A few months ago, The Cut, a style magazine offshoot of New York magazine, predicted in the headline of an involved and densely referenced piece of cultural criticism