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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2021

No Doubt About It

I could save myself a good deal of writing and save you a good bit of reading if I just said this much: Tadej Pogačar won the 2021 Tour de France. End of story. Game over…drive home safely.

But how much fun would that be?

Seeing as how the Tour was a little earlier than usual this year and finished on July 18, the fact of his win is old, cold news at this point. So this won’t be a standard, stage-by-stage report on what happened. If you were interested, you watched it every day on TV, read the daily accounts in the cycling press, and maybe even pored over the commentary and analysis churned out by the experts. How can I presume to add anything to the saga that hasn’t already been aired out thrice over?

I can’t, really. But as I know from conversations with my biking buddies, we all love to kick things around in the time-honored tradition of Monday-morning quarterbacks. That will be my approach: just tossing around a few observations with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

Po-Gotcha!

PogacarFirst and foremost is that kid, Tadej Pogačar. Already two Tour de France championships at 22 years old. Not only the maillot jaune but also the Best Young Rider jersey and the Mountains jersey…same as last year. Unlike last year’s last-minute, rabbit-out-of-a-hat shocker, this one was almost over before it began. 

Where are those points where we can look back and say, the Tour was locked up at this point? The first might have been when Primoz Roglič crashed on Stage 3. He did get back on the bike and finished, although he lost enough time his Tour hopes were as battered as he was. And then he lost more time each day, clearly struggling with his injuries, until finally he left the tour. He was Pogačar’s biggest rival. With him out of the frame, much of the suspense evaporated.

For the record, Pogačar was caught up in a massive pile-up the same day and lost about half a minute to some of the other top GC riders. But his wounds were minor. More about crashes later!

The next nail in the coffin was the first time trial two days later, which Pogačar won, beating not only his GC rivals but all the ITT specialists. A dominating performance. He didn’t take the overall lead that day but he was over a minute ahead of anyone who might have been considered a contender.

The really definitive moment came three days later on Stage 8, the first Alpine stage…miserably cold and rainy, with three monster mountains to cross and a long, freezing descent to the finish. Behind a fragmented breakaway, on the twin towers of Col de Romme and Col de la Columbiere, he jumped off the front of the favorites’ group and simply blew everyone else away. Pogačar will insist he was working his butt off but it looked so effortless, so casual, the way he dropped his rivals and then picked off the breakaway riders up the hill ahead of him. By the time he rolled into the finish, the gaps to all his supposed adversaries were at least 4:30 and over five or six minutes for most. Barring an accident or some cruel mischance, it really was over at that point.

Lest there be any doubt, he repeated the same stunt the next day on a stage with a Cat 1 uphill finish, also in the rain, also behind a breakaway. This time it was near the finish and was only in response to little digs from other riders. After a few of those irritating mosquito bites he just shot off and put another 30 seconds into his nearest pursuers. Now everyone who might have mattered was over five minutes down…less than halfway through the Tour.

After that, with leads of anywhere from five minutes to three times that over all the riders who were supposed to be in contention, Pogačar and his UAE team could exercise a sort of soft control over proceedings as the days went by. Many breaks were allowed up the road but they didn’t bother the leader. Many riders had their little daily triumphs but the GC situation remained status quo. 

That changed on Stages 17 and 18, the two final mountain stages in the Haute-Pyrénées, both with ginormous uphill finishes.  Pogačar might have been content to simply sit on his rivals’ wheels and follow their attacks. And he did so, up to a point. But in the end, nearing both summits, he covered every move and then launched blistering attacks of his own that no one could match. He won both stages emphatically…a total smack-down the likes of which we haven’t seen in years.

He did the final time trial on cruise control, finishing 8th with most of his massive lead intact. Bike racing is a dangerous and quirky sport. Bad things can pop up around any bend. Just ask the many riders who crashed badly. So it’s never wise to say it’s over until you cross the finish line in Paris. But really, they could have popped the champagne corks at the end of Stage 8.

Cycling’s checkered past being what it is, inevitably some folks cast a cynical, jaundiced eye at the astonishing accomplishments of this young Slovenian. Too good to be true? Sadly, this is the legacy we live with. All Pogačar can do is point to the many, many doping controls he undergoes along the way, sometimes three a day. All we can do is hope he’s as good as he appears to be. What he appears to be is a once-in-a-generation athlete with physical and emotional attributes far beyond even the higher standards of pro sports.

Crashes

Were there more crashes this year than usual? I read somewhere that more riders had abandoned by the second rest day than in any prior Tour. That doesn’t mean there were more crashes but only that whatever crashes there were had caused more damage that usual.

In all, 44 dropped out, but not all of them left because of crashes. Some abandoned because of sickness or exhaustion or plain old abject misery. Some were DQ’d for missing the time limit on a given stage. And a few simply cut their losses and moved on, to prepare for the Olympics, for instance.

