And just like that, it's over. The Tour de France that wasn't actually going to start, has just wrapped up in the most dramatic fashion. As predicted, the final week of Le Tour - including that time trial - was about as exciting as it gets in bike racing. With everyone and their mum hailing this the best TdF in history, it's certainly one that will be spoken about in the same hushed tones as 1989 for years to come.
Maybe it's just 2020, but the crash-fest in Nice that kicked us off at the end of August really does feel like years ago. In a funny way it's been quite nice focusing solely on a bike race and blocking out the real world for three weeks. A welcome respite from the daily face punch that is the news. With bikes.
If you missed our round up of the first two week's of Le Tour, then you can catch up here. I'll touch on some of that same stuff in the blog too, but this is more of a focus on week three and the race as a whole.
Was it a good Tour de France?
Firstly, we should talk about week three. After the second rest day's shock zero positive tests announcement, the third week that no one expected to happen, was actually on. Three mountainous stages followed the rest day, treating us to some great breakaway action and Jumbo Visma deploying vintage Team Sky tactics, shutting down anyone who dared to attack with a mean stare from Martin/Wout/Dumo/Sepp (delete as appropriate). Everything under control for the Malliot Jaune.
Stage 17 saw what was left of the peloton take on the Col de Madeleine and Col de la Loze double header on the Queen Stage. Did we see some cracks start to appear in the Jumbo armour, as Lopez and then Pogacar attacked Roglič? It was a brutal finish, but the Yellow Jersey was as cool as ever, reminding his younger compatriot who was boss, and graciously allowing Superman to slip away for the win. Nothing to worry about.
Stage 18 saw possibly the nicest Tour finish in a long time, as Team Ineos duo Carapaz and Kwiatkowski broke away to finish together, Carapaz gifting his elder team mate the win. That Kwiato, a veteran of seven Tours with Sky/Ineos, hasn't won a stage before was a surprise, but it just goes to show what a team man he really is, always foregoing his only glory in service of others. It was a nice moment.
It also served as a nice reminder about how fickle the average cycling fan/media can be. For years Team Sky/Ineos have been the big bad wolf - strangling the race, making it boring and predictable. Out of the running in 2020, there was a collective cooing as everyone went all misty eyed over a bit of bonhomie at the end of a race.
However whether this was a good third week, or a good Tour de France overall, comes down to that time trial, the penultimate day, one we won't forget in a hurry.
That time trial?
That time trial. Everyone knew it was coming, and that it was going to be very important. Everyone knew, yes, but it seems that only a 21 year old Slovenian, or at least his team, really understood how important it was going to be. Tadej Pogacar recced the time trial route, complete with savage summit finish up La Planches des Belle Filles, no less than three times before the tour, to ensure he had everything dialled in.
With Roglič and Jumbo's dominance looking so assured over the three weeks, such a massive upset looked like what Boris Johnson would call a 'moonshot'. Sure some predicted it, but more in the 'anything' is possible in a bike race vein. I'm not sure anyone actually thought it could happen. The cries (tweets) of "1989 all over again" rung out loudly, as the seemingly impossible happened in front of our very eyes.
For those that don't have a BA in cycling history, 1989 was the previous 'most exciting Tour' edition, as Greg Lemond overturned a fifty second deficit to win by 8 seconds on the final day time trial. As in 1989, nine years before Pogacar was born remember, a seemingly impossible feat took place on Saturday 19th September 2020.
Going into the stage, Roglič held a 59 second lead over his countryman. After 19 stages, Roglič and Jumbo Visma looked in control. 30km of flat, and 6km of uphill, was all that separated him from his first Tour de France win. He couldn't lose over a minute on that course, given how solid he's looked over the last three weeks, could he? It turns out that he absolutely could, and did, cementing 2020 as one of the most exciting races of all time. As one Peter Sagan prophetically uttered just a few days earlier, "fucking cycling".
After three weeks of dominance, it took a little under an hour for Tadej Pogacar to dismantle many long held Tour de France preconceptions, and take the Malliot Jaune at the first time of asking, just one day shy of his 22nd birthday. You can read all about how he did it from much better writers than me. Try Nick Bull or the team at Cycling Tips if you want to try and 'understand' this madness.
