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.