But many did crash out. Roglič was certainly the most significant, at least in terms of how it affected the race at the front of the field. Based on recent performance, he would have given Pogačar a stiffer challenge than any of the rest of the presumptive favorites. Geraint Thomas crashed early—a dislocated shoulder—but managed to stay in the race, although his performance was tepid afterward. Caleb Ewan, Peter Sagan, Marc Soler, Simon Yates, Robert Gesink, Tony Martin…it’s a long list, although it seems about typical for a Tour.

It’s a high-risk sport. Pack riding at 30 mph, inches from other riders in all directions…or perhaps inches from the edge of the road and the spectators thronging there. Which brings me to…

Crowds

The first and most spectacular crash of the Tour was the one caused by the woman with the stupid “Omi und Opi” cardboard sign that took out Martin and about a zillion other blameless riders. The only surprising thing in this case was that it was a woman at fault. Men are the problem 99% of the time. To be fair, most people who flock to the Tour or Giro to watch the race are good, sensible people who never cause any trouble. But there is a significant subset of boneheads who make life difficult and dangerous for everyone around them. I want to believe most of my readers are intelligent, responsible fans who would always want to do the right thing, which is to cheer for but not interfere with the riders. 

But just on the off-chance that when you go to see a bike race, you dress up as the Pope or Batman or the homecoming queen and then dance around in the road, or worse yet, if you run out into the road and chase along next to the struggling riders on a climb, getting in their way while screaming nonsense in their ears…then you are a jerk, an idiot, a fool, a turd, a card-carrying, USDA-certified moron. This is not a matter of debate or nuance. It’s a cold, hard fact: you are a dipshit.

If you show up with a dopey sign that no one can read or understand, or wave a flag on a pole in the riders’ faces, or light a colored flare…you should be locked up in a tiny cell for the next ten years. Shame on you! What the bleep are you thinking? The race is not about you. It’s not about the message on your sign or the fealty to your flag. Just…stop. Don’t go there. The bike race would be vastly improved if you stayed home.

Weather

As the riders were making their final loops up and down the Champs-Elysées, with the thermometer topping out around 85 sunny degrees, we heard one of the color guys saying he felt the weather for this year’s Tour had been about as nice as he could ever remember. And I’m like, Excuse me? Which planet have you been living on lately? Can you not remember all those days of icy rain in the Alps and elsewhere?

I tell ya, as a fair-weather recreational tourist, I never cease to be amazed at the amount of pain and suffering the pro riders have to put up with to do what they do…neither rain nor sleet nor snow can keep these faithful couriers from their appointed rounds. Calling myself “fair-weather” is only wishful thinking because I have logged many and many a mile of misery in the rain and sleet and snow down the years, some of it even on roads in France they use in the big races. I wrote in this space once about summitting Col d’Allos in the rain, at 40 degrees. Ten miles of climbing and—worse—ten miles of descending. Seemed like an eternity of purgatory. Purest awfulness. And yet these guys don’t do a mere 20 miles in it. They do stages of over 100 miles in the grimmest conditions and they wake up the next day and do it all over again, like repeating a bad dream.

And spare a thought for the mechanics who have to clean all those bikes every night. Not just the ones that were ridden but all the others that were up on the roof racks being pelted by the rain and road grime.

Okay, so no stages were closed or rerouted because of blizzards or landslides—as happened in this year’s Giro—but still…if this is anyone’s idea of great weather, they are welcome to it. Of course, if it was Bob Roll who said it—the domestique for Andy Hamsten on his famous Gavia-in-the-Snow escapade—then maybe we can respect his point of view.

Sprints

Any halfway astute fan of cycling knows that Mark Cavendish is not Eddy Merckx and that Mark’s 34 Tour wins are not the same as Eddy’s 34. So I won’t belabor that point. But to hear the talking heads going on about it on TV—perhaps to boost ratings?—you would think Cav is the second coming of the Cannibal.

Make no mistake: Cavendish is one of the all-time great sprinters. And he’s had some tough luck in recent years, dang near career-ending luck. So it was nice to see him have this moment of resurrection. All hail the Manx Missile!

That said, not only is Cav not Merckx, he was probably not the best sprinter in this year’s Tour. Don’t forget that many of the other top sprinters were taken out in crashes or were eliminated early for other reasons. Most notably, Caleb Ewan. All else being equal, he would have eaten Cavendish’s lunch in most sprints. But he crashed out early, along with Peter Sagan, another likely sprinter. Merlier. Cocquard, Bouhani. Demare. Van der Poel. A lot of good, hardass sprinters. Of course bagging the green jersey often has more to do with surviving to Paris than with being fastest.

Cavendish also benefited from having absolutely the best lead-out train in the Tour. Watch the overhead views of the last 500 meters of any of his wins and you see an almost textbook-perfect example of how a sprint lead-out should be done. The only time they messed it up was on the final finish in Paris. But seeing how easily even a good team can screw things up during those super hectic, crazy-fast last meters should only remind us how hard it is to get it right and how well they did it most of the other chances they had.

Revelations

In the context of the Tour, “revelations” means riders who exploded onto the scene from out of left field; riders we had never or barely heard of and now, all of a sudden, they were big-time prime-time. 