The worst thing about such a massive upset, is we'll now have to listen to every armchair pundit explain at length about how they predicted this outcome. I suspect as more and more time passes, more and more people will conveniently fall on the right side of history. Funny how that happens. For my part, I just did not see this coming! Jumbo looked to be in control and Roglič too comfortable. I wonder if we'll find out in weeks and months to come what happened to Roglič, but I suspect he doesn't really know himself. Sport is cruel; but that, in part, is what keeps us so enthralled.
The final procession into Paris was made exciting this year by the fact that the Green Jersey was still on the line. Everyone's favourite Irishman Sam Bennett had to finish ahead of Sagan at the first intermediate sprint (40km to go) to wrap up the jersey. He did so, meaning he could've spent the rest of the race wheelieing around drinking Guinness if he wanted. But of course, winning on Les Champs in your newly secured bright Green Jumper is not a chance to pass up, and Bennett duly took the stage win with an audible roar. Chapeau Sam.
So, was this a good Tour?
Yes, it really was. The fact that it happened at all and managed to keep happening for three weeks, despite everything, is a minor miracle. I think the starkest realisation of this success came on the final day - as the peloton rolled around an 'empty' Paris. The capital city recorded nearly 14,000 cases of coronavirus on that day alone, so the fact that the stage could go ahead was remarkable. Mesmerised by the racing it was easy to forget about the wider situation at times. Paris really brought it all home.
Looking back on all twenty one stages now, with twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy to see just how good an edition of Le Tour this really was. Was it as good as 1989? I think that will depend on what side of forty you fall, but it was certainly one of the best Tours I've ever witnessed (I was four in '89). However, just like the 1989 edition, I fear we'll be retelling this one at length to blank faced younger cycling fans in 30 years time. Those poor kids!
Who the flip is Tadej Pogacar anyway?
Only the youngest winner since 1904, first person to win on debut since Laurent Fignon in 1983, and first person to win three jerseys since one Eddy Merckx in 1969. Former Slovenian cyclocross champion (obviously), he came third at the Vuelta at the first time of asking last year, so big things were expected. Maybe just not this soon!
What is most special about this win is that he did it mostly by himself, having lost two of his mountain domestiques early on. His remaining team mates did a stand up job where they could, no question, but in the high mountains, when it really counted, he was fighting his own corner. Compare that to Roglič who had some of the best riders in the world backing him up, or the dominant years of Team Sky/Ineos, and this one stands apart.
He also likes to, er... rap. No joke - cringe here.
Does this mean an end to 'team dominance'
Is this the end of strong teams dominating the Tour de France? Jumbo Visma had everything in their control with the strongest team, and they were undone by a wunderkind riding like he had nothing to lose. Will team owners now go after these special talents, blowing all the wage budget on the next Pog, and do away with the super domestiques?
No, is the short answer. Whilst Pog is clearly a special, you can bet your bottom dollar that Team UAE are currently calling around all of the best unsigned super doms to build out a mega team to support his title defence next year. Team Ineos continue to bring in stars, old and new, and it will be really interesting to see what moves Jumbo makes, if any. The era of big strong teams shows no sign of ending. Plus ça change.
So who was the best team?
The official results will tell you that Movistar were the best team, as they won the overall team award. But this is BS, as they were totally rubbish all Tour. They never put their heads above the parapet and therefore went unremarked all race. Some people might value that kind of racing, but I don't. Looking at stages 1 - 19 it would be easy to nominate Jumbo Visma, for the way they controlled the race, and what went down on stage 20 takes nothing away from that. They rode a brilliant race and should be rightly proud.
But they weren't my team of the Tour, and not because they eventually lost. They were outshone by an all together more exciting team, that being the newly resurgent Team Sunweb. The youngest team at the race, they attacked freely and expertly, winning three of the best stages with long range solo efforts that were set up by masterful tactics. Loads more to come from Sunweb this year, and I can't wait to see how they go in the Classics.
So then who was the worst team?
Heroes of the tour?
