What in high heaven did Tadej Pogacar just do? | A recap of stages 16-21 of the 2020 Tour de France
Remember pogs? Little cardboard and plastic discs that kids collected? Their popularity peaked in about 1994, four years before the Pog that just won the Tour de France was born.
These were the standings as we entered the final week of the 2020 Tour de France…
And this is how it went…
An absolute grovel
Stage 16 featured a bit of jockeying, but nothing of any consequence – certainly not compared to the day after.
Last year’s Tour winner, Egan Bernal, pulled out before Stage 17 began, which seemed a perfectly wise and sensible thing to do given the closing kilometres.
Viewed from a certain angle, the Col de la Loze looked like a rolling, up-and-down sort of road. It was just that the ‘down’ bits were ‘up’ and the ‘up’ bits were ‘fall-over-backwards vertiginously up’.
Richie Porte called the last 5km “an absolute grovel” – and that was before he’d even raced on it.
There was a whole conventionally tough mountain pass leading up to that bit though. And they’d already ridden another – the Col de la Madeleine – even before that.
Unsurprisingly, it was just the main contenders and a handful of hangers-on by the time they hit the mad new cycle path with 7km to go.
Halfway from there to the finish, we were down to just four: Race leader Primoz Roglic, his team-mate Sepp Kuss, Tadej Pogacar and Miguel Angel Lopez.
Much attacking followed and an almost equal amount of greatly regretting having attacked. Lopez was the only one who didn’t obviously regret his decision, muscling up each of the 20% steps to take the stage by 15 seconds.
Roglic surged away from Pogacar, then nearly got caught, then moved away again in the final few hundred metres to finish second. The ever-changing time gap between the two countrymen ending up at 15 seconds.
This and Stage 7, when he lost time in the crosswinds, were the only times Pogacar showed even the faintest signs of frailty. In this instance it was probably just a symptom of the impossibility of pacing your effort on these slopes.
Kuss was the only other rider to finish within a minute of Lopez, although Porte was only at 1m01s and so moved up into fourth.
The stage win saw Lopez replace Rigoberto Uran in third. The middle of the race went pretty well for the Colombian. It was just the bookends that weren’t so smart.
He’d started the race by sliding sideways into a road sign on Stage 1 at quite some speed…
He then finished it by losing over six minutes in the time trial (six minutes!) bombing from third to sixth.
The multi-mountain Stage 18 had promised much, but while it was an entertaining watch, it turned out to be one of those episodes that largely focuses on secondary characters. This is great when it turns out like the Pine Barrens episode of the Sopranos, but here it felt like a bit of a diversion from bigger things.
Team Ineos Grenadiers finally managed a stage win through Michal Kwiatkowski, and also a couple of ultimately inconsequential days in the polka dot jersey for Richard Carapaz.
The fact that these two support riders are respectively a former world champion and the reigning Giro d’Italia champion is a measure of how consolatory these prizes are for the shamelessly-4×4-flogging, mega-budget team.
The only other noteworthy development was Adam Yates and Rigoberto Uran – both by this point aiming for third place at best – losing contact with the favourites’ group and ceding a couple more minutes.
I don’t honestly know what to make of Yates’ race. He finished ninth overall, which is sort of an achievement if he’d only set out to go for stage wins (as he claimed) but is a whole load of nothing if he was secretly going for the overall all along.
Stage 19 was this week’s Borg-style Sunweb win, Soren Kragh Andersen haring away from a strong late breakaway group for his second victory of the race.
Oblivious to the time gap between himself and the chasing group, the Dane quite understandably rode as if they were snapping at his heels when in reality be was putting a minute into them in the space of 10km.
His panicked, urgent “TIME!” when he was unknowingly waltzing to victory with zero chance of being caught was my favourite part of this year’s Tour de France.
The time trial
I like Primoz Roglic. You’ve got to admire the single-mindedness of a man who jacks in a career as an international ski jumper on the basis that he doesn’t think he’s going to be the absolute best in the world; takes up cycling to see if he could become the best in the world at that; and damn near manages it.
The last time Primoz rode the Tour de France in 2018, he was on the podium ahead of the Stage 20 time trial and just off it immediately afterwards.
This year was even worse. He was in the yellow jersey ahead of the Stage 20 time trial and second afterwards.
Plus he was beaten by his mate.
It was painful to watch.
The route: flat bit, then slightly less flat bit, then completely unflat bit with a nice little stretch of 20% to finish.
To say that Pogacar hit it hard would be accurate while not quite giving the full picture.
Needing to gain a whopping 57 seconds on Roglic to win the Tour de France, he covered the flat bit of the course faster than anyone bar Tom Dumoulin and then just bloody took off.
Everyone is tired by Stage 20 of the Tour de France, so time gaps can be significant on even a normal time trial. Here, on the kind of climb you or I would be doing well to get to the top of without stopping, those time gaps expanded like a dot of urine on a sheet of toilet paper.
Dumoulin finished second with Richie Porte just fractions of a second slower (which bumped the Australian up into third). Wout van Aert – an absolute powerhouse throughout this race – was 10 seconds behind that pair.
Pogacar bested Dumoulin by 1m21s.
The young Slovenian quite visibly gave it everything.
Roglic finished fifth, 1m56s behind him. Pogacar had won the Tour de France. Roglic had not.
I don’t know if the unexpectedly elation for Pog quite balances out the subterranean disappointment for Rog in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it’s just me, but the loss seems bigger than the win.
There was one particular moment, right near the start of the climb, where you could see that Roglic was helpless.
The then-yellow jersey still had 20 seconds advantage on his countryman at that point. If he could climb as well as him – or even fractionally slower – he’d still win the Tour de France. It was that simple.
But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He got out of the saddle – which he very rarely does – and tried to will his body to produce more power, but it just wouldn’t do it.
From then on, all Roglic had ahead of him was a great fat slab of painful climbing to not win the Tour de France.
Where Pogacar goes from here is anyone’s guess – but being as he’s even younger than Egan Bernal, you’d assume it’ll include a good few Grand Tour victories.
The green jersey
The race wasn’t technically over though. There were still all the Paris shenanigans to come.
Earlier in the week, Peter Sagan had got into a break to try and gain points on Sam Bennett in the green jersey competition, only for Sam Bennett to also get in the break, beat him in the sprint, and so extend his lead.
That was the story of Sagan’s year. Except for 2017, when he was kicked off the race, he’s won the points competition every year since 2012 simply because he’s had the ability to contest more finishes and intermediate sprints than anyone else.
This year, he wasn’t quite as good. And Sam Bennett was good enough to take advantage of that.
The Irishman won Stage 21 on the Champs Elysees to reinforce the point.
The final standings
Slovenia’s year, all in all.
Stick with me for the rest of the season.
The Giro d’Italia starts on October 3.
I’m not yet sure how I’ll cover it. I’d initially planned on doing just one single recap of the entire race, but with Geraint Thomas having a tilt at the overall and the readership of this website largely UK-based, I might do more.
That could mean three weekly recaps or, more likely, one recap after the first nine-stage “week” and then a second after stages 10-21.
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