It’s been a bit of a weird Tour de France, hasn’t it?
Remember the first few days of the Tour de France? Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel’s wonderful solo wins? Van der Poel’s plucky defence of the yellow jersey? It was shaping up to be such an exciting and dynamic edition of the Tour. Since those early stages though, well, things have changed a little.
It hasn’t been boring per se – although it has been at times – but rather it’s just been … strange. A bunch of factors have combined to make the 108th Tour de France a little different to others in recent memory. Here’s what’s stood out to us.
Stage 3 turned the Tour on its head.
In many ways, stage 3 was a turning point for this year’s race. A bunch of crashes didn’t just end the race on the spot for several riders; they changed the complexion of the race entirely.
Stage 3 ended the GC hopes of last year’s runner-up Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), 2018 winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), and Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) who was sitting sixth overall at the time.
The sprint field, too, was heavily affected. Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) finished stage 3 in the back of ambulance and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) injured his knee and wasn’t competitive in another sprint before leaving the race after stage 11. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) crashed too, and wasn’t able to give his best until leaving the race on stage 9.
Losing these riders from their respective battles, whether they left the race immediately or not, changed the shape of those battles considerably.
Most stages have gone one of two ways.
Here’s how the race has gone since stage 3. There have been four bunch sprint finishes, all of them won by Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep). We’ve had one individual time trial, won by Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). The remaining eight stages? They’ve all been won by a solo rider from the breakaway.
That’s far less variety than we’d normally expect. In a regular Tour, we’d get fewer solo breakaways. We’d get the occasional small group reaching the finish. And we’d normally see the teams of the GC favourites putting more pressure on the escapees on mountainous stages, often reeling in the break before the GC favourites contest the stage win. That hasn’t happened yet this Tour.
So what’s going on? The simple answer is that Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates have been more than happy to let breakaways get up the road and take stage honours. And why not? Pogačar is leading the Tour by more than five minutes. He doesn’t need to do any more than sit back and follow any moves from his rivals. Why put his team on the front to chase inconsequential breakaways when he’s so far ahead?
After a dramatic and dynamic first week, the above has made for pretty formulaic racing on the non-sprint days since (and the sprint days have become formulaic in a different way). Another break gets up the road, another solo rider emerges to take a well-deserved and hard-fought win, and meanwhile in the bunch, Pogačar just hangs out as Paris gets one day closer. Speaking of which …
Pogačar’s GC rivals seem to have given up long ago.
There have been remarkably few challenges to Pogačar’s overall lead throughout the race. Only a handful of riders have attacked the Slovenian at any point, and only Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) looked mildly threatening, for one brief moment, on Mont Ventoux.
From the outside it seems like everyone decided very early in the Tour that Pogačar is unbeatable. It’s hard to disagree. After he won the stage 5 ITT then put minutes into his rivals on stage 8 it was clear the 22-year-old was the strongest rider in the race.
The lack of attacks might be because most riders in the top five overall seem happy with how they’re tracking. Vingegaard (third) and Carapaz (fourth) have never finished so high up at the world’s biggest race, and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo; second) isn’t exactly known as an aggressive rider.
A lack of challenge to Pogačar’s lead is surely due to the race’s depleted GC stocks, too. It would likely have been a different story had Roglič and Thomas not crashed out of GC contention on stage 3. Maybe if Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers) hadn’t lost time on the opening stage that might have changed things too.
Who knows: maybe the likes of Carapaz and others are waiting for the final mountain stages to throw everything at Pogačar. They’re running out of time.
Ultimately, there’s probably little they can do. The only conceivable way Pogačar doesn’t win the Tour from here is if he doesn’t make it to Paris. But it would certainly make the race more interesting if more riders in the top 10 were willing to throw caution to the wind.
It’s the Tour’s weakest sprint field in a long time.
The Tour de France normally has the best sprint field of any race on the calendar. That makes sense of course – it’s the biggest race in the world; a race where stage victories mean more to teams and sponsors than at any other time.
After just a few days of this year’s Tour, the race’s sprint field had thinned to a point we don’t normally see. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) were all absent to begin with. By the end of stage 3, Ewan and Sagan were either out of the race or out of sprint contention.
In the days that followed, Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Démare, and Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa Samsic) were all gone. Cees Bol (DSM) has been a fair way off his best.
This isn’t to take anything away from Cavendish’s four stage wins. He and his Deceuninck-QuickStep team have been great, and you can only beat those you are racing against. But there’s no doubt Cavendish is sprinting against a weak and depleted field. Thankfully his comeback story has been a tremendously entertaining one.
Cavendish comeback was so unlikely.
Again, Cavendish’s comeback has been a great thing for the race. Seeing one of the all-time greats return to the top after a horrible few years has been both heartwarming and inspiring. But it’s also somewhat remarkable it’s happened at all.
So much had to fall into place for Cavendish to be where he is now, equal with Eddy Merckx with 34 Tour stage wins, having won four stages this Tour already, with two more opportunities remaining. To get here, Sam Bennett had to miss the Tour, and Cavendish had to have prepared as if he were going to the Tour anyway.
In all likelihood, Cavendish probably also needed the sprint field to be decimated like it is. While we’ll never know how it would have played out, it’s hard to see Cavendish beating an in-form Caleb Ewan, and certainly four times. To get where he is now, Cavendish probably also needed the sprinter-friendly parcours that this year’s Tour has offered, to ensure he’s had enough opportunities to equal (and likely break) Merckx’s record.
That’s a lot of things that needed to fall into place. Again, it’s only a positive for the race that they have.
The most interesting jersey battle has been for polka dots.
It’s not often that the fight for the KOM prize is the most interesting contest at the Tour de France. We’ve spoken about the yellow jersey already. The best young rider classification was over before it began – Pogačar has led that since stage 1 and will win it if he finishes the Tour.
There’s a bit of interest in the green jersey contest. Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) were both up the road on stage 16 in search of points. But Cavendish should win green if he reaches Paris.
The KOM jersey though – that’s where the real action is.
In the 16 stages so far, the KOM jersey has changed hands seven times. And with five stages remaining, four riders are within 10 points of one another at the top of the climbers classification. Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) leads with 74 points, Mike Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) is on 66, and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) are locked on 64 points apiece.
Those 10 points that separate the top 4 – that’s the number of points you get for being first over a single Cat 1 climb. In the five remaining stages there are three hors categorie climbs (20 points for first), two Cat 1 climbs, and four Cat 4 climbs (one point for first) still to conquer. That’s plenty of opportunities for a further shake-up of the KOM classification. (Edit: As noted in the comments below, there are double points available on the stage-ending HC climbs on stages 17 and 18. That’s enough for a GC contender – probably Pogačar – to triumph in the KOM battle, if that’s how it goes.)
Note that there’s a tantalising prospect on offer here: Wout van Aert sprinting for a stage victory on the Champs-Élysées in the polka dots of KOM leader. In many ways, it would be the perfect ending to an unusual edition of the Tour.
CyclingTips news editor Dane Cash contributed to this article.