Pogacar, obviously. Kwiatkowski and Carapaz for getting on and making the best of a bad situation for Ineos. Marc Hirschi for stealing our hearts. Roglič for losing so magnanimously. Sam Bennett for a great Green Jersey race. Richie Porte for a composed ride onto the podium. Team Sunweb DS Matt Winston for directing his young team perfectly. Kevin Reza for helping to highlight cycling's woeful contribution to the BLM debate. Loads of others I'm sure - leave yours in the comments below or @dirtywknd on social.
If I had to pick just one rider though, it would be Belgian darling and confirmed best cyclist in the world Wout van Aert. He really can do it all, and what I like best is that he does it so quietly, so humbly, whilst demanding nothing from his team. The way he goes about his work is an inspiration to any young cyclist.
A tip of the hat has to go in the direction of ASO this year as well. To run a three week event at the scale of Le Tour at a time like this is a pretty amazing feat. Not often the heroes, but they've done a great job.
Losers of the tour?
Whilst we never want to celebrate people's misfortunes, there were a few howlers this year. Team Ineos, whatever your thoughts about the team and their decision making, have had a shocker. Bernal, injured or not, was way off the pace and has a lot to do before next year. Peter Sagan also had a 'bad' tour for the same reasons. Whilst Bora's tactics were exciting, Sagan couldn't finish it off. Nairo Quintana also broke everyone's hearts (or maybe just mine), by being pretty terrible after week one. He was looking so happy... :(
However the real losers this year might just have to be the organisation, and the very sport itself, for its (lack of) response to the equality debate. More on this below.
It wouldn't be Le Tour, especially one that was concluded with such an emphatic performance, without some scepticism. This is pro cycling, and doping allegations will probably always exist, for many good reasons. I'm not saying Pogacar was doping at all, he probably wasn't, but the questions do need to be asked. The same questions should definitely be asked in all other sports too, but sadly people seem to think doping only exists in cycling.
As the hangovers kicked in on Monday morning we were greeted by the news that the Arkea-Samsic hotel was searched during week three and some suspicious items found. A case has been opened, the Quintana boys questioned, and the cloud remains. We wait for more information, head in hands, consoling ourselves with all the memes about Quintana's 17th place and the sport's most unsuccessful doping regime!
Equality in cycling?
The opportunity to add cycling's collective name to the list of sports that are calling for an end to racism in support of the Black Lives Matter protest was embarrassingly bungled on the final day. After a good interview between Eurosport's Orla Chennaoui and B+B's Kevin Reza, the only black rider in this year's race, it looked like the organisers were finally going to take a stance and break their silence on the issue.
What we got was a few generic slogans dawbed on rider's masks. It was embarrassing, and highlighted the sports' complete lack of thought about equality. This deserves a whole blog of its own, which is in the pipeline, but it is very clear that the ASO and even cycling as a whole is not prepared to take this seriously, despite what they might say.
Era of the young guns?
The well worn trope that Grand Tour winners come into prominence in their 30s has been well and truly shattered. Started by Egan Bernal last year, and confirmed by Pogacar on Sunday. Tadej won his first Tour as a 21 year old, so the idea that you have to do your time as a domestique, collecting water for the 'bigger boys', no longer stands up quite so well.
Does this mean, as many are claiming, that we're going to see Pogacar win the race for the next 15 years? Well, no, of course not. Mostly because everyone said the same thing about Bernal last year, and look how that turned out. However with Pog, Bernal, Hirschi, Remco and other young riders coming through, the elder statesmen of the race should be rightfully looking over their shoulders.
What happens now?
Well, more bike racing, I hope. As the cycling world tries to squeeze a year of races into a few months, we've got a full schedule between now and Christmas, if it's not cancelled. Do I mean the bike racing, or Christmas? No one knows at this point!
This week sees the start of the World Championships, then it's the Giro, the remaining classics and then the Vuelta. Whether these races go ahead or not, which riders from Le Tour take part and who can carry any kind of form into them remains to be seen. Can Ineos 'save' their season with a paltry Giro or Vuelta win, or will Jumbo bounce back from this loss to reassert their dominance. Was Quintana doping (badly) after all?
So many questions to be answered. As for me, I'll be starting at the nearest wall until racing resumes in, oh... 3 days. If you want to discuss Le Tour then hit up @dirtywknd on social media or comment below.
Vive Le Tour!
Images: Yuzuru SUNADA / Cycling Tips / Getty Images / Reuters