For an entertaining Tour de France, thank a weak UAE-Team Emirates
Sitting in the gaping chasm between the strength of Tadej Pogačar and the relative weakness of his team is the secret to an exciting Tour de France: stage races are better when the best rider and the best team aren’t wearing the same jersey.
By better, I mean more entertaining. More unpredictable, more chaotic. Inside that chasm lies opportunity, and the rest of the peloton knows it. They will not drop Pogačar up Ventoux or Luz Ariden; they will not take time in the final time trial. If Pogačar is to be beaten this Tour de France his loss will be found in the margins, in a brief moment of inattention, a crosswind or a breakaway his team is unable to chase. That hint of possibility will change the way the rest of the peloton races – for the better.
On Friday, we got a taste. Stage 7, long but mild hors d’oeuvre for the next two weeks, saw a strong break go early. It contained peripherally dangerous riders like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, who both say they’re too big to climb but does anybody really believe them? I wouldn’t, if I was a Tour GC rider, if only out of an abundance of caution.
UAE had to chase. They can claim some success, keeping the break’s gap to near five minutes. But by the final climbs of the day – just a series of cat 3s with one cat 2, nothing compared to what’s coming – Pogačar was once again sitting on the back of other more powerful teams. Only Rafa Majka came across the line in the same group. The rest of the team was 18 minutes back.
“We were told by the other teams we had to work because I was the strongest but I’m not necessarily always the strongest,” Pogačar said after the stage, identifying his problem.
“Today was also a very demanding day,” he said. “I was in the wind for a long time. For sure I’ll pay for that a bit this weekend.”
Pogačar isn’t on the second strongest team, or even the third. He’s on something like the seventh. That’s not to say it’s a bad group or of riders, in fact on paper it’s quite good. You’ve got last year’s Tour phenom, Marc Hirschi, and Davide Formolo, once touted as a Grand Tour contender. Majka is no slouch. Rui Costa is a former world champion. Brandon McNulty is a superb young talent. But it’s been hit by crashes and has left the defending champion alone to surf the front multiple times already this race. It is no Ineos, no Jumbo. It’s not even a Movistar.
There is a difference between a team strong enough to help protect its leader and one capable of controlling a Tour de France. UAE is not the latter. Pogačar hopes it’s at least the former.
It’s a somewhat unique dynamic, particularly within the modern Tour de France. The biggest, richest teams have done a good job of picking up the biggest talents as of late. They support those star riders with even more star riders, and the result is almost every Tour de France from 1999 to 2019 has seen the best rider supported by one of the strongest teams in the race.
Who wins? Well… no surprises there.
In 2019, an astounding Julian Alaphilippe held on for dear life, pushing back against the inevitable with a team built primarily for stage hunting and sprints. What a race.
Then, in 2020, Pogačar sat in the shadow of the Jumbo-Visma juggernaut until the only moment when it couldn’t help Primož Roglič anymore. Pogačar almost lost the race on stage 7, when crosswinds blew the race apart and a mechanical put him in a group that crossed the line 1:21 down. His rivals this year will remember that moment, because his team doesn’t appear to be any more capable of grabbing a Tour peloton by the scruff of the neck this year.
Fans of good bike racing, rejoice. The Tour’s strongest rider isn’t also riding for the strongest team.