TdF Commentary Column: Blood, Sweat and Tears – and Lots and Lots of Drama in the Tour

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Who would have thought that the first five stages of the Tour de France could provide so much drama? If it had been a movie, no one would have believed that a single sporting event could contain so much feel-good drama, so many horrific crashes and so many tears in such a short time.

Let’s start with the feel-good, beginning with stage one. The popular Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider Julian Alaphilippe became France’s first opening-stage winner in 20 years after he produced one of his trademark bursts of power and speed in the final 2 km to win a comfortable victory and the yellow jersey. His win was all the more popular because his partner had given birth to their first child less than two weeks earlier.

Julian Alaphilippe
Alaphilippe entered the Tour with success. © Profimedia

However, the Frenchman’s win was a personal setback for the Dutch multi-discipline Alpecin–Fenix rider Mathieu van der Poel who had made taking the yellow jersey in the first stage a primary goal of his first-ever appearance in the Tour de France.

Van der Poel’s maternal grandfather was the legendary French cyclist Raymond Poulidor, known as “the eternal Second” because he never won the Tour de France, finishing second three times and five times in the third place. In fact, Poulidor never wore the yellow jersey on the Tour, which is why van der Poel, who was very close to his grandfather, wanted to wear the maillot jaune to honour him.

Well, he did just that in the second stage, producing two Alaphilippe-like bursts on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, which the peloton climbed twice, to beat Tour favourites Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič to the finish and take the yellow jersey from Alaphilippe (who did not seem to mind at all).

After the stage, a weeping van der Poel said that, of course, he was thinking of his grandfather when he crossed the finish line and was delighted that he had pulled it off since it was his last chance in the race to win the yellow jersey. Stage 4 produced another tearful winner, the veteran sprinter Mark Cavendish, who put an end to years of cycling misery by winning his first Tour stage in five years – and his thirty-first overall.

The 36-year-old Cavendish, now riding with Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck–Quick-Step, came down with the Epstein-Barr virus in 2018 and was taking part in the Tour only because the team’s regular sprinter Sam Bennett pulled out due to a knee injury. Asked how he felt about the victory, a very emotional Cavendish said, “I had fire in my eyes. Just being here is special enough. I thought I’d never come back to this race.”

Mark Cavendish
Cavendish celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the fourth stage of the 2021 Tour. © Profimedia

Now for the feel-bad events, of which there have been too many and which can be summarized in a single word: crash. The first stage was marred by two mass crashes, one of them caused by a woman who stepped onto the road with a large placard, knocking down Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin and causing more than fifty other riders to hit the pavement, including last year’s runner-up Primož Roglič and four-time Tour winner Chris Froome. She was arrested yesterday by French police.

More crashes followed in stage 3, with Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, a favourite for the green jersey, forced to pull out of the race because of injuries suffered in a crash near the end of the stage. In falling, he took down seven-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan but the Slovak was not badly hurt.

Roglič again came to grief in the stage as did another yellow jersey favourite, Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers, who dislocated his shoulder but was treated on the spot and finished the stage. However, the crashes resulted in both Roglič and Thomas losing precious time to last year’s Tour winner, Tadej Pogačar, who was less affected by the many spills than his rivals.

Geraint Thomas at the 2021 Tour de France
Despite the crash and dislocated shoulder, Thomas finished the stage. © Profimedia

The real drama of the Tour de France, the race for the general classification, came in stage 5 – the first of two individual time trials (ITT), 27 km from Changé to Laval. And it was both dramatic and decisive. Anyone who recalls Pogačar’s spectacular performance in the time trial on stage 20 of last year’s Tour will not be surprised to hear that he dominated his GC rivals again. The 22-year-old Slovene now sits in second place, just 8 seconds behind van der Poel (who gets to wear the yellow jersey for a few more days).

Pogačar is now 1 min 48 sec ahead of his main rival and countryman Roglič (who is tenth) and leads Thomas by 1 min 54 sec. His closest possible rival is Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert who is in third, 22 seconds behind Pogačar. (Van der Poel will quit the Tour early, to concentrate on the MTB competition in the Tokyo Olympics.) Van Aert is a wonderful rider and very good in the mountains. But stage 20 is again an ITT and nobody in this year’s Tour appears to be able to beat Pogačar in this discipline.

So, barring accident, illness or a very clever strategy by Jumbo-Visma, which seeks to exploit Pogačar’s one weakness, his UAE Emirates team, it’s already hard to see who can deprive him of his second consecutive Tour de France win.

But, as we have seen, anything can happen – and most likely will.