Clearly, the pick of the litter in this department is Jonas Vingegaard, the Danish rider for Jumbo-Visma, who finished 2nd in his first Tour. He’s 24 and his only previous showing in a grand tour was 46th at last year’s Vuelta. Most people assumed he was entered in this Tour as a domestique for Primoz Roglič. But his team says otherwise. They say they knew he could do well and they saw his role as only incidentally working for Roglič as needed but more as a sort of junior, sub-assistant co-captain…a second prong in a two-pronged, tag-team tactic to challenge Pogačar. And to just generally be the team’s Plan B in case Roglič stumbled. Which he did.

He finished 3rd in each of the two time trials, right up there among the ITT specialists. And he finished 2nd to Pogačar on both of the big mountain finishes in the Pyrénées…Stages 17 and 18. In both cases Richard Carapaz attacked him and dropped him, briefly, but in both cases he dug deep and got back around the Ineos rider before the line. And on the double-Ventoux stage, he put in a dig that actually had Pogačar on the ropes for a while, the only time in the entire tour where the leader showed any sign of weakness.

So…a star is born! This jump starts a whole boatload of speculation as to what Jumbo-Visma will do in future grand tours, including the upcoming Vuelta. Presumably Roglič—the defending champion—will be entered and Pogačar has already said he’ll be there. And so has Vingegaard. Can’t wait to see how that plays out.

Another rider who made a nice splash was the Australian Ben O’Connor of the AG2R team, finishing 4th in his first Tour. He’s not quite the newbie that Vingegaard is. This is his fifth grand tour and all his results have been respectable. He won Stage 9 out of a breakaway and that catapulted him into 2nd place. After that he hung tough for the duration of the Tour, giving up little scraps of time to the three riders ahead of him but not totally caving in. A very good showing and cause for rethinking team strategy at AG2R.

I might also mention Wout van Aert but we already knew he was a formidable rider capable of great things, as he proved in winning a mountain stage, a time trial, and a sprint. But I already had him on my list of top riders last year so this is not that much of a surprise. At 6’1” and 172 pounds he’s probably just a little too beefy to be a genuine all-rounder. When the biggest mountains loom, he loses time. I doubt he can reconfigure himself in the ways needed to be a grand tour winner but he will continue to be a major force in the world of racing for years to come.

The Wheel Turns

In contrast to these new kids coming along, we have an older generation fading away. This is a constant theme and one I’ve noted in past seasons…out with the old and in with the new. Out of a group of what we would have called the Heads of State just a couple of years ago, only Rigoberto Uran made the top ten and he was over 18 minutes back in a tired 10th place. Here’s a list of other luminaries with their placings and times, not counting the ones who departed because of crashes…

24. Alejandro Valverde…1:07:50

28. Nairo Quintana…1:33:11

38. Richie Porte…2:05:13

41. Geraint Thomas…2:11:37

132. Chris Froome…4:12:01

Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang: abandoned

How many grand tour victories and podium steps do you have there? A lot. No bookie would give you decent odds of any of these veterans ever stepping on a grand tour podium again. It could happen but don’t hold your breath. No, the times they are a changing. Pogačar and Vingegaard look like a couple of high school kids. That’s the future. That’s who we’ll be watching and discussing in the years ahead.

It was another grand grand tour, in spite of there not being much suspense after about Stage 8. We had the privilege and the high entertainment value of watching some emerging stars doing amazing things. People are already comparing Pogačar to Merckx, which I think is way beyond silly. It’s too soon, for one thing. Any piece of bad luck could derail his career at any moment. It happens. Just ask Chris Froome. 

But beyond all that Fickle Finger of Fate stuff, they appear to be two very different people. Merckx was a hard-assed bastard. A tough guy. Pogačar seems—superficially at least—to be doing what he’s doing with an ebullient, cheerful joy…always with a smile on his face. It’s too soon to know if the fame and the incessant badgering of the news media will eventually cause him to withdraw behind a wall of reserve. So far he’s weathering the storm.

And although at the moment he appears invincible, there will come a day up the road where he is tested and possibly overmatched. Vingegaard might do it. Roglič might, Or maybe it will be some young buck we don’t even see on the horizon yet…next year’s new revelation. But for the moment, all the other riders are thinking, “Jeez, he’s only 22. He could do this for another ten years!” He probably won’t but who knows? 

With less than a week’s rest, the same cast of characters showed up for the Olympic road race in Japan on July 24. At the end of a long, hard, hilly race, Richard Carapaz and rising US star Brandon McNulty formed the final and decisive break. Carapaz eventually dropped McNulty and soloed to a gold medal for Ecuador. McNulty was caught by a very elite chase group and in the final sprint, the silver and bronze medals went to—who else?—Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar. And for whatever it’s worth, although van Aert beat Pogačar, the latter was actually faster in the sprint. He just started his kick from further back. What can we take away from those results? Richard Carapaz is still a force to be reckoned with. Wout van Aert can sprint with the best and can also get over the big climbs with the leaders. And Tadej Pogačar can climb like an angel but can hold his own in the sprints too.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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