The 2021 Tour de France is in full swing now. The overall narrative is taking shape, and every day’s stage is... every day’s stage. But a race as intricate as the Tour is always launching narratives across the landscape, without even trying. Let’s try to round up a few. I’ll start but I’m sure you guys have spotted far more than these.
Teams vs Individuals
I started this post a few days ago, before trying to get my family out the door for a vacation, anathema to my blogging plans. But in the meantime this narrative has shaped up quite nicely, as Tadej Pogačar has rocketed into the prime position to seize yellow once the road turns up and Mathieu van der Poel finally slips backwards. The defending 2020 winner is 40 seconds clear of Julian Alaphilippe, the closest potential competitor, and 1.40 up on Primož Roglič, his likeliest competition.
All of this means that we are girding for a couple weeks of team strength versus individual strength, as Pogs rides with (presumably) inferior support in the mountains from his decent but not deep UAE squad, compared to that which Jumbo or INEOS can supply to their leader. Well, that’s if INEOS has a leader, but they will act like they do regardless. Mind you, these aren’t the only contenders hanging around — I see you there, Pierre Latour, Enric Mas, Rigoberto Uran, etc. But we are talking narratives, not reality.
We have seen many iterations of team versus individual, and the fairly definitive conclusion is that team strength is little more than a very cool accessory in a Tour winner’s wardrobe. Even the Froome years, which involved Sky flexing all over the peloton, didn’t do much to convince us that the result would have been different if the Brit traded teams with Nairo Quintana — Froome was the strongest each time. You can certainly say that team strength matters in terms of keeping their leader safe and comfortable in those down times when you’re just biding your time and averting disaster. But when the mountain roads point up, the best riders win with or without much help.
But it’s not an iron clad rule. As recently as 2008 we can definitively say that team tactics probably overturned the Tour result, when Carlos Sastre and his middling time trial strength held on against Cadel Evans, who spent much of the two tougher weeks chasing the Schleck phantoms. That was an extreme version of team versus individual, and Evans would only go on to win a Tour after leaving the uninspiring Lotto (lord knows they tried!) for BMC. Of course, that was also 2008, when maybe the results weren’t entirely reliable indicators of who was doing what.
Sam Bennett vs His Team
Mark Cavendish’s remarkable return to form at the Tour de France has produced two sprint wins so far and a green jersey, which is a nice way of papering over the insanity roiling the team. Everyone knows about the late switch to Cav, who wasn’t slated to make his return to the race that made him famous, until Sam Bennett complained of some knee pain that caused boss Lefevre to make the switch to the Manxman. And the Cavenaissance has been impressive to say the least.
Meanwhile, Bennett is at home doing nothing, while Lefevre is saying things like “I have balls on my body, he doesn’t.” This is problematic for everyone who either roots for Bennett or doesn’t want to think about Lefevre’s anatomy, which is presumably just about all of humanity. I could go on, but suffice to say that Bennett’s remaining days on the team, already dwindling with his contract up at the end of the season, are rapidly approaching zero. Lefevre continued by stating bluntly that Bennett was afraid of failing to repeat his green jersey capture at the 2020 Tour, which isn’t all that hard to understand or sympathize with, speaking as a normal human being, but which Lefevre has less than no patience for.
I think the tenor of this “conversation” would be a lot different if there were not an expiring contract involved. Bennett has framed the conversation as short term pain versus risk to his career long term, as in with his next team, so it’s possible that behind his fiery rhetoric is a Lef truly scorned by his rider. Anyway, here we are. Thanks to Cav for being the shiny, distracting object.
Wout vs. Mathieu... Part the Infinity
Boring? Maybe as far as making predictions for Dwars door Vlaanderen, but no matter how sick of the Great Duel that has engulfed much of the sport you may be, you have to admit that there’s something refreshing about having it come up at the Tour. First, this hasn’t happened before, and much about every rider’s cycling career is all just a prelude to their Tour debut. Second, isn’t it kind of like being a fan of some minor sport, like track or track cycling, and then having it show up at the Olympics? Except that even in that analogy it’s just the same sport on a bigger stage.
So far, my hope that they would sprint against each other hasn’t materialized, though that may still be coming in the middling stages. They did make for a nice stage duel on the time trial yesterday (Wout by one second), and I suspect European commentators paid more notice than the American broadcast did. And of course the narrative has been mostly about van der Poel honoring his grandfather by donning yellow, something Wout hasn’t done yet, though it has more to do with his team duties and anyway seems inevitable at some future point.
Here are a few other tidbits...
Rider preferences versus team wheel sponsors: This is a thing every year — riders using unbranded gear which almost surely isn’t what they’re contracted to do — but for the gear geeks, it’s like Christmas coming early. This article covers it nicely. There’s a lot more about Tour tech besides unbranding, prototypes thrown together by their legit sponsors close to the start of the race, and that stuff can be pretty fascinating too. But naughty wheel preferences are more fun to talk about.
Breakaway Battles: I am not doing a good job keeping up here, so please fill in the blanks as to who you see going for broke. Obviously today seeing Greg Van Avermaet trying to recapture some of his fading glory made all kinds of sense, as hopeless as it was. Personally I can see tomorrow and the post-Ventoux stages, a week from today and beyond, looking like legit breakaway stage chances. Even with the wild card of van der Poel in yellow probably still leaves plenty of room for a break, since the only guys within a couple minutes of him are GC riders who will be sitting in whenever possible. Well, and Wout, but he wouldn’t... would he?!? [Jumbo boss: Uh, no.]
The Next Big Thing? Oh, those crazy kids. We have talked ad nauseum about emerging young talent, and there won’t be that much to say as long as Pogačar, all of his 22 years, is dominating everything in sight. But Stefan Bissegger and Markus Bjerg had their moments in the sun yesterday at the time trial (Jonas Vingegaard too if 24 is still considered young). Which kid climbers make hay in the mountains will be fascinating too.
OK, that’s all I can think of. Your turn!