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Tour de France

Commentary: The specialist is dead. Long live the Tour de France all-rounder

Michael Matthews beating climbers in the mountains, Wout Van Aert able to win everywhere: versatility means more chances for success than ever before.

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Renowned sprinters are beating climbers on mountain finishes in the Massif Central. Tadej Pogačar is dropping weathered Flemish veterans on the cobblestones of northern France. The fast men are barely getting a look for a bunch sprint in the 2022 Tour de France.

This has been the Tour of the everyman, a Wout van Aert kind of race, although I don’t think you could design a route that doesn’t suit him.

The green jersey has been the race’s most attacking rider, the best domestique and, as his maillot would suggest, most prominent in the sprints, too.

He won up and over Mont Ventoux and on the Champs-Élysées last year and will probably win the race’s penultimate stage time trial again. He is in a class of his own. (Aside from GOAT Marianne Vos, who has been doing this kind of thing since before it was cool.)

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The Belgian is an exception that proves a rule. Rider types used to be defined and one-dimensional. Like calves branded with a hot iron soon after birth: you’re a rouleur, baroudeur, grimpeur, puncheur. Don’t like it? Tough, stay in your lane and deal with it.

Now, versatility is flourishing. Tadej Pogačar is the best in the high mountains and time trials, but he is also able to challenge at Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders. Descending dynamo Tom Pidcock was fourth on a punchy climb into Longwy and won on Alpe d’Huez, not to mention his classics, mountain biking and cyclocross prowess.

Simon Yates won a Giro d’Italia time trial. Puncheur Simon Clarke was on top after eleven sectors of cobbles. Valentin Madouas is quietly doing everthing very well, from cobbles to cols, on the fringes of the top 10. Nairo Quintana, adept on the cobbles, is aiming for Paris-Roubaix next year.

Simon Clarke celebrating his win at the Tour de France
Simon Clarke celebrating his win at the Tour de France

OK, I’m joking, but you get the point: more and more racers are casually dipping into different circles in the rider type Venn diagram like artists messily mixing colours in paint pots, and they’re prospering.

We are into puncheur-sprinter-rouleur territory (Christophe Laporte) or grimpeurrouleurbaroudeur land (Bauke Mollema) now.

This is not a Tour de France phenomenon; it’s the sport in 2022 in a microcosm.

But the route of this year’s edition has accentuated this shift. The parcours is designed to offer something of note for almost every day: potential crosswinds, a hill in the finale, a finish on a four-kilometer climb, cobblestones. The winner this year must be a proper bike racer – climb every mountain and cross every bridge, be it Danish or metaphorical.

Of course, it always depends how a route is raced. And the strongest teams here are full of do-a-lot riders to support GC prospects or to win a stage up the road.

Being better-rounded means more chances of stage victory, of enacting a grand plan with your team (see Jumbo-Visma in Calais) or of simply surviving on rolling stages, with a slightly lower residual mental and physical fatigue during the race.

A more versatile bunch raises the pace and the level, too. When the likes of Caleb Ewan (not a bad climber, per se) and Fabio Jakobsen go through day-long agonies with half their team just to make the time limit in the mountains, it underlines the central importance of climbing ability in modern racing.

You have to be in the bunch to win it, and there’s a knock-on effect for the fast men. They and their comrades are left weakened when a flattish stage rolls round or forced to chase dementedly to catch up, like Dylan Groenewegen on stage 15 into Carcassonne.

And all that effort for what, too?

This year, until stage 15, we had a Tour de France where there were no bunch sprints in France. The result is sprinters reinventing themselves and becoming opportunists to win.

“I knew this year we’d have Dylan for the flat sprints. I had to adapt myself and work on climbing a bit better,” Michael Matthews told L’Equipe.

Lo and behold, on the road to Mende, he put more-fancied climbers like Thibaut Pinot, Louis Meintjes and Bauke Mollema to the sword with swashbuckling, resolute racing.

No more flawed, romantic climbers

And as for the pure climber, that died a while ago. There are no more Virenque’s or Mayo’s, flat stage flâneurs who would reliably lose as much time in a sharp crosswind as they’d gain above 1,500 meters. Nowadays, any young lightweight who shows promise in the mountain is charged with improving his time trial ability, pronto.

Because sod attacking on romantic, daylong breakaways: race conversatively, improve against the clock and that’s the difference between seventh and the podium. The specialist is not quite dead, but his chances are increasingly limited.

What is the result of this Tour of the everyman?

Exhausting, breathless racing. Most stages are taken on like one-day classics. There are no more lazy transition days; with opportunities glimpsed everywhere, the bunch is on its knees (apart from Wout van Aert, who is seemingly just having fun) with the Pyrénées still to come. There may be more abandons than usual, given the heat and COVID-19, too.

But it’s been entertaining and enterprising. There will be more riders who embrace the age of the all-rounder and adapt to broaden their chances of glory in the future.