SAINT-GAUDENS, France (VN) — You hear it every summer — an exhausted rider coupled with shattered GC ambitions, and the familiar refrain comes to the fore: “Booof! This is the hardest Tour de France ever!”
We’re hearing that refrain from the riders this week. Yet something is different in the 2021 Tour de France.
It’s not just a few smashed riders here and there sharing their woes. It’s rider after rider. Many are calling the 2021 Tour the most grueling in years.
“It’s true – you see the DNF and DNS every day, it is almost the record, and the average speed is almost the record,” Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels) told VeloNews. “Every day is almost full-gas. No one is thinking of the day after and it is the rider who do the race, but every day is a like a world championships.”
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The peloton wearily clicked into the pedals Tuesday for the final week of racing.
Growing numbers of abandons
As Rolland mentioned, the number of abandons is inching up.
Coming out of the second rest day, only 147 of the 184 starters remained in the Tour. An average Tour can see between 35 to 50 abandons, and with two more hard mountain summits looming in the Pyrénées, that number is expected to grow.
Riders are also pulling the chute to head to the Olympics. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Amund Groendahl Jansen (Team BikeExchange) did not start Tuesday, meaning the peloton had not been reduced by this much — 20.65 percent — since 2012 — 21.21 percent — before the second rest day, Tour officials confirmed.
Several riders are also missing the time cuts, with each mountain stage seeing a few riders culled from the bunch.
“It is a really hard Tour de France,” said world champion Julian Alaphilippe. “A lot of riders didn’t expect it was going to be such a hard when you look on the paper, but it’s the riders who make the race.
“Everyone can feel it is a really tough two weeks, and the Pyrénées just start now,” Alaphilippe said Monday. “I always expect the Tour is going to be three weeks of suffering, this Tour is really hard this year.”
The ‘Van der Poel factor’ and crashes
Every Tour is hard, but why are so many saying this particularly edition is harder than others?
Riders point to a few dynamics of this year’s race.
First off, the crashes and carnage in the opening stages in Brittany took its immediate toll. Several top names didn’t make it out of northwest France, including the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
Once a top rider hits the deck, it’s hard to recover. Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers) saw his GC chances tank while Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) finally succumbed to injuries in the first week.
Another reason the first week was so hard?
The peloton points to one rider — Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutch superstar knew he wasn’t going to race more than a week or so, and raced as if he was pacing through a one-week Tour of Belgium rather than a three-week Tour de France.
“Van der Poel made the race really hard in the first week,” Rolland said. “When the race starts to be crazy, it never stops like this. It is crazy until the end. It is a crazy race every day.”
Chasing the ‘Merckx mark’ and putting on the hurt
Riders are also pointing to another rider. Mark Cavendish and his pursuit of the all-time Eddy Merckx record of stage victories means that Deceuninck-Quick-Step is chasing down breakaways to set up more sprints.
Several stages that might have ended in breaks this year were controlled by the Belgian super-team to give the revived Cavendish a chance to win stages. With breaks having a harder time to form, the “fight” at the front of the stage can last longer, and the chase picks up earlier as Quick-Step ups the pace.
“Every day is a high speed. We do not have transition stages anymore,” Rolland said. “We ride at 47kph average for two hours, it is too fast even on a flat stage. It looks easy on paper, but we can never have a moment to recover.”
Even with Quick-Step driving the sprints, Cavendish said this year’s edition is especially brutal for him.
Surviving the Alps and the double-ascent of Mont Ventoux was a bigger challenge than winning any sprint he’s faced in his career.
“It’s probably the hardest Tour de France I’ve ever done,” Cavendish said. “I am just so lucky I have the guys who stay with me. It’s become more scientific and now you can plan the power to weight you can stay at, what energy you can use each part of the stage and ride without yourself. But you’ve still got to be on it all day.”
Riders also point to the uneven weather. Cool temperatures across the first week and the French Alps saw the peloton shivering cold before heat took over in the second week and into the Pyrénées.
Forecasters are calling for cool temperatures in the Pyrénées before suffocating summer heat returns in the closing stages.
“It’s rare that we’ve had two back-to-back rainy days in the Alps,” said Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation). “And then it became very hot. People think the course looks easy with only three summit finishes, but racing in these conditions can really take its toll.”
‘Generation Z’ taking over
Is it simply week-three remorse?
Or is there something unique about the 2021 Tour making this year’s edition especially challenging?
“It’s a mix of a lot of reasons,” Alaphilippe said of the Tour’s difficulty. “The new generation is really strong, also with different style of racing, with more attacks, and also the first week with Mathieu van der Poel who was riding like he is going home the day after and that changed the beginning of the race. I was not there to ride the GC, but there was some big gaps in the first days, and this is something we are not used to seeing at the Tour.”
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Indeed, with Tadej Pogačar and a new generation of younger riders taking over, the veterans in the bunch are feeling the pinch.
“Survival,” said four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), shaking his head. “Day-by-day.”
A week into the Tour, Belgian veteran Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) said he’s posting his best power numbers of his career, and getting dropped.
“I rode one of my best 10-minute ever at the start [of stage 8]. Those values have been recorded since 2013,” De Gendt told Sporza. “With those values, normally I can ride the entire peloton to pieces. Here, I was 100 yards behind in a group of 70 riders, and I started from the front row. When you’re not in the peloton after that it’s clear that the general level is just much higher.”
Pogačar’s blistering attack in the rain to win at Le Grand-Bornand and his commanding lead means that teams behind him must race more aggressively to try to rattle him, or at least have a chance behind him to hit the final podium in Paris.
Every year, the Tour de France is harder, faster, and more dangerous.
Every summer, riders point this out. And every July, the cycle repeats itself.
“Every year the bunch is faster, the material is faster, and the level is higher at the average,” Rolland said. “You either have to stay the same as the rest, or get dropped.”