184 riders took off from Brest on June 26th to start the 2021 edition of the Tour de France. Three weeks later, 141 riders took the start to complete the Tour in Paris on the Champs-Elysees. What took place during the stages in-between, may not have been unprecedented, but it certainly was compelling. Here is my recap of the 5 most important takeaways from this year’s race.
Crashes, many of them preventable, especially those involving fans, and some due to the race route, defined the race by creating a few “what ifs” hovering around the race. The names of those riders whose Tour was impacted by some time on the ground is a who’s who of cycling; Primoz Roglic (last year’s runner up), Peter Sagan (former Green jersey winner), Chris Froome, former winner, to name a few, but the number of helpful teammates of the front-runners that had to abandon did shape the race.
Tadej Triumphs Again
Last year, Tadej Pogacar came from behind to beat Roglic during the penultimate stage’s individual time trial. This year, in both the Alps and the Pyrenees he stamped his dominance on the race. He won the first individual time trial and while he didn’t win the second one, he had over five minutes in hand over his closest rivals, so he just needed to finish upright. Unless something happens to Pogacar, this now two-time Tour de France winner at age 22, will be the favorite. When looking at his two victories, they have been historic, as last year he joined Eddie Merkx as the only rider to win three classifications simultaneously (Yellow, White, Polka Dot), and this year he became the only rider to do that back to back.
Manx Missile ties Merkx
Pogacar wasn’t the only person hitting the marks on a Merkx record. In the cycling resurrection story of the century, Mark Cavendish, a late addition to team Deceuninck-Quick-Step, as a replacement for last year’s Green jersey winner Sam Bennett due to injury at the last moment, I may add, seemed like a good story, but that was about it. Then Cav took the victory on Stage 4 and 6. Then 10. And finally, stage 13 where he tied Eddie Merkx’s all-time Tour de France stage career wins mark at 34. And while many, myself included, think he let a golden opportunity to break the record escape his grasp during stage 19, he finished 3rd during the final stage on the Champs-Elysees to a story even bigger than Cav’s resurrection.
Wout’s Wild Ride
During the 2019 edition of the Tour de France, Wout Van Aert seemed on his way to victory in the individual time trial in Pau, when he clipped the barrier and his tour ended abruptly. Then, just months before the 2021 edition was supposed to roll out, he had appendicitis and some of his prep time was taken off to recover from the surgery.
So when Van Aert won Stage 11 that went up Mont Ventoux twice it was a good story. Then, he went on to win Stage 20’s individual time trial. Two wins, in two vastly different disciplines, was a great recovery from his horrific crash of two years prior, but then he denied the Manx Missile (Mark Cavendish) his record-breaking 35th career stage win by winning the bunch sprint on the Champs-Elysees. This made him one of the few, also joining Eddie Merkx to win three different stages in three different disciplines within the same tour. Is this his career highlight or is a Yellow jersey in his future? Only time will tell.
A Two Man Game
Last year, where Roglic went, Pogacar followed. This year, where Pogacar went, Jonas Vingegaard followed. Vingegaard finished second in both the Yellow and White (best young rider) jersey competitions to Pogacar, but he hung with him throughout the Pyrenees. Is he the future? That’s about team dynamics, but he certainly is a name to watch.
A few other things
As an American, it was nice to see Sepp Kuss be the first American to win a stage in the Tour de France in a decade, as he made an amazing attack and daring descent to win stage 15. It was also great to see the World Champion, Julian Alaphilippe win the first stage for France, and get himself into Yellow for a bit. Even as an American, I understand that the Tour is a better event when France has a rider who can galvanize the local fans.
The 2021 tour had a lot working against it, as the pandemic was still happening in Europe, it was head to head for viewers with the FIFA EURO Championship, and it was moved up a week, because of the timeshifted Olympics. But despite all of that and the crashes, and all the big names that were just not up to form, or who had to abandon, it was still a compelling race, even if that wasn’t the race for Yellow. And I’m looking forward to 2022, where the questions that arise in the aftermath of the 2021 edition will get answered and more will get asked.