What a ride it was.
With COVID-19 hanging over the race like an executioner, the Tour de France arrived in Paris on Sunday after organizers pulled off one of the most thrilling races we’ve seen in years. There hasn’t been such an unexpected, final-hour turnaround in decades.
I missed 1989. I’m glad I saw this one.
There were so many storylines in this Tour it was dizzying at times. The race started under a cloud of anxiety and fear that riders, teams, or perhaps the entire race didn’t think the Tour would make it to Paris. But arrive it did, with an exclamation point. And with a final podium that no one could have predicted in Nice.
And that’s just what cycling and the Tour needed.
The thrilling race, the nail-biting finale, and the arrival of Tadej Pogačar served as a salve for a sport that needed a boost after months of disruption, economic woes, and uncertainty.
Perhaps no Tour has delivered so many surprises packed into three weeks as this one. Certainly not one that I have witnessed. Most of the perennial favorites were either on the sidelines or left to cameo roles as a new generation of stars elbowed their way onto the stage.
Egan Bernal didn’t make it out of the second week, becoming only the seventh defending Tour champion to abandon the race since World War II. Ineos Grenadiers saved their team honor with a stage victory, but no one expected them to be reduced to spectator status in the thrilling GC battle that enthralled everyone until the end.
Jumbo-Visma seemed poised to take the mantle of super-team from Ineos-Grenadiers, until it all came crashing down under the weight of the third week and one climb too many for Primož Roglič. How desolate that must have been for the entire organization, and especially Roglič, whose time trial collapse could overshadow his otherwise stellar palmàres.
A Slovenian won the Tour, just not the one that many expected when the Tour rolled out of Nice on August 29.
There were many firsts in this Tour: Pogačar won Slovenia’s first Tour, and Guy Niv and Neilson Powless became the first Israeli and Native North American riders, respectively, to start and finish the Tour.
For the first time since his Tour debut, Peter Sagan leaves Paris without a stage win or a green jersey. For the first time since his Tour debut, Richie Porte leaves Paris with a treasured and elusive podium spot that he thought he’d never see.
It was an odd and different Tour in many ways.
Held in September for the first time in race history, there was a different ambiance throughout the race. The sun tilted lower in the afternoon sky, casting deeper shadows across the roads. There was a hint of autumn, but the weather held. Apart from the torrential rains in the opening stage, the peloton enjoyed pristine racing conditions nearly every day.
There were no big touring groups, a smattering of foreign visitors, and just a handful of VIP cars. The few fans that did show up were kept at arm’s length. The French love their Tour, and many came out despite calls from officials to stay home.
Overall, the race seemed more relaxed and charming than it has in a long, long time.
Face masks, social distancing, and race bubbles were synonymous with the 107th Tour. Let’s hope for the good of everyone those markers are a one-off. If the Tour returns to normality in 2021, that means the world has returned to normality as well.
Everyone in the Tour caravan, from the organizers, race officials, teams and riders, deserve special credit for arriving to Paris and delivering such a tantalizing and exciting race. There were many who said the Tour shouldn’t have even been held. The final result was better than anyone could have expected.
There’s only one thing to say: Vive le Tour!
Pogačar won, or Roglič lost?
There’s been some debate on social media about whether Roglič “lost” the Tour, or if Pogačar “won” it.
I get the nuance of the argument. Jumbo-Visma had steam-rolled the Tour for nearly three weeks in such dominance that it was as if Roglič fumbled on the one-yard line. Of course, the Tour isn’t football, and as the saying goes, the Tour isn’t over until Paris.
For me, Pogačar was straight up the strongest rider in the race, and doesn’t deserve any sort of asterisk next to his victory from these arm-chair sport directors.
Two things happened Saturday: Roglič had a sub-par day, and Pogačar had a superb day. Had either one of those things had happened on different stages, Roglič very well may have won the Tour. Instead, Roglič had his moment of crisis during the same one hour of racing that Pogačar was riding like Merckx.
And Roglič’s time trial wasn’t that bad — he was fifth, just 35 seconds slower than teammate and former world time trial champion Tom Dumoulin. It’s just that Pogačar uncorked a time trial like no one’s seen in, well, ever.
It’s funny how some people now see Roglič as more approachable and human after losing than he ever did while winning. By all accounts, Roglič is a very friendly guy who unfortunately has the media charisma, as one French reporter wrote, of a “refrigerator.” I’m sure Roglič would prefer to retain his perceived icy exterior and have won the Tour than see a few more followers on Twitter.
No event strips bare the soul more than the Tour.
So what to make of Pogačar?
To say he came out of nowhere to win the Tour means that you’re not watching ProCyclingStats.com. Pogačar has been ripping the legs off his opponents since he was 16. He won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2018 and barnstormed through his rookie season in the best maiden pro year that anyone’s seen in a long time. Three stage wins and third overall last year at the Vuelta a España convinced me he was going to be a factor in this year’s Tour.
Today’s young pros come into the WorldTour barely in their 20s, but in most cases, they’ve been racing, living, eating, and training like pros for years, so the results shouldn’t come a complete surprise.
Pogačar had nothing to lose Saturday, and he raced that way. A wiser, more cautious rider probably would have paced more conservatively on the course to at least secure the podium, because there was a risk that his wanton approach could have backfired spectacularly.
Pogačar didn’t do that Saturday, nor at any time during the entire Tour. He attacked every time the road went up.
For once, the Badger would be proud.