Tadej Pogačar, of course
No one could have foreseen the (now) 22-year-old Slovenian beating race leader and compatriot Primož Roglič by nearly two minutes in the final time trial, thereby winning the Tour and collecting a full house of jerseys: yellow, white for the best young rider and polka dot for the best climber. (Pogačar finished eighth in the green jersey competition; nobody’s perfect.)
Pogačar’s victory seems to rebut what has become a universally-accepted doctrine of Grand Tour races – that you can’t win a three-week race without a great team behind you. Roglič’s Team Jumbo-Visma was a great team and they did everything right – except winning the title they wanted most. On the other hand, Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates teammates were almost invisible. They appear to have been used primarily as water-carriers and props. After his decisive time-trial win, Pogačar thanked his team members for the great job they did – in scouting the stage route.
It seems that you really don’t need a great team – or a team at all – to win the Tour de France. You just need one or two riders strong enough to finish the race and humble enough to carry water for their leader.
Speaking of teams, what happened to Ineos?
Not only did they choose an apparently out-of-form (or injured) Egan Bernal to carry all the responsibility for winning the Tour – excluding from the race former Tour champs Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas – but they apparently did not even consider the possibility of having a Plan-B candidate, such as the in-form Richard Carapaz.
The Ecuadorian who won the Giro last year would not have bested Pogačar but he might have made the podium if used properly from the start. It was a poorly-planned race by a team that had won seven of the previous eight Tours. Perhaps the team was trying to win all three Grand Tours this year, as Bradley Wiggins has suggested. In any case, it’s back to the drawing board.
Is this the end of Sagan?
This Tour de France featured an uncharacteristically out-of-form Sagan who had won the Tour points classification seven of the past eight years. He seemed sluggish in the sprints and unable to keep up with eventual green jersey winner Sam Bennett. The good news for his many fans is that he will be racing for the first time in the Giro d’Italia this year. I am guessing that he knew from the start that he was not in form to win the Tour’s green jersey and will make up for his lapse in the Giro. Expect a very strong performance from the 30-year-old Slovak next month.
Wout van Aert
What can you say about a cyclist who easily won two sprint stages and, in service to his team leader, Roglič, outrode some of the best climbers in the world in the mountain stages? Commentators were quick to call him the best all-around rider in the world (that was before Pogačar’s dominant time trial). After winning the Tour’s seventh stage, van Aert had won 8 of the last 17 races in which he’d participated.
Former team manager Johan Bruyneel compared the 26-year-old Belgian to five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. “I only know one rider – Bernard Hinault – who in recent decades was able to dictate the pace on a final climb, and also win mass sprints in the same race,” Bruyneel said. “In my opinion Wout van Aert has everything to become a potential Grand Tour winner. If he goes to a Grand Tour with specific preparation and doesn’t lose any strength with mass sprints, he can compete for the podium.”
But van Aert has other priorities such as the World Championships, which are run this week. And he said he does not want to be a yellow-jersey type of rider. “If I retrain myself to become a great prodigy, I’d go to a point of no return – my body will change, I’d lose kilos and lose all my qualities to win Classics and sprints. I don’t want that.”
The future of Grand Tour cycling looks very exciting
In addition to Pogačar (22 years old) and van Aert, this Tour was a showcase for young riders with potentially brilliant futures. Bernal is still only 23 and his best days lie ahead. Switzerland’s Marc Hirshi (22) won a stage as well as the Tour’s most combative rider title. Miguel Ángel López (26) of Colombia won the Tour’s “Queen” stage and looks like a future Grand Tour winner. Spain’s Enric Mas (25) finished fifth in the general classification. Other notable young Tour riders with great potential include Lennard Kämna (24) of Germany and Russian Pavel Sivakov (23). I am already looking forward to next year’s Tour de France.