top of the GC…
My heart wants it to be Pinot, my head thinks it will be Thomas, but frankly if the remaining stages are as good as the previous ones then I don’t care who wins, I will simply enjoy the spectacle and drink to their good health.
So it’s time for the Tour once again, and if it’s been a somewhat underwhelming build up given the injuries to the presumed favourites it’s still the bloody Tour, right? Once it kicks in we’ll all be hooked once again. Here’s a quick start list with a few comments of mine: feel free to add yours below.
Astana Pro Team: everyone is talking up Fuglsang because of the injuries to Froome and Dumoulin (and because he won the Dauphine, to be fair), but he’s got no real form for a grand tour (best result 7th), and he’s probably a bit old. Angel Lopez would have been a better call, but they figured he had a shot at the Giro, and we all saw what happened there. They are a formidable squad though, so I wouldn’t be surprised by a few stage wins and maybe a career defining podium for Jakob.
SÁNCHEZ Luis León
Bahrain Merida: I mean, Nibali. Just … Nibali. Who knows, but it would be a massive surprise if he could pick it up and run with it after his exertions at the Giro, but as ever he’s an enigma. Dennis will be targeting the TT, Teuns will be targeting breakaways, and Colbrelli will targeting P5 in the sprints.
GARCÍA CORTINA Iván
Team Sunweb: Jesus, they must be gutted. Guess they sit behind Bling for the green jersey, with Wilco to try and pick up the Tom sized pieces and Haga to aim for the TT again. Nice that Nico won’t have to sit on the couch and talk about it, for once.
KRAGH ANDERSEN Søren
Team INEOS: Jesus, they must etc. Can’t really feel sorry for a team that rich though: it’s like feeling sorry for Mercedes that they didn’t win in Austria. Geraint to go for yellow, with Bernal also a protected rider, but is the Welshman fit enough? Time will tell. And they have an incredible ability to pick up big rider injuries, so nothing is assured. But look at those engines to pull them up the hills if the big two stay healthy.
VAN BAARLE Dylan
BORA - hansgrohe: Sorry Buchmann, but everyone is looking at Sagan to get the green record. And maybe Poestlerger to nick a breakaway win again.
UAE-Team Emirates: God, imagine if Aru was ARU again. That would be amazing. Instead they’ll have to rely on Dan Martin until he has his jour sans, and then it’ll be all over for them for the season.
BYSTRØM Sven Erik
LAENGEN Vegard Stake
Team Dimension Data: Some punchy potential stagewinners in Boasson Hagen, Cummings and Valgren, but how sad is it that there was no room at the inn for Cavendish? Too sad, that’s how sad.
BOASSON HAGEN Edvald
JANSE VAN RENSBURG Reinardt
BAK Lars Ytting
AG2R La Mondiale: Bardet. If not this year, then when? Hilliest tour in years, one little TT (and a TTT), no Froome or Dumoulin to smash him apart in the TT, and probably the best team he’s ever had behind him. Time to shit or get off the pot, Romain. I kind of hope he can do it.
Lotto Soudal: Here for Ewan to get sprint wins, and De Gendt to piss everyone off with breakaways on the other stages.
DE GENDT Thomas
DE BUYST Jasper
Groupama - FDJ: Pinot. If not this year, then when? I love Thibaut, the Frenchest Frenchie on the circuit, but he doesn’t do well with pressure, does he? And there’s no worse pressure for him than being the lead Frenchman at the Tour de France. I expect him to implode on an early stage, perhaps on purpose, so that he can ride his own race and attack on the later stages without the GC group getting in his way. But I’d love for him to prove me wrong. If he is still in the lead group after Le Planche he might make me eat my words.
Movistar Team: I really hope they try to reuse that whole trident thing again. Or bring Soler into it and claim it’s a … I don’t know, a shovel? But really, Quintana is already done, Valverde is too old, Landa is on the back of P4 at the Giro (and may be pissed off, but also likely tired), and Soler is too inexperienced. So now they’ll grab the whole podium just to prove me a liar.
Team Jumbo-Visma: Bet they wish they’d held back Roglic now. Still, Dylan might get some sprint wins.
VAN AERT Wout
JANSEN Amund Grøndahl
DE PLUS Laurens
CCC Team: I love Van Avermaet as much as the next guy, but it’s hard to see them getting much out of this tour.
VAN AVERMAET Greg
DE MARCHI Alessandro
Deceuninck - Quick Step: They don’t even need to win anything at the Tour this year, so successful has they’re year been to date. So expect 4 stages, and the polka dot for Alaphilippe.
Mitchelton-Scott: Everyone seems to think it’s Adam Yates’ year, but who knows: he got sick at the Dauphine, which isn’t a great start, and his brother will likely be tired. Turbo Durbo will be as strong as ever, and Juul-Jensen will write the best stories from the Tour. A great team, and on for the TTT, but I can’t see them winning.
EF Education First: Best kit in the peleton, fact. And they’ll be fun to watch, but Uran is getting old and Van Garderen is not up to it. Bet Phinney does something stupid/cool though. As always. Maybe Woods is an outside bet for top 5?
VAN GARDEREN Tejay
Team Katusha Alpecin: Hard to know why they exist really, other than there are Russians with too much money. Maybe Zakarin can nick a mountain stage after dropping out of the GC.
WÜRTZ SCHMIDT Mads
Wanty - Gobert Cycling Team: Breakaway fodder.
DE GENDT Aimé
EIKING Odd Christian
VAN MELSEN Kevin
Trek - Segafredo: Porte. If not this year, you know the rest. I really, really, really want to believe. But I really don’t. Please prove me wrong, Richie.
DE KORT Koen
Cofidis, Solutions Crédits: Not even breakaway fodder. Maybe Laporte can go top 5 in a sprint.
Team Total Direct Energie: Breakaway fodder than might get a win or two.
Team Arkéa Samsic: Also competing.
So there you go, a Tour review that can’t even pick a winner. I hope you can do better.