Wow, what a breathtaking, dramatic Tour de France we have just witnessed. Everything about the three-week race was good for the soul: the racing was fast and hard, there were terrific performances by new stars and, best of all, the loud, aggressive crowds were back, cheering from the side of the road and waving placards. One of those placards, extra big and carried by a woman who wandered onto the road, knocked down about 50 riders on the very first stage – the first of a number of mass crashes that would affect the outcome of the race.
The winner of the general classification was known fairly early in the race – after stage 9 where Tadej Pogačar left his main yellow jersey rivals far behind and opened up a lead of more than 5 min 30 sec over the riders who would finish second and third in the GC. But there were other contests to create suspense and the individual stages were, far more often than not, arenas of exciting contests and breakthrough performances.
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) July 19, 2021
Oddly, the name one heard during the Tour almost as often as that of Pogačar was that of the rider considered the greatest ever to ride the Tour de France, five-time yellow jersey winner Eddy Merckx – aka ‘The Cannibal’ because he used to gobble up jerseys and victories as if they were bonbons. With Pogačar winning three jerseys – yellow, white (for the best young rider) and polka dot (for King of the Mountains) – as he did last year, it was only natural that the comparison should be made.
And it was natural to mention Merckx whenever the British rider Mark Cavendish was mentioned, for not only was the 36-year-old Deceuninck–Quick-Step sprinter making a sensational comeback – having last won a Tour stage five years ago – but he was also attempting to break Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. That he did not break that record and had to contend himself with the ŠKODA Green Jersey was due to the third rider compared to the great Merckx, his countryman Wout van Aert. Here the comparison is perhaps most fitting because, like Merckx, van Aert can do it all.
The 2021 @LeTour is over. 😔
Re-enjoy with the most beautiful pictures! 🍿
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) July 19, 2021
In this Tour, he won what was considered the most difficult mountain stage, the double ascent of the formidable Mont Ventoux on stage 11, was victorious in the stage’s 20 individual time trial and won the bunch sprint to the finish line on the Champs-Elysses in Paris the next day, depriving Cavendish of the record. This was the first time this feat – winning a mountain stage, a time trial and a sprint finish – had been accomplished at the Tour since Bernard Hinault did it in 1979. According to Eurosport expert and former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins, van Aert “is the best rider in the world right now. And the most versatile.”
What this signifies is that a new breed of rider is coming into Grand Tour racing. Riders who are multifaceted (van Aert is a three-time cyclocross world champion) and not shy of going against the inherited wisdom of the past. Pogačar belongs to this group as does Mathieu van der Poel who wore the yellow jersey for seven stages before dropping out to concentrate on the Olympics where he will try to win gold in the mountain bike competition.
What can you say about Pogačar? The ease with which he won this Tour de France was disconcerting. Credit also must go to his UAE Team Emirates teammates, who supported him splendidly when it was required. This was not the case last year when Pogačar was often seen riding alone up the mountains.
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) July 19, 2021
Pogačar will turn 23 in September. This means he has not yet reached his full potential. It must be frightening to his rivals to know that he will only get better. And so, of course, will his team. It is possible if he stays healthy and interested that he could win another seven Tours. Who can stop him?
We’ll never know if fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič would have been a match for him this year. The Jumbo-Visma team leader crashed early and often and was forced to drop out before the halfway point after losing lots of time due to his injuries.
Jumbo-Visma suffered a lot during this race; so much that by the time van Aert crossed the finish line in Paris, he had only three teammates still in the race. Fortunately, they were Mike Teunissen, who led out van Aert perfectly in that final sprint, American Sepp Kuss, who racked up an important stage win, and 24-year-old Jonas Vingegaard who – though racing in his first-ever Tour de France – finished second in the general classification, 5 min 20 sec behind Pogačar but 1 min 43 sec ahead of third-place finisher Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers.
Considering everything they suffered, Jumbo-Visma managed to turn adversity into triumph with four stage wins and young Vingegaard on the podium. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Ineos Grenadiers. Its main yellow jersey hope, Geraint Thomas, also crashed and was never in contention. And Carapaz tried mightily but he was no match for Pogačar and Vingegaard.
Ineos did not win a single stage and looked to be lacking a plan or good ideas throughout the race. Its riders were often visible and working hard but there was no clear purpose behind the effort and no positive results.
A team revamp is in order and will almost certainly take place. Thomas and Carapaz will likely no longer be riding in the Tour to win it. We can probably expect former Tour winner Egan Bernal (who won this year’s Giro d’Italia) to return. Or will they find some other talented young rider? The emphasis will surely be on young because the Tour de France has become a young man’s race.