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.