Why 2020 was the Tour of transition
Shorter stages, younger stars, the same short shrift for inclusivity: Luke Walpole on seismic shifts and the areas where the race still has a way to go
Grand Tours love a moniker, whether it was 1999’s Tour of Renewal or the grim Tour of Suffering in 1926. So what can we say for 2020’s race, an edition in which the Ineos hegemony was broken that featured one of the Tour’s most thrilling finales? Perhaps the Tour of Transition, as the race cautiously moved round a country affected by a pandemic (even if social distancing wasn't always at the front of spectators’ minds) and introduced a generation of superb, young riders.
Despite the strange circumstances, 2020’s Tour almost stuck to the expected script. The man widely tipped to win the race, Primoz Roglic, looked nailed on as late as 24 hours before the finish. The third week saw his Jumbo-Visma team take the race by the scruff of the neck, pulling anyone else who could hang on up and down the greatest climbs France has to offer.
Yet this was all blown apart by the time-trial. Heartbreak for Roglic and jubilation for Slovenian compatriot Tadej Pogacar, whose superhuman ride on the Planche de Belles Filles will live long in the memory. Echoing Greg LeMond’s thrilling win in 1989, this year’s edition will achieve the same mythological status.
Pog beats Rog at the last
Pogacar broke the orthodox pattern for how you win a Grand Tour, something which Jumbo-Visma seemed to have deployed to perfection. Indeed, despite the shell-shocked faces of team-mates which greeted Roglic as he rolled over the finish line, the prevailing headline for 2020 has been the unstoppable rise of the Dutch team. For only the second time since 2012, a rider from Team Ineos/Sky didn’t make it onto the podium - and much of that was down to the sheer, status-quo shattering firepower which the Dutch team possesses.
Former Giro winner Tom Dumoulin played super domestique, accompanied by Sepp Kuss, a man who seemingly tackled the Alps’ toughest climbs as if on a Sunday training ride, and the sport's current superstar Wout Van Aert.
Of course, Egan Bernal was out of sorts and Ineos Grenadiers will be looking to bounce back in the Giro and Vuelta, but it feels like the Grand Tour hegemony has shifted a notch, even in light of Pogacar’s devastating attack of the time-trial.
Pogacar, a mere 21 years old when he won the race, was magnificent. It takes a special kind of talent to compete for the Tour with a middling team around you, so one wonders how UAE Team Emirates will accommodate the Slovenian in Grand Tours to come. Had it not been for the crosswinds on stage seven, he could have held the yellow jersey for longer.
Work of Aert
Yet he was just one of several young riders who lit up the race. Van Aert is seemingly a top-level sprinter who can climb with the best. Oh, and he’s handy on a TT bike too.
Marc Hirschi was scintillating, as was his stage-poaching Sunweb team-mate Søren Kragh Andersen (below), while Lennard Kämna and the aforementioned Kuss were consistently excellent. Though we are used to seeing new names explode onto the world stage on French roads every summer, this felt like a more notable, generational change fast approaching.
As the likes of Froome, Thomas, Nibali and more begin to eye the twilight of their careers, the future looks undeniably exciting. This is without even mentioning Sam Bennett’s well-deserved triumph in the points classification, trumping perennial winner Peter Sagan.
It is, of course, premature to write off the supremely-talented Slovakian, but there are chinks in his armour, even if the fighting spirit came back strongly during the third week.
Shorter stages, satisfaction guaranteed
The profile for this Tour also carried some changes. The heart-stopping Stage 20 may also solidify the race's move towards technical, hilly time-trials.
There was also only one stage over 200 kilometres, itself an indication that the Tour is moving away from days which are as sedate as they are long. That said, the peloton took remedial action on stage five - perhaps that soporific “racing” will make Tour organisers question the merit of asking riders to go full gas from the beginning.
Meanwhile, fewer sprinters fell victim to the Tour’s time cut, unlike say, the 2018 edition. Despite this, there were only six sprint stages for Caleb Ewan et al. It seems hard to believe anyone will be able to replicate the stunning dominance of Mark Cavendish, with some teams instead relying on multi-talented rouleurs at the race.
Black lives matter
So, plenty of changes and some notable trends, but has this year’s Tour - and cycling as a whole - transitioned enough? Given other sports’ recognition of the Black Lives Matter movements and commitment to tackling racial inequalities, cycling’s silence is frankly not good enough, especially in a sport so often seen as the preserve of the white middle class.
Only one man on the start line - Kévin Reza (above) - is black, and though he was given something of a guard of honour on the final stage, in a late move from Tour organisers to recognise BLM, it felt tokenistic and ever-so-slightly condescending, especially when coupled with institutional inertia.
You may tangentially point to the consistently excellent stars from South America as examples of cycling’s growing, international draw, but the sport continues to have a profound accessibility problem.
La Course, la concession
This is also true, at the highest echelons, for women’s cycling. This year’s La Course was one of the best races in some time, with two favourites jostling all the way to the finish line. It seems churlish that while everything was done to allow the men’s Tour to go ahead, a much-vaunted women’s edition will be rolled out in 2022, even though it is only looking likely to be a one-week race to begin with. How can a sport grow if it is never given a real chance?
All this nods towards systematic change, if not quite systemic. The actors are changing, the set has been tweaked, but the play remains largely the same. A full-blown Tour of transition? Not quite, but a generational change is quickly coming to the men’s peloton, even if more needs to be done in the sport as a whole to signal lasting change.