Can Ineos and Jumbo-Visma put Pogačar under pressure?
Tadej Pogačar’s grip on the yellow jersey remains vice-like as he enters into the third and final week of the Tour de France, but there are still signs that his team are vulnerable.
Despite retaining all seven of his domestiques (none of whom have been caught up in the wave of serious crashes and abandonments that have swept the race), none of them were able to stay by his side on Sunday’s first visit to the Pyrenees, as Ineos Grenadiers upped the pace to isolate him
Ineos were unable to do anything with that numerical advantage, however, as Pogačar comfortably managed to mark the attacks made from Richard Carapaz.
Jumbo-Visma also proved to be strong on stage 15, but prioritised winning the stage with Sepp Kuss over the GC battle, leaving their leader Jonas Vingegaard to ride for himself in the group of favourites.
The question heading into the final week, therefore, is whether Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma can do anything with their strength-in-numbers and potentially put Pogačar under pressure.
Pogačar didn’t exactly show any significant signs of weakness during the second week, but neither did he simply ride away from all of his rivals as he did so stunningly in the Alps during the weekend at the end of the first week.
Vingegaard and Carapaz have looked much more evenly matched to the Slovenian, opening up the possibility of potentially gaining time in the final week — especially if they’re able to make clever tactical use of their strong teams. Their deficits of 5-32 and 5-33 on the yellow remain huge, but could yet be eaten into enough to make for an exciting finale to the Tour.
A closely fought battle for the podium
Pogačar’s lead over his GC rivals may be huge, but the gaps between those currently chasing the other podium spots are anything.
Less than one minute separates Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) in second and Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) in sixth, setting up an exciting fight to get onto the podium set to take place in the Pyrenees and on penultimate day time trial.
Along with Vingegaard and Carapaz, Urán was the best of the rest behind Pogačar during the second week, and holds a slender advantage of 14 and 15 seconds respectively over the pair. Although Urán doesn’t have as strong a team as them, he is a master at riding three-week Grand Tours, and his ability in the time trial makes him (along with the similarly strong time triallist Vingegaard) the favourite to make the podium
Kelderman is also well-placed in sixth at 58 seconds behind Urán, and himself possesses a time trial that will keep him in contention, but was beginning to show signs of weakness on the climbs last week. Fifth-place Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën) will also struggle to match those riders on the climbs, but is riding resiliently and showed real guts not to lose any time yesterday.
Despite being further adrift in eighth at just under two minutes down on Urán, Enric Mas (Movistar) shouldn’t yet be ruled out of podium contention, given his Grand Tour pedigree (he’s only failed to make the top five in one of his last four Grand Tour appearances) and improving form. Neither should Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech) in seventh at 1-43 on Urán given his superior time trial, although the high Pyrenean peaks are likely to take their toll on somehow who is not a pure climber and has never before ridden a Grand Tour final week for GC.
Cavendish on the verge of a new record, and his best ever Tour de France
Mark Cavendish’s equalling of Eddy Merckx’s Tour de France record of 34 stage wins has been the story of the 2021 Tour de France, and the Manx Missile now has two chances to set a new record — first on stage 19 in Libourne, and then on the final day in Paris.
Winning these stages isn’t the only thing on Cavendish’s mind, however. With a handy 72 point advantage over his nearest rival Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) in the points classification, Cavendish is brilliantly positioned to win what would be just the second green jersey of his career.
Given that he’s already matched his joint-fourth best record for number of stage wins at a Tour, and the fact that victory in the remaining two flat stages would see him equal his highest ever tally for stage wins at any Grand Tour, Cavendish is somehow on the verge of what would be his greatest ever Tour de France — better even than any during his extraordinary run of success during his peak years.
The biggest obstacle standing between him and these goals aren’t so much any of his rivals (of those remaining in the race, only Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) have got anywhere near him in the sprints), but rather the Pyrenean mountains. The time limit remains a threat on the big mountain stages, and although Cav has so far paced himself expertly, fatigue will now be seriously setting in for a rider who has not completed a Grand Tour for six years.
But given the way he’s continued to surprise throughout this year’s race, it seems more likely than not that he will survive these stages, and achieve yet more success in this fairytale comeback.
Summit finishes in the Pyrenees
The huge time gaps in the GC are evidence of just how tough and selective a Tour de France it’s been already, but the two hardest mountain top finishes are still to come this week.
First of Wednesday is the hardest of them both — the Col du Portet. Appearing for the second time after featuring at the 2018 edition, the Portet is a monster of a climb, with a steep gradient that barely dips below 8.5 per cent for the entirety of its 16km. Carnage is guaranteed.
Luz Ardiden the following day is not quite so hard, and proved not to be difficult enough for Thomas Voeckler to lose the yellow jersey the last time a Tour stage finished here in 2011. But coming after the infamous Col du Tourmalet, the riders’ legs will be severely lacking in energy by the time they reach it, and as the final mountains the climbers have to attack at this year’s race, it’s sure to see plenty of last-ditch action.
These stages could be conquered by the GC riders, but there will be plenty of top climbers looking to get into breakaways and win these stages. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and stage 15 winner Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) all seem to have overcome whatever problems had affected them earlier in the race and ridden themselves into form, and all look capable of winning these stages.
And with the Col du Portet stage occurring on Bastille Day, French climbers will be expected to do all they can to lift spirits on the roadside in what has so far been a bad race for the home nation.
One of the best King of the Mountains contests in recent years
Often either a procession or a barely contested sideshow, this year’s King of the Mountains has already been a great contest, and is brilliantly set up heading into the final week.
It’s been great watching stars as diverse as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) duke it out for points at the top of summits so far, and they remain well in contention for the polka-dot jersey.
Quintana and Van Aert are level on 64 points, with Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) just two points ahead of them in second-place, and Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) leading with 74.
Although the GC riders will likely pick up points on the summit finishes, they are probably all too far adrift to inadvertently enter the contest for polka-dots, leaving it to the riders who have already been chasing points to battle it out this week.
There will be some almighty efforts to get into breakaways this week, starting with stage 16’s medium-mountain trek through the Pyrenean foothills
With one category one climb and a pair of category two climbs, but a long downhill to the finish, this will be a stage where the battle for the polka-dots takes providence over that for the yellow jersey. It should set the tone for an exciting week of attacking racing among the contenders.
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