Who’s better: van der Poel or van Aert? van Aert!
Battle for GC aside, the 2021 Tour could be seen as an elaborate stage to demonstrate what is playing out to be the greatest rivalry the sport has ever known, between arguably the two strongest and most complete cyclists in the world: Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. Here’s why: The Dutchman wins stage 2, taking the yellow jersey and capturing the hearts of fans (helped by his poignant connection with his grandfather and the deep and broad backstory). The win was nothing remarkable on paper – a stage win with the bonus seconds that come with it in the beginning of a three-week grand Tour usually results in a yellow jersey. What was unusual was the way in which he did it. Attacking twice off the front and ripping the field to pieces, he seemed to be toying with the rest of the best in the world. Then he held on to the jersey all week, even after the time trial (if there is any discipline he doesn’t necessarily specialise in, it’s TTs).
All this didn’t go unnoticed by Wout van Aert, who was relatively quiet in the first week, on domestique duty, protecting his GC rider(s). That all appeared to change on stage 10, into Valence. The flat sprint stage was won by Mark Cavendish, but notably, van Aert was second – fully and ominously committed. The following day, on the queen stage that went over the infamous Ventoux, twice, the Belgian was in the break of the day. Halfway up the final ascent, his intentions were clear as he powered away from Kenny Elissonde. Perhaps he should’ve waited to help Vingegaard, who was also on a great day putting Pogacar to the sword. But Jumbo Visma opted to secure the bird in the hand and he took the stage. After a few quiet days came the final TT, which he blitzed. It was then that his fans dared to dream, that he would do what no rider had done since Bernard Hinault’s prime – win a mountain stage, a TT and a flat bunch sprint stage. Not just any flat bunch sprint stage… THE flat bunch sprint stage. Your move Mathieu.
There are new names to watch in the future, but very few are French
Jonas Vingegaard | Tour debutant Vingegaard rescued Jumbo Visma’s GC hopes, stepping admirably up to the plate when Primoz Roglic crashed, faltered then retired. In fact, the term ‘stepping up’ does Vingegaard a disfavour — he outperformed any possible expectation of a first lieutenant and of any team leader at the race, barring one (Pogacar). The Danish former fish packer has announced his presence on the world cycling stage, with two blistering TTs and as the only rider to bother Pogacar. This leaves us with the question ‘Where will he go to be a team leader in 2023, when his contract is up?’ and ‘what happens with Roglic’s skin grows back?’ Our suggestion: add four years onto the end of his contract now.
Ben O’Connor | In his excellent post stage interview, O’Connor thanked those who believed in him after he’d proven their sentiments were well-founded. OK he’s hardly a new name, and here’s a perspective check – any rider picked for the biggest race of the year by one of the biggest teams in the sport can hardly be called placing a bet with long odds. The 25-year-old was class before his stage 9 win into Tignes and 4th spot on GC. It’s just that now, the whole world knows it.
Tim Merlier | Merlier’s first chance at a Tour stage was on a flat day 3 heading into Pontivy. In a highly unusual scene, we saw yellow jersey wearer van der Poel leading him out, possibly the ultimate endorsement. Merlier topped the results sheet at the Giro so this wasn’t unfounded and the Belgian had the speed and nous to outfox and out-power the fastest in the world. So now he’s also the fastest in the world.
The Frenchmen we should watch | French cycling had a hard time over the last three decades. Much of it is attributed to the pressure of the French media, the minute any rider shows the slightest glimmer of talent. Some describe weight so great that Charles Atlas’ shoulders would quiver. In 2021’s race there was no Bardet or Pinot to ask “(When) will you be the next Bernard Hinault?” so they turned their attention to Gaudu, Latour, Martin, all of whom struggled to convert (although we enjoyed watching Gaudu’s daredevil descending). Granted, it won’t be easy to break the stronghold of the Slovenians and South Americans. That said, Cofidis’ Guillaume Martin did manage to chisel his way into the top ten on GC and wildcard team B&B Hotels P/B KTM stood on the podium in Paris – Franck Bonnamour – voted the most combative rider.
Cavendish is not done
Let’s start by saying that if anyone at the race silenced their critics and doubters, it was Mark Cavendish. To his credit there were no victory salutes involving raising a finger to his lips nor zip-your-lips gestures (unlike another rider, who seemed unaware of when a certain prolific stage ‘winner’ did that, and how the story ended). At the risk of going tangential on this, let’s not forget that Bahrain’s world press freedom ranking is in the bottom 10% – disastrous optics. Back to the comeback story of the year, it’s a reminder to us all to never give up, then go and match an unbreakable record set by the best cyclist of all time. It was a pleasure to witness his post stage interviews, tears and rambling and all, if only to get a glimpse of the mentality that makes him a special athlete – his genius-level attention to the details of a finale and other worldly recollection and awareness of 13 years of sprint finishes and tactics of the ever-dynamic ebb and flow of lead out trains. Granted, he enjoyed a special set of circumstances – Sam Bennett falling out with team boss Patrick Lefevre, Caleb Ewan crashing out early, Sagan hampered by injuries from the same crash, Merlier retiring from the race, van der Poel heading to Tokyo early, and having the most expensive and dedicated lead out train in the race at his sole disposal (also helping him through the big climbing days). One thing is for sure, the fire within still burns hot (as that temper tantrum video suggests).
Froome may well be done
25 months on from a life-changing crash, four-time Tour winner Chris Froome was back at the Tour de France, but not as the rider we’ve come to know him. Seeing the 36-year-old at the start line was inspiring for all those recovering from serious setbacks, but watching him rolling in with the groupetto each mountain stage had viewers torn between: ‘what a miracle!’ and ‘what’s one of the most highly paid riders in the sport doing at the wrong end of the peloton?’ We prefer the former. We hope he’ll be back at the front soon, but the odds are not good, with his age and Tadej Pogacar as major factors in the bookies’ algorithms.
The UCI do listen, a little bit
Crashes marring the early stages has become a hallmark of the Tour de France. For years now it’s scuppered the hopes of some significant names, changed the dynamic of the race and deprived fans of a closer-fought, more exciting GC battle. This year seemed even worse somehow. Pre 2021 Tour, there was a rule that assigned riders who’d crashed or had been affected by a crash within the last 3km of the stage the same time as the stage winner (in the case of a bunch sprint on a flat stage). Supposedly this is to reduce the amount of jostling in the final kilometres by supposedly lowering the stakes for the GC teams so they supposedly aren’t required to fight for position at the front, where it’s supposedly safer. It used to work pretty well. With 2021’s GC field in tatters however (Roglic, Thomas, Porte, Martin, Woods, Lopez, Soler, Yates, Haig…) the riders protested on stage 4 and (we assume) consequently the UCI extended the distance to 8km. Questions were raised as to why it’s 8km, rather than a nice round number like 10km for example. Hypothetical answers could lie in the fact that Roglic and others crashed with 10km to go on stage 3.
Pogacar is no flash in the pan
Consistently winning, from the team’s home race (UAE Tour) to Tirreno Adriatico, Liege-Bastogne-Liege to his own home race (Tour of Slovenia) the 2021 Tour de France was the 22-year-old rider’s to lose, with only his thwarted countryman Primoz Roglic and Richard Carapaz (and the might of team Ineos Grenadiers ) listed as serious challengers. One year older, a drama-free build up and a stronger, more focused team, the inevitable was slowly dawning on the rest of the field. Detractors’ doubts (and competitors’ hopes) were put to rest in the early stages as he looked very sprightly, bobbing and jabbing, responding to attacks. But it was the first time trial when he threw the first real punch – one that he made count. Rivals scratched their heads, went back to their hotels and scrolled down past Plan A and Plan B to the ‘well let’s hope he has a bad day’ tactic. Even when he did, the others failed to capitalise, thanks to his cool head, canny tactics and a team that rose to the challenge of protecting who looks to be the dominant figure for the foreseeable future.
Team Ineos Grenadiers have to go back to the drawing board, again
Ineos Grenadiers enjoyed an era of all-but-guaranteed victories as the British outfit held the race in a vice grip for a decade and we saw 2020 as merely an aberration, when Bernal’s campaign collapsed. The results sheet at the 2021 Tour looked better for them but they failed to match the lofty palmares that we expect from the powerhouse team. Their budget affords them the finest lieutenants in the business. Take Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richie Porte and Jonathan Castroviejo. They could be generals in any other team. Michał Kwiatkowski is known to be one of the highest earners in the peloton. What other team could afford to deploy a rider of this quality as a domestique. It’s hard to watch when all they apply those familiar blunt tactics and all they amounted to was Luke Rowe’s elimination and some fruitless attacks by their team leader Richard Carapaz, who deserves credit for giving his best (making Ecuadorian cycling history in the process). He was also noted for his performance in the pantomime theatre acting category as he feigned suffering, refusing to contribute to the work on Luz Ardiden, right before a cheeky attack near the summit. It backfired and attracted mire, notably from the likes of the astute and hilarious Philippa York. All said and done, to beat the best rider in the peloton, you have to hire the best rider in the peloton. Safe to say that they’ll be focusing on fully restoring Egan Bernal’s superpowers, fast-tracking Tom Pidcock and calling their PR firm for more brand-building tips (although we did laugh at their Cav tantrum pastiche video).
Still no clear direction on wheel tech
Disc brakes have all but succeeded rim brakes, except for one thing – disc brake bikes have yet to win a Tour. Sure, Tadej Pogacar went disc for 17 of the 21 stages, but notably, on the three days he won, he was on bikes with rim brakes. Uncanny. String of consciousness coming up, to foster debate in the comments section.
The last bastion of rim brakes is Ineos Grenadiers, arguably the most thorough of teams when it comes to ‘marginal gains’. Pinarello just announced the new F, with the team’s fleet comprising the calliper brake option exclusively). Sure, changing a disc brake wheel takes a few seconds more, and if it’s a critical part of the race and a rider needs a wheel from neutral support when there’s no team car nearby, that can cost minutes. But how long will the blue Shimano car keep stocking old school wheels? Talking of which, Shimano are their long-time sponsor so why are they riding the Lightweights and Princetons? Same question goes to Alpecin-Fenix, after seeing van der Poel’s TT bike, also shod with Princetons. Sawtooth inner profiles or smooth, narrow or wide rims, toroidal or v-profile shapes, tubular or tubeless or tubed tyres? Did we expect to see a clear direction as to which way wheels are headed? Are we unlikely to see that when riders are winning on all types of formats and designs that are seemingly at opposite ends of the scale? Does the maxim ‘what wins on Sunday sells on Monday’ still apply? And about Black Inc’s cheeky rest day post via Dan Martin’s feed, of their new UCI-illegal five-spoke wheels. These are unlikely to be seen in a road stage, unless the UCI takes the rulebook off the shelf and dusts it off to update it. Or should they even?
| IMAGES: Facebook | WORDS: Staff Writer |