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.