To call out five moments from a Tour de France as dramatic and free-flowing as the 2021 edition is a tough task.
From Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert’s stage wins to the sprinters’ battles against the time cut, this year’s Tour has served drama and intrigue a-plenty.
Here are the five moments that proved the most pivotal in the first 19 stages of this year’s race.
Mathieu van der Poel masters the Mûr
All eyes were on Mathieu van der Poel in the Tour’s opening weekend. The Dutch megastar was making his Tour de France debut, and the race’s first two stages had “MvdP” written all over them.
Van der Poel missed out on stage 1 but hit back hard the next day. The Alpecin-Fenix ace punched away from the world’s best on the Mûr de Bretagne to take the stage and set in train a beyond-belief five days in the yellow jersey.
“I can dream of a scenario like this, but that it worked out, to make it come true is even more unbelievable,” van der Poel said after zipping into yellow that afternoon.
Van der Poel went on to defend his GC lead against all odds on the stage 5 time trial and only ceded the maillot jaune when the race hit the Alps.
What an effort! 💥 pic.twitter.com/37Ao0QsZry
— Alpecin-Deceuninck Cycling Team (@AlpecinDCK) June 30, 2021
Van der Poel may have abandoned the Tour after just one week of racing, but the ferocity of his eight days in France set the tone for what the peloton has called “the hardest Tour de France ever.”
Van der Poel has vowed to return to the race in coming years with the aim to see out the full three weeks. Given the impact he made in eight short days this summer, the bunch had better start battening down the hatches right now.
Primož Roglič crashes on stage 3
As always, crashes have had a huge impact on the Tour de France.
The opening 72 hours of the Tour saw more crashes than it seems possible to list, from the huge “Opi Omi” pileup of stage 1 to the speed-bump slide of Geraint Thomas two days later.
The Slovenian bumped bars on a narrow road approaching the finale and hit the ground hard, coming away with enough road rash to share around half the peloton. Roglič’s initial loss of one minute seemed recoverable, but when he started to crumble on the marathon seventh stage there was a sense it was game over.
🇸🇮@rogla has been dropped from the main group.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 3, 2021
Roglič eventually abandoned ahead of stage 9.
“There is no point in continuing this way. Now it’s time to recover and focus on my new goals,” he said.
“Immediately after my crash in the third stage, I did not think that crash would herald my departure from the Tour. After a few days, I saw that I was not making any progress in my recovery.”
The Jumbo-Visma captain had started the race as the rider most capable of going toe-to-toe with Tadej Pogačar, and he had the team that could send him all the way to Paris. Instead, Roglič left the Tour disappointed for the second year running.
Roglič’s abandon came the day after Pogačar devastated his closest rivals with his huge attack in the Alps. It marked a weekend that the Tour tipped very much in the younger Slovenian’s direction.
Mark Cavendish makes it 31 in Fougères
Mark Cavendish’s return to the Tour de France was the feel-good story of the summer. However, few would have believed that the Manxman was only just starting what would become a historical ride through France when he pedaled out of Brittany for stage 1.
Cavendish rocketed to victory in the first true bunch sprint of the race on the fourth stage into Fougères, showing all the poise and power that made him so prolific through his early career.
Cav was back – and the Eddy Merckx stage win record was in sight.
🦅 An aerial view of @MarkCavendish's winning sprint!
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) June 29, 2021
Cavendish’s win in Fougères was just the first of four incredible comeback victories that saw him level Merckx’s long-standing record of 34 Tour stage wins.
“I don’t know what to say,” Cavendish after winning stage 4. “Just being here is special enough. I didn’t know I would get to come back to this race. I thought I was never coming back (on the Tour) honestly but the stars have aligned somehow.”
The stars lined up perfectly for Cavendish in Fougères. Will they remain in place for Cavendish to score a 35th Tour stage win in Paris on Sunday? It would be hard to bet against it.
Tadej Pogačar assaults the Alps
Tadej Pogačar’s yellow jersey was crafted in the Alps and zipped to the top in the Pyrénées.
The defending champ’s huge 30km move on stage 8 was a brutal assertion of strength. Pogačar was the pre-race favorite and the world knew he was a near-untouchable talent. His blistering time trial through the first mountain stage of the Tour surpassed all expectations.
Pogačar piled a full 3:20 of an advantage into all his closest rivals with his long escape, finishing fourth on the stage and seizing control of the yellow jersey.
Pogačar has enjoyed a lot of standout moments in the Tour de France so far, but his Alpine assault was the one that has defined the race. It established his position as by far the strongest in the bunch and left him only the task of brushing off his rivals’ attempted defiance in a spectacular sweep through the Pyrénées.
Also read: Will Pogačar smother the Tour de France?
“I haven’t killed the Tour, there’s still a long way to go,” Pogačar said after his crushing ride in the Alps. “Anything can happen. Today I got a gap, maybe tomorrow someone else will. It’s never finished.”
Looking back two weeks later, maybe he did kill the race that day after all.
Jonas Vingegaard throws down on Mont Ventoux
Jonas Vingegaard started his debut Tour de France looking to learn from Primož Roglič as he shepherded his leader through the mountains. 19 stages later, the young Dane is a shoo-in for the final podium and has proven himself the one rider able to match Tadej Pogačar when the road points uphill.
Vingegaard pushed Pogačar to the brink with his blistering attack on the second ascent of Mont Ventoux last week.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 7, 2021
The move came to naught, but it pushed the Jumbo-Visma upstart into the top-three and pinned him down as a legitimate podium contender. Vingegaard’s aggression set the tone for the remainder of his first-ever Tour, and the 24-year-old went on to be one of few riders willing to try to test a seemingly invincible Pogačar through the third week.
Vingegaard’s attack served to set him up as another Gen-Z star in the increasingly youthful pro peloton. That his move wasn’t sufficient to crack Pogačar also reconfirmed that the Tour’s defending champion wasn’t going to be giving up his yellow jersey without a very fierce fight.
Pogačar and Vingegaard went on to throw haymakers at each other through the Pyrénées. It could be a battle that lasts another 10 years yet.