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.