By Tom Pyle
It’s a late September evening, and the wooded slopes of ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ are tinted with orange light. Nestled amongst the pine trees, along a strip of black tarmac, two riders are locked in a battle that will go down in the annals of cycling’s greatest race. One, clad in white, is producing the performance of an age, whilst another, head to toe in yellow, is seeing his dream go up in flames with every pedal stroke.
This was not part of the script. Overwhelming favourite Primož Roglič had been invincible for nineteen days of racing. A model of professionalism, he cruised through the 2000-mile course, following each dart of his rival’s wheels with the same sphinx-like expression behind his azure sunglasses. The 30-year-old’s name was virtually engraved onto the trophy prior to the Stage 20-time-trial – the 57-second gap separating first and second declared ‘unbridgeable’. And with good reason. It was a time-trial that had secured Roglič the Vuelta España last Autumn and he was the odds-on favourite to claim this penultimate stage. His Jumbo-Visma team director cheerfully informed the media that morning that the tour was 95% won.
Tadej Pogačar, the young pretender, became the master that Saturday afternoon. It was going to take one of the greatest performances in tour history to overhaul his compatriot and Pogačar duly obliged. The 21-year-old shredded the script, along with every other rider, to become the youngest winner of ‘Le Grande Boucle’ for 111 years. After crushing the six-kilometre climb to take everything but the kitchen sink from his debut tour, the kid from Komenda appeared dazed, repeating ‘I think I’m dreaming’. Despite what Team Jumbo-Visma’s director may have wished, this was reality, broadcast in HD to a stunned world. When the dust had settled, Pogačar had not only taken the lead, but had put another minute into Roglič and won the stage by a staggering 1 minute 20 seconds from former world time-trial champion Tom Dumoulin.
To see Roglič cresting the final climb was to see the veil lifted. And it was heart-breaking to witness. Mirrored sunglasses gone, tongue lolling, helmet skewed at an angle, it was a picture of desperation. He knew, by this point, that the maillot jaune was soon to be stripped from his back. In a brilliant moment, the camera picked out the ashen faces of Roglič’s lieutenants Wout Van Aert and Tom Dumoulin watching the horror unfold, men who had sacrificed personal ambitions to die on the road for their chief. In Italy, they call the time-trial ‘razza della verità’, the race of truth. There is just you, your bike, and the road. Stripped of his all-star team, the truth was that Roglič was not the strongest rider. The ruthless Pogačar became the first man since Eddie Merckx in 1969 to take home three jerseys in one tour, rendering the Paris awards ceremony a farcical spectacle of the 21-year-old repeatedly emerging in a variety of coloured spandex.
There are certain rules in cycling, one of which is that Tour de France winner has a strong team. Tadej Pogačar did not. In fact, his team UAE Emirates looked bang average at the Grand Départ before being reduced to dust when mountain deputies Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo pulled out mid-race. The young Slovenian was left alone at the coalface, fending for himself against grizzled riders with over fifteen more years professional racing. Perhaps it was youthful confidence, perhaps some adrenalin-fuelled naivety that saw Pogačar launch a string of kamikaze attacks from the front. Most likely it was just raw desire to win. Which he did, both into Pau over the Pyrenees and atop the Grand Colombier. To see a young rider scoff at decorum was wonderfully refreshing, and reminiscent of the great racers of old – the Hinault’s, Pantani’s and Merckx’s. Despite Pogačar’s mountain heroics, the fifteen seconds he lost to Roglič on the goat track of the Col de la Loze confirmed to most that he would occupy the second step of the podium in Paris. It appeared that Roglič had succeeded in keeping his swashbuckling young compatriot at bay.
The young compatriot, however, remained quietly confident, happily letting the media hand Roglič the title prematurely. Legendary bike-maker Ernesto Colnago later revealed that Pogačar called him the night before the time trial, saying ‘If I go as I think I will […] you’ll have to do some more work, because you’ll have to change the colour for me’, a nod to the yellow bike that the champion-elect traditionally rides down the Champs Élysées. This not only provides an insight into the self-assurance of this mild-mannered champion but also suggests that his win was no freak surprise, as many proclaimed. He knew just how good he was. Good enough to take on the star-studded Jumbo-Visma juggernaut, who rode a near perfect race, and come out on top. This sets him apart from last year’s winner Egan Bernal who, although still superb, was cocooned within the Ineos bunch from start to finish.
Prior to Stage 20, the race’s major story was the changing of the guard at the head of the peloton. The British-based Team Ineos (the Artist Formerly known as Sky) have defined the race for almost a decade, claiming seven wins from eight tours since 2012. Their suffocating dominance last year, occupying the top two roster spots in Paris, seemed to, if anything, point towards a strengthening squad.
However, Dave Brailsford’s team were largely invisible in the race, only rearing their heads at twilight with the 1-2 for Michał Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz on Stage 18. Questions will be asked of the lacklustre performance of their 2019 champion Egan Bernal, a man tipped to dominate ‘Le Tour’ for years. Although his collapse and eventual race retirement were shocking, we should be careful not to draw too much from one poor display. He is still just 23 and will have many years of tour racing ahead of him. Whether the Colombian public will be so forgiving to their prodigal son is another matter, with national expectation on Bernal akin to that of Neymar in Brazil. Ineos must shoulder the blame and put their full support behind him in the wake of this year’s race, or they risk losing an immense generational talent from their ranks.
Whilst Bernal kindled something special last summer, Pogačar has raised the bar of cycling’s future to an entirely new level. His conquest over Sky-style team control and marginal gains is fantastically refreshing for a sport that’s major races have increasingly been reduced to an algorithm. Whether Bernal and Pogačar will establish a mouth-watering tête-à-tête in future years waits to be seen. Nevertheless, Roglič will be back next July with the Jumbo-Visma troops, more focused than ever on the one colour in his mind. After decades of scandal and monotony, we may be entering another golden period for the two-wheeled sport.
Image: Peter Edmonson via Creative Commons