Victories for Froome and Cavendish, but mostly for Pogacar | a recap of Stages 16-21 of the 2021 Tour de France

Victory for Chris Froome, who was named ‘most polite rider’ by Tour de France organisers ASO after the race. Getting through three weeks of frenetic grand tour racing was kind of a win too, given he suffered a broken hip, fractured femur, fractured elbow, broken ribs and muscle loss in and after his 2019 crash. “Trying to walk was by far the hardest part of the rehab,” he had said when he first started racing again early last year.

Victory for Mark Cavendish too, who took the green jersey as winner of the points classification for only the second time in his career when just a few months ago he’d gone years without a win and was scrabbling around trying to find a team who’d so much as field him in a bike race.

Victory too for Tadej Pogacar, who won the young riders’ competition, the King of the Mountains competition and the entire race.

Where were we?

The week began pretty much as the previous one did with Pogacar five minutes ahead of his three closest credible rivals. These were 34-year-old Rigoberto Uran, the oldest man in the top ten; Jumbo-Visma stand-in leader, Jonas Vingegaard; and Richard Carapaz, who had superseded Geraint Thomas as Ineos leader by failing to fall off his bike.

The points competition was almost more intriguing in that green jersey wearer Mark Cavendish was by no means guaranteed to make the time cut on the upcoming mountain stages.

More Pyrenees

The first of three successive mountain stages was, on the face of it, the least eventful. However, it was what you might call a ‘softener’.

With no major climb near the finish, the only way to make significant time was by attacking very, very early. Doing that is an unavoidably draining gamble with no guarantee of success. Unsurprisingly, with two summit finishes ahead, it was not an option anyone high up in the general classification was willing to take.

I often talk about ‘the favourites group’ and the 11 riders who finished in it on this stage were the top 11 riders in the general classification at the start of the day. (Although not at the end of the day because David Gaudu pushed Mattia Cattaneo down to 12th after being in the break.)

The size and constitution of that group tells us it was not an easy day.

That matters when the stage profile for the next day looks like this…

And the one for the day after looks like this…

With legs sapped by two and a half weeks of racing, this was the meat of the 2021 Tour de France.

Except everyone was already full

On Stage 17, Pogacar’s final team-mate fell by the wayside with 8.5km to go, at which pointed the Slovenian started launching his attacks. Within a kilometre he’d whittled the group down to himself, Vingegaard and Carapaz.

After much jousting between the trio (trading attacks, not actual jousting), it all came down to the last 50 metres and the yellow jersey proved the strongest.

Rigoberto Uran lost 1m49s to these three and slipped down to fourth.

This foreshadowed an even worse day for Uran on the final day in the mountains. Dropped early, he lost nine minutes and slid right down to 10th.

Meanwhile, at the front, it was otherwise very familiar.

With just over 3km to go, Pogacar did his now customary magic trick where he presses on the pedals a few times and turns the peloton into a small group of only the best riders.

There were five of them this time: the usual three, plus Enric Mas and Vingegaard’s team-mate, Sep Kuss. Kuss did some work on the front and then it was four. After the next wave of attacks, we were down to the standard trio. Pogacar was again quickest to the line.

As climaxes go, it was anticlimactic.

The Stage 20 time trial then changed nothing with the only noteworthy elements being: (a) Vingegaard recovering a fairly meaningless 25 seconds on Pogacar (who, with everything to lose and nothing to gain, was probably taking the odd corner more sensibly than he otherwise would have done) and (b) Wout van Aert winning the stage, having already won the Mont Ventoux stage last week.

The next day Van Aert won the sprint on the Champs Élysées, denying Mark Cavendish the outright record for Tour de France stage wins. As many have already pointed out, winning a mountain stage, a time trial and a sprint is as Merckxian a thing to do as winning 34 stages.

This, again, really only underlines the ludicrousness of Eddy Merckx though. He was almost Van Aert and Cavendish combined. There have also been suggestions that Pogacar might end up matching some of his feats, but the Slovenian will need to significantly up his three-stages-a-year win-rate if he’s to match even the Tour de France part of the great Belgian’s record, let alone the rest of it.

A race won early

Really Pogacar’s monster win on Stage 8 was the fulcrum on which this race has turned. If you want to know how such an early stage came to be so decisive, it’s worth highlighting the impact of the extremely long, very hilly and ferociously raced Stage 7.

Not only was that the longest stage of the race with wearyingly up-and-down terrain in the final 100km, the riders assaulted it like it was half the length and twice as flat. They did over 50km in the first hour and barely slowed down after that, finishing half an hour before the earliest time predicted by race organisers at an average speed of 45km/h.

There was fatigue to exploit the day after… if you were the best.

What’s next?

Thoughts inevitably now turn to next year and whether anyone can challenge Pogacar. This year’s Giro d’Italia winner and 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal will presumably have earned himself a promotion back to the main event, while Primoz Roglic still seems the most likely challenger, if he can stay upright – which is by no means guaranteed.

It’ll also be interesting to see what the Vuelta a Espana throws up from the middle of August onwards.

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