Five talking points from stage 21 of the Tour de France 2021

Wout pips Cav and Pogačar seals yellow

Van Aert completes astonishing hat-trick

Wout van Aert

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We’ve acclaimed Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) many times over the last few years for being the best all-rounder in the world. How long before we should start talking about him as one of the best all-rounders the sport has ever seen?

By winning on the Champs-Élysées today, he completes a hat-trick that only the greats from long-ago eras have previously achieved — winning a bunch sprint, mountain stage and time trial at the same Tour de France.

It’s an achievement that is basically unthinkable for any other rider in the peloton. Even being competitive in all three of these different kinds of stages is something no-one else is able to do — to actually manage to beat all the top specialists in each makes this one of the great cycling achievements in recent years. 

Yet more impressively was where he took those wins. The Champs-Élysées is of course known as the ‘world championships for sprinters’, the one that every top sprinter is desperate to win sometime in their career; and Mont Ventoux, which he conquered on stage eleven, is one of the most feared and respected mountains in cycling. 

Not done yet, Van Aert will now rush to catch a flight for the Olympics in Tokyo, where he’s eyeing up both the road race and the time trial. With the form he’s in, a historic double could be in the offing.

Cavendish denied record-breaking win but triumphantly takes green

Mark Cavendish

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It had seemed written in the stars that Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) would set a new record for Tour de France stage victories on the grandest stage of them all, the Champs-Élysées, but it wasn’t to be as Wout van Aert and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) beat him to the line in the sprint. 

Cavendish’s disappointment was evident on the line, which he crossed while banging his handlebars in frustration. The sprint did not go according to plan, as he felt the need to abandon the usually-dependable wheel of his lead-out man Michael Mørkøv and hop onto Van Aert’s instead, and wasn’t able to get a clear run-in to the line to reach top speed in his sprint.  

But that disappointment will soon surely dissipate once he reflects upon the extraordinary success of this year’s Tour. He ends the race not only with four stage wins, and as a joint record-holder with Eddy Merckx for the greatest number of Tour stage wins ever, but also as winner of the green jersey, which he successfully sealed with his third-place finish. 

This victory in the points classification is, in many ways, even more of an achievement than his four stage wins. Cavendish has, after all, won at least four stages at five previous Tours, but this is only the second time in his career that he’s won green. Winning this jersey requires a consistency and resilience that for a rider in Cavendish’s position, who had spent so much time away from the trials and tribulations of Grand Tour racing, is arguably even more difficult than coming out on top at bunch sprints.

For now he’ll remain a joint-record holder with Eddy Merckx in the Tour record books, but if his appetite remains as undiminished as it evidently is now, expect him to be back next year with the intention of winning the record-breaking 35th. 

Philipsen is this year’s nearly-man

Jasper Philipsen

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Spare a thought for Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix). Were it not for the supremacy of Mark Cavendish he would already have sealed a stage victory in Chateauroux on stage six, and today he finished runner-up for the third time at the race. 

Add to that another three third-place finishes, plus the fact that he sacrificed himself to help team-mate Tim Merlier win the opening bunch sprint, and the young Belgian can consider himself as this year’s Tour de France nearly-man. 

Despite this consistent run of success, Philipsen hasn’t attracted much attention this Tour, as everyone has been understandably caught up in the fairytale story arc of Cavendish’s comeback. 

But this has been a great Tour for Philipsen, and is evidence that he's on the brink of becoming a top Tour de France sprinter. Aged just 23, he has a bright future ahead of him, and that Tour win will surely come soon enough. 

Greipel and Gilbert’s last bow

André Greipel

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There’s always a sense of melancholy hanging over the Champs-Élysées stage with the knowledge that it will be the last time certain riders will ever appear at the Tour de France, and this year’s stage was the Tour swansong of two of the all-time greats -- André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal).

Greipel yesterday announced his plans to retire at the end of the season and leaves behind a memorable Tour legacy. This was the German’s 11th successive Tour appearance, in which time he won 11 stages, including a period in 2015 when he was the best sprinter in the world. 

Although his long-time great rival Mark Cavendish might have stolen the headlines this Tour with his history-making wins, Greipel’s total of eleven is enough to put him inside the top 25 of that list too, while his astonishing career tally of over 160 wins is amongst the highest in the history of the sport.  

And he even had the legs to finish fifth in the sprint today, ensuring he goes out on a high on the same roads where he attained the greatest victories of his career in 2015 and 2016. 

Gilbert’s Tour record isn’t so prolific, with just the one win back in 2011, but that ride alone was enough to ensure his place in Tour history, as it saw him become the first rider of that race to wear the yellow jersey, in what was the peak period of his illustrious career.  

Since then he’s continued to be a great entertainer, and played a significant role in Deceuninck - Quick-Step’s many sprint wins during his spell there in 2017 and 2018. 

Characteristically, he was among the riders out on the attack today with the optimistic hope that he might be able to deny the sprinters. 

They will both be sorely missed.

A party for all in Paris

Tadej Pogačar

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The celebratory end-of-term atmosphere that characterises the final stage of the Tour de France isn’t just for the riders who get to collect a prize on the podium at the end of the day — it’s an inclusive party for everyone in the peloton who has managed to battle through the trials and tribulations of the past three weeks to make it to the finish.

There were 141 riders in total who managed to make it to the Champs-Élysées, which was an awful lot less than the 184 riders who were on the startline in Brittany (and one less than the number who finished yesterday, after Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-PremierTech) abandoned with illness and didn’t want to compromise his preparations ahead of the upcoming Olympics — another reason for the prevalence of abandonments this year). A crash-marred race meant that almost a quarter of the peloton had abandoned before the finish, emphasising just how difficult it is to complete a Tour de France.

Plenty of riders deserve extra credit for battling through adversary to get here. Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), for instance, has had a really tough time with injuries sustained in a crash right at the start of the race, while Simon Clarke (Qhubeka-NextHash) has been riding with a fractured back. 

Others have had more personal problems to deal with. Young British debutant Mark Donavan (DSM) revealed that his mother died shortly before the start of the race, and that he wanted to make it to the finish for her. And then there are those riders who spent so much time in the mountains pushing themselves to the limit to remain within the time limit, including of course Mark Cavendish himself.

Some of these riders might not have had the Tours they had hoped for, but hopefully today they’ll have soaked in the atmosphere and enjoyed the biggest party on the cycling calendar.