“The people of Slovenia enjoy sitting on a bike and cycling through the city streets as well in nature,” the “I Feel Slovenia” website declares. “There are plenty of cycle paths leading over a soaring landscape which offers cycling terrains for families as well as terrains for those in search of more challenging cycling adventures.”
I guess that explains why two natives of that country, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar, are dominating this year’s race for the Tour de France yellow jersey. The mano a mano between the two friends has been one of the highlights of a Tour full of drama. They have taken turns trying to wear the other down, which left an opening for the Colombian Astana rider Miguel Ángel López to win his first-ever Tour de France stage after the thrilling race up the murderous climb to the Col de la Loze on Wednesday’s 17th stage.
Roglič now leads his countryman by 57 seconds in the race for the Tour win, with López in third place, 1 minute 26 seconds behind. All eyes will now be on Saturday’s penultimate stage, a 36.2-km individual time trial that ends with a category 1 climb to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Both Roglič and Pogačar are very good time-trial riders and, as we know, superb climbers. The last time they went head to head in a time trial at this year’s Slovenian National Championships, Pogačar came first, with Roglič in second. But the positions were reversed in the Road Race Championship.
The big shock of the race, of course, was the abandonment of last year’s Tour winner, Egan Bernal. allegedly because of the back injury he suffered in the Critérium du Dauphiné in early August. When he dropped out after stage 16, Bernal had already lost more than 19 minutes to Roglič.
This has raised the question of why, if the young Colombian’s condition was not 10 per cent, he was picked as Team Ineos’ sole leader and why a former Tour winner from the team, such as Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas, wasn’t chosen to ride in the Tour. “I think you take your big players to races like that,” said former team member and Tour winner Bradley Wiggins. “Just their presence at the dinner table, their presence on the flat stages in the line-up… Particularly Geraint.”
He went on to say, “Chris Froome as a four-time winner, I think has earned the right just to be there in that team, in that line-up. If anything as preparation for the Vuelta a España.” However, Wiggins originally supported Ineos team manager Dave Brailsford’s decision to leave Froome and Thomas out of the Tour, saying: “I don’t see it as a negative thing. They’ve always had this plan, this goal, to win all three Grand Tours in a season and Geraint’s got himself another month now to get himself into the shape he wants to be in, and the fact he’s riding the Giro you’d have to say he’s going to be a contender for it.”
Hindsight is always right, as the saying goes. But Bernal may have succumbed to the pressure of having all his team’s hopes resting on his shoulders. Last year, Thomas started as Ineos team leader and Bernal was able to ride without the stress of great expectations, and he won.
This Tour has been yet another disappointment for the host nation as Thibaut Pinot, also complaining of a bad back, fell back in the first week and has barely been visible since. Though he has won a stage, last year’s home hero Julian Alaphilippe has also not lived up to expectations. His will to win is the same as it was in 2019 but his legs are not. With so many other nations (such as Slovenia) developing great young cyclists, it looks as if Bernard Hinault may well be the last ever French Tour de France winner.
Finally, Peter Sagan looks to have lost the green jersey to Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, despite the best efforts of his Bora-Hansgrohe team. His only chance of winning the points classification for a record eighth time is to be part of the right breakaway on Thursday’s rollercoaster stage 18 and then go all out to collect maximum points along the way. But 47 points is a lot to pick up on a single stage. And the final stage in Paris, with a final sprint, certainly favours the Irishman.