But hovering beneath the headlines were two intriguing sub-plots that animated the day and pushed pro cycling’s rich web of team tensions and personal rivalry beyond the elbows and arguments of the peloton.
Old rivals, lasting friends
For one of the most headline-grabbing rivalries in modern racing, look no further than Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.
- Van Aert and van der Poel bicker after Gent-Wevelgem shadowboxing
- Why van Aert and van der Poel didn’t dominate the spring
The young duo began their decades-long battle when they were in high school as they waded through the mud and hopped the barriers of the junior ‘cross scene.
Fast-forward through years of fighting for CX world titles and shoulder-to-shoulder sprints for monument successes and the pair were back at it Friday, riding at the front of the biggest race in the world in the day’s all-star breakaway
“Was it was special being in the break with Mathieu? It just felt normal,” van Aert said after the stage. “If you didn’t look around you’d think it was Ruddervoorde Superprestige (cyclocross race – ed.), not the Tour.
“We’re long-time rivals and I think it will be that way forever. We had a few laughs along the way.”
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 2, 2021
Yellow jersey-clad van der Poel and Belgian champ van Aert slotted into the day’s break with big ambitions. Van der Poel was hoping for another day in yellow and van Aert was in it for the stage win, or perhaps to even pull the maillot from Mathieu’s back.
“I had the yellow jersey in mind,” van der Poel said. “It was especially van Aert and Asgreen I was looking at.”
Both riders had it all to play for as they fought for yellow, and just as importantly, personal bragging rights.
“I enjoyed breaking out of the routine of Tour and making war,” van Aert said. “The plan was to join the attack today, both for the stage and for the standings. I already know Mathieu a bit, so I knew he would be on the alert. It’s great that he’s racing like that. I couldn’t shake him off. He deserves a lot of respect.”
The two locked to each other’s wheel for the majority of the six-hour slug-fest and lit up the finale in a two-up attack.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 2, 2021
Van Aert went first and when unable to shake his life-long shadow, he and van der Poel worked together as they battled to take any time advantage available.
“I put everything on one attack but I couldn’t get away,” van Aert said. “Then I said that we’d both benefit if we worked together, we’d both stay close to the other and in the GC.”
Van Aert and van der Poel’s rivalry is fierce and long-lived. But there was still room for some respect and co-operation along the way Friday as they shared wheels and exchanged jokes for some 250 kilometers of red-hot racing.
It’s a friendly rivalry that just keeps giving.
Old friends, new rivals
Van der Poel and van Aert were able to laugh their way through a fierce rivalry Friday.
The same couldn’t be said for Team Movistar and Ineos Grenadiers. When Richard Carapaz hit out in an effort to gain GC time over the isolated Tadej Pogačar and crumbling Primož Roglič, it was his former teammates at Team Movistar that shut him down.
It was a racing play that led to a heated finish-line conversation between Alejandro Valverde and Michał Kwiatkowski.
Valverde, Kwiatkowski, and Mas have an animated discussion after the stage pic.twitter.com/UwbWSzFuDn
— Race Radio (@TheRaceRadio) July 2, 2021
The logical reason behind the chase was that Movistar wanted to preserve Enric Mas’ GC position, just 14 seconds behind Carapaz.
However, perhaps inevitably, tongues started wagging about potential darker motives in the Movistar camp.
Ineos Grenadiers pinched Carapaz from the Spanish squad just when the Ecuadorian was in the ascendancy at the end of 2019, not long after his breakout Giro d’Italia victory. The next season, Movistar plunged into a deep malaise as it looked for new leaders.
Perhaps in retaliation or just in coincidence, “The Blues” near-saved Roglič’s red jersey in stage 17 of last year’s Vuelta a España. With Carapaz charging up the road in a late hunt for GC honors, Mas paced the struggling Slovenian on the roads to Covatilla to keep the ex-Movistar man in check.
At the time, Movistar insisted the chase was for their own benefit as it looked to protect Mas’ GC position, and the same argument could be made on the squad’s stage 7 exploits.
Was it an act of revenge against Carapaz? Only those in the Movistar bus will know for sure.
Either way, Valverde and Kwiatkowski’s post-stage conversation would have made for some popcorn-worthy listening, and the coming weekend in the Alps may reveal whether Ineos Grenadiers and Movistar have scores to settle.
From Van Aert and van der Poel’s respectful rivalry to the “Carapaz conundrum,” pro cycling is a soap opera with endless plot twists. There will be plenty more episodes to come at this Tour de France.