A day at the Tour de France unlike any other, maybe?
With the final stage just concluded, Tadej Pogačar has won the 2020 Tour de France, snatching it away from his compatriot Primož Roglič at the final moment, the time trial yesterday to Les Planche des Belles Filles. You’ve probably heard that he is the first Slovenian cyclist to win the Tour, and that (by all of 24 hours) he has become the first rider under age 22 to win since 1904 — a race that you could just pretend never happened and call Pogs the youngest ever. But… did you know… that Pogačar becomes the youngest Slovenian rider to ever win the Tour? He’s also the youngest Slovenian on a team registered in an Arab nation to win. Shocking stuff!
OK, I’ll try to make the other bits on this list a bit more definitive. Let’s see if I actually get to ten of them.
As the shocking Planche des Belles Filles time trial was playing out, the comparisons to 1989 were flowing thick and fast. When was the last time a final ITT overturned the result of the Tour de France? Certainly that was the easiest comparison to reach for.
And why not? From a pure fan experience standpoint, the comparison was obvious enough. #2 comes from behind and shocks #1. It wasn’t the final ride into Paris, but it would do. I’d go a little further and add that, like 1989, it was made all the more surprising because, last time the duel had been engaged, the guy in yellow looked like the strongest rider. Nobody thought this would happen; at most it couldn’t be ruled out, but based on the information we had at the time, it didn’t make sense.
I’ll add a couple more items. Like 1989, the second-placed rider might have been a bit underestimated due to team dynamics. Pogačar, like LeMond, didn’t have a lot of help in the mountain stages from his team, and some portion of Roglič’s advantage came down to team strength, as did Fignon’s. Team strength means nothing in the Race of Truth, so if you thought Roglič was the stronger guy overall, well sure, that was when he was surrounded by help. In that light, maybe our assumptions about him holding on in the ITT weren’t as well founded as we thought.
The ‘89 Analogies End
Beyond that, the comparison to 1989 starts to fall apart. The concluding ride into Paris that year was a slight downhill with the only climbing being the underpasses in Paris, or maybe a bridge over the Seine. It was 24km and LeMond’s winning time was just over 26 minutes. Saturday’s course was much more challenging, an hour-plus grind including 13 flat KM, then about 10km of false-flat climbing, a reprieve, and finally the 6k ascent of the Planche. Most riders changed bikes as the climb got going for real, that’s how varied the terrain was.
What this meant is that the outcomes were nothing alike. The LeMond win was then and remains truly remarkable because nobody thought there were 50 seconds to gain on that course. LeMond said then that he calculated that he could gain no more than 30, and that was before adding in a tailwind that forced both riders to stomp massive gears. LeMond’s win was a perfectly weird storm of equipment in the throes of change, Fignon suffering saddle sores, and finally a historic effort from a guy who was a phenomenal established champion and natural talent… who also found himself with nothing left to lose. LeMond’s 54.5km/hour average speed is second-fastest for a time trial in Tour history, beaten only by Rohan Dennis in 2015 over a course that was a mere 13km long.
Pogačar’s win Saturday was about 95% less weird. Sure, he needed 58 seconds to win — exactly what LeMond recouped 31 years ago — and maybe we didn’t think he would do it. But there was much more than 58 seconds available on that course. It would take something special, but not an outright miracle. We got something special, and it came with multiple minutes attached. The contest between Pogs and Rogs wasn’t some weird, high-speed battle of nerves and technique and body position so much as a grinding power mano-a-mano. No tricks, just pure watts per KG. Don’t get me wrong, LeMond earned his win, but he needed a lot of help. Apart from a buttery smooth bike change, Pogačar did this mostly on his own.
And while we are on the subject, I have a definite opinion on “Pogs took it” vs. “Rogs chunked it.” Roglič finished fifth on the stage, 1.56 down on his countryman but only 36 seconds back of both Tom Dumoulin and Richie Porte. Those are two class cronomen who can climb with the top guys (most days). This course, with its mix of flat, false flat, and actual climbing, suited Porte and Dumoulin ideally. And Roglič kept within 36 seconds of them. So was he on a bad day?
Roglič has beaten Dumoulin in a grand tour time trial twice, both times at the Giro. After this weekend, Dumoulin has beaten Roglič twice in grand tours, and in the 2017 world championships. Roglič is world class against the watch, and under the circumstances you’d expect him to beat Dumoulin, who had much less to fight for… though obviously fight he did. Dropping half a minute to the Dutchman seems… not great, but hardly shocking.
I think it’s possible to say Roglič had a slightly disappointing performance, but not terribly so. It was a good 8% his fault. But I’ll give the other 92% of the causation to Pogačar. He and Rogs were neck-and-neck in the Slovenian nats ITT this year, but before that Pogs had been soundly thumped by Rogs at last year’s Vuelta ITT to Pau, where Roglič won and Pogačar was 1.29 back.
This result was not chalk. Pogačar pulled out something truly special, the likes of which he has never shown before. It was his first ITT win away from Slovenia, where he has two Nats titles. There was no evidence he could pull off such a performance. He took himself to a new level — I saw 6.5 watts/kg somewhere. All credit due to the kid.
The Parcours Decides the Champion?
If there is a way to generally describe this parcours, it’s the lack of high mountain challenges… or high mountains at all. Another feature would be the lack of a long, flat ITT or a TTT. We used to talk about the differences in character between the Tour and the other grand tours, but this year the Tour seemed to transform itself into the Vuelta or the Giro. Cool? Not cool? You decide.
But what it most decidedly did was to undermine the importance of a strong team. The Giro and the Vuelta don’t exactly represent this concept; it’s more a matter of calendar and topography that make them emphasize short, punchy climbs. Both countries are awash in mountains, but Spain’s top out pretty low, compared to the Alps, and Italy’s have to be approached carefully in May. The Giro and the Vuelta will occasionally load up on flat TT miles, but they generally leave that drudgery to the Tour.
Only this year the Tour didn’t go along. That’s been true for a few years I think? I’d have to look it up, but since Sky got going the Tour has tried to cut down on their advantages. Why should the richest team get to dominate? Yes, égalité is a real thing. Or at least ASO don’t like their viewers to get bored.
Bottom line, the Tour has done what it can to dilute the advantages of the big teams. and it all came to bear on this year’s race. Imagine if instead of the Planche, the Tour had a 48km flat ITT instead. Does Roglič still lose? Not sure. OK, but NOW… imagine a 60k TTT early on. Does Roglič come into the final weekend with under a minute in hand? Or more like three The one high mountain climb to Meribel was the one day Jumbo-Visma’s relative strength over UAE mattered the most, when Roglič actually put Pogačar back on his heels. What if the Tour had three true big-Alps stages for Jumbo to ply their edge in strength? Like they do most years?
Roglič will have a lot to think about as he lives with this result. And one of the things will be how Sky backhandedly fucked him over.
Any Other Great TT Comps?
If 1989 isn’t a perfect analogy to what we just witnessed, is there another day to look back on? Here’s a quick survey. I’d say probably not.
- 2011: Cadel Evans goes from 57” back of the Schlecks to 1.34 ahead in the final Saturday. Just like Pogačar! Except everyone saw this coming about a week or so ahead of time, and much of that Tour’s mountain stages were simply a test of whether the Schlecks could get anywhere near a large enough lead to consider it safe. We generously thought that two minutes might juuuust get it done. Nope.
- 2008: This was a bit like this year’s Tour, if Pogačar had done nothing special and lost to Roglič. Evans (again) famously watched Carlos Sastre get away from him on Alpe d’Huez, after the CSC team had been working him over for a few stages. Evans lacked much help, like Pogs, and Sastre entered the day with 1.34 in hand… would it be enough? Surely he couldn’t pull a Pogačar and overturn the Tour on the penultimate day? No, he couldn’t. Evans reeled in less than 30 seconds and settled for second place (although for his efforts he did move up from fourth and got to laugh at Frank Schleck dumping more than four minutes on the stage).
- 2007: This stage doesn’t get enough love. Maybe because two of the three riders involved got doping bans at some point? Fair enough. But Alberto Contador started the weekend of his first Tour win with 1.50 and 2.49 over Evans and Levi Leipheimer — two cracking cronomen and with 55.5km left to decide the Tour. There most certainly were minutes to be gained on that course, and Leipheimer crushed the field by two minutes or more. Only Evans was within a minute, and Contador at 2.18. During the race, with Leipheimer setting the blistering pace and the final two having to hang on, the entire podium was up for grabs. Sure, the end result was that these three would end up in the same order in Paris as when they rolled out of the starthouse in Cognac, but it was real edge-of-your-seat racing.
I could go on. LeMond overturned the 1990 Tour from Chiapucci on the final ITT, but that was akin to Evans’ win over the Schlecks, particularly since Chiapucci started with a mere five second advantage. Roche took the race lead back from Pedro Delgado on the last weekend’s crono in 1987… again, as expected. Landis did the same to Pereiro in 2006 but then something happened and the rest of the story is lost to history. The only other big upset in a final ITT would be Riis’ bike ending up being hurled into orbit. That was awesome.
Many times, the final weekend’s time trial has been won by the man in yellow, simply confirming his greatness. Hinault, Zoetemelk, Fignon, all confirmed their wins in grand fashion. Plenty of others stretched their lead. These results went a long way toward lulling us into low expectations before this past Saturday. But things can change.
Sagan’s Final Days in Green?
Peter Sagan has been practically synonymous with the green jersey at the Tour de France for most of the last decade, racking up seven titles in eight years, the only miss being a controversial disqualification in 2017. This year, though, the Slovakian hit age 30 and lost his title fair-and-square… mostly… to Sam Bennett of Deceunink-Quick Step. He got docked 30 points for his nudge on Wout Van Aert but lost by nearly 100. It’s hard to claim that had he been closer to winning, he would have behaved differently and pulled it out. Sagan was as motivated as he possibly could be on Sunday, and lost to Bennett once again.
So is it over? Hm, not quite. Or maybe, but it’s not something I’d bet large sums against. Sprinting is a tricky matter, and making it to Paris in one piece requires a lot of luck. Sagan has been the master of pack positioning, of getting over some moderate climbs to sprint out stages where his fellow fastmen were nowhere to be seen, and of just general consistency. While the GC veterans are in the process of being completely overwhelmed by young talent, I am not sure you can say the same about the sprinters. The rate of change is about normal, Sagan has his hurdles to get past, and surely this year is a blown chance with both Dyland Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen injured. If Bennett can get to Paris with loads of points, so too can these guys, which makes Sagan’s job all the harder. Or does it? Maybe next year, if all three can start in full health, they neutralize each other by taking turns scoring on the flat stages while Sagan scoops up the loose morsels in those, and some bigger prizes on mid-mountain days. It’s not preposterous. But it’s only going to get harder.
And Pour One Out for the Old Guys
Last thought here … these kids, I mean, what can we say? Just get them all safely to the start next summer and take that Pogačar/Bernal/Evenepoel competition and inject it straight into my bloodstream. It’s so great I can’t really even go on. And that’s before we consider whether Carapaz or someone else can crash the party. I love this sport right now.
With that, though, it may be time to wave goodbye to the Tour hopes of some great veteran riders who entertained us so much over the last decade. Most prominently, I want to single out Nairo Quintana. He is one of only 19 riders in history to get on the podium of all three grand tours, and his numbers rank with the best of them.
At least 1 podium finish in all 3 Grand Tours | #TDF2020
13 – Anquetil
12 – Hinault, Merckx, Gimondi
11 – Froome, V.Nibali
9 – Valverde, Indurain
7 – Contador
6 – Fignon, N.Quintana, Rominger, Sastre
5 – Evans, J.Rodriguez
4 – Fuente, Menchov
3 – Van Springel, ROGLIC
— ammattipyöräily (@ammattipyoraily) September 20, 2020
Quintana was THE protagonist during Froome’s big run and had only the Kenyan/Brit standing between him and titles in the three events. It seemed like there could be a glimmer of hope for him to do a Nibali, sneak in a win when the competition was a bit down, but the field is too crowded for that now, and the evidence keeps piling up that he just isn’t that special a climber anymore. Movistar is no longer holding him back. Maybe the weird calendar and his training injury stopped what could have been a great run. But not great enough to put 15 minutes into Pogačar.
Richie Porte can probably accept a similar fate, except that his third place is likely to end up his greatest personal milestone, and at age 35 he’s just smiling now. More along Quintana’s lines, you could add Landa and Uran as career cross-offs. Lopez is dangerously close to “no way never” territory. Yates too, though I’m not quite there yet. Dumoulin, same.
Roglič, on the other hand, I could definitely see him coming back next year and finishing the job. He will still be in his prime (31), still supported by a strong (and possibly identical) team, and maybe better prepared to make it to the very end, what with a normal year of racing and planning? Is that possible? Best not to get our hopes up. But whatever Tour de France happens in 2021, Roglič will be among the top contenders.