Is there anywhere Pogačar might lose time?
Is the race for the yellow jersey really already over in the 2021 Tour de France? It seems a ridiculous thing to say after just one week of the race, but Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) was so superior to the rest of the field during the week that there is already an air of inevitably about him taking it all the way to Paris.
The defending champion produced two astonishingly dominant performances to win stage five’s time trial and distance everyone on stage eight’s first visit to the Alps, and consequently begins the second week with over five minutes of an advantage over all his GC rivals aside from Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën). It’s difficult to remember the last time a rider was in such a comfortable position by the end of the first week — even Chris Froome in his pomp never had this much of an advantage this early into a Tour.
So, aside from outside possibilities like falling ill or being struck with injury, where might Pogačar lose time this week? Assuming he stays upright on the two long descents, it’s difficult to see stage eleven’s double-ascent of Mont Ventoux as anything other than another chance for him to gain even more time given the way he’s climbing.
The stage immediately before that and the two following could pose a different challenge, however, as exposed roads and flat terrain provide ideal conditions for crosswinds to rip through the race if the conditions are right. Intriguingly, Pogačar was one of the riders caught out when the wind blew on the stage to Lavaur in last year’s race, which might encourage his rivals to try a similar ambush sometime this week.
He’s sure to be alert to the danger given what happened last year, and conditions will need to be right for such an attack to be possible (so far there’s no indication that the famous Mistral wind will affect tomorrow’s stage), but crosswinds could help revive the GC race thrillingly back into life.
Cav bears down on Merckx’s record
He may not want to talk about it, but it’s a subject that his astonishing comeback is making it increasingly impossible to ignore — will Mark Cavendish equal Eddy Merckx’s Tour de France stage win record?
The stage is certainly set for the Deceuninck - Quick-Step rider to do so. He has three more chances to sprint for victory this week on stages ten, twelve and fourteen, and needs just two wins to equal Merckx’s record of 34; win all three and he'll hold the record outright.
Of course, this will in no way be simple. With fatigue becoming more of a factor in the peloton, breakaways have more of a chance of succeeding on these flat stages, and it’s unclear yet whether Cavendish has retained his form from the first week, given just how deep he had to go in order to survive Sunday’s Alpine stage within the time limit. And with another huge Alpine test to come on Wednesday’s with the double ascent of the Ventoux, he still has a lot of work to do just to stay in the race, let alone add to his win tally.
But the signs are positive. Cavendish was already comfortably the quickest sprinter in the first two bunch sprints, and now looks even more superior in the aftermath of stage nine, which saw key opponents Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) exit the race.
Merlier’s abandonment will at least make the picture clearer at Alpecin-Fenix, where Jasper Philipsen will now be the outright leader for the sprints and potentially Cav’s biggest rival, and Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic) looks like he has the form to win a stage. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) could be a formidable opponent too if he now turns his attention to the bunch sprints, while the likes of Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) might have made it through the Alpine weekend fresher than Cavendish.
Make no mistake though — Merckx's record is now well within sight.
Double Ventoux stage
It’s always special when the Tour de France visits the legendary Mont Ventoux, but this year’s visit on stage eleven will be especially so, as for the first time ever the mountain will be climbed twice on the same stage.
When the route was announced, this was the stage that stood out, and had fans across the globe booking the day off from work. When the Tour organisers experimented with something similar in 2013 by featuring two ascents of Alpe d’Huez, it was a success, and Mont Ventoux has the esteem of being an even more difficult climb.
The first ascent is unlikely to see any major attacks, given that it’s climbed from the less severe way up, and is summited with 76km still to ride, but the second ascent, and the fast descent to the finish in Malaucene that follows, is virtually guaranteed.
The GC race may not be as excitingly poised as we might have hoped heading into the stage, but even without the tension of a tight GC race the stage is still set for a Tour de France stage for the ages.
What Tadej Pogačar did in the time trial at Laval and on the Col de Romme on stage eight was special, but given the lack of Tour history associated with the locations, neither felt quite worthy of Pogačar’s history-making exploits.
There is arguably no grander Tour de France stage than Mont Ventoux, with its brutal gradients and instantly recognisable baron landscape at the summit (that gives it its nickname of ‘The Bald Mountain). Pogačar winning a stage in the yellow jersey against this backdrop, should he continue riding as he has done, could become the definitive image of this year’s Tour.
A fierce battle to be the best of the rest
If it weren’t for Tadej Pogačar the GC race would still be a very close one, with all of those immediately behind him on GC all looking evenly-matched during the first week.
Behind Ben O’Connor in second are five riders all over five minutes behind Pogačar, but all within just forty seconds of each other.
Of this quintet, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) has been the most active with attacks so far, and also boasts the best credentials having won the Giro d’Italia in the past.
While that might appear to make Carapaz a front-runner for a podium spot, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) also has the know-how having previously made the Tour podium in 2017, and may reap the rewards for the steady pace with which he’s ridden this race so far.
Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Enric Mas (Movistar) also have experience of making Grand Tour podiums at the Giro and Vuelta respectively, and though Jonas Vingegaard can’t claim the same having never before ridden for GC, his raw talent might be enough to keep him in the mix.
And then there’s O’Connor, who finds himself in a brilliant position with a three minute head-start over the others having gained so much time by getting into the breakaway on stage nine, but now faces a sterner test than ever before as he attempts to defend his position against some of the world’s best GC riders.
These riders will do battle again on Mont Ventoux, then again on stage fifteen’s first venture into the Pyrenees; which, although not as tough as the mountain top finishes the other side of the rest day, could still have a big impact as the fatigue of two weeks-worth of racing begins to take it’s hold.
For now each rider appears to be racing for the two lower spots on the podium, but their battle this week could yet have huge significance — should something happen to Pogačar, then whoever comes out on top among these riders will be in front of the cue to inherit yellow.
The battle for the green jersey hots up
While talk of the Eddy Merckx record dominates the headline, Mark Cavendish has also been quietly pursuing another goal by defending his lead in the green jersey classification.
The flat three stages of this week offer a chance for him to significantly extend his lead, if he can keep sprinting like he did in the first week.
But the hillier terrain is where his two immediate rivals, Michael Matthews (BikeExchange) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) — who currently trail Cavendish by 38 and 47 points respectively — could swing things in their favour, with the hilly day in stage fourteen offering potentially two chances to gain points at both the intermediate sprint and the finish.
And don’t yet discount the competition’s record winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who's still within 100 points of Cavendish, and could bring himself back in contention if he continues to recover from the injuries suffered in stage three’s crash.
One particularly brutal tactic these riders’ teams could implement is riding hard on the mountain stages in an attempt to force Cavendish to miss the time limit. Given just how many flat stages there are still to come, and given Cav’s brilliant form, this be the only way to prize green from him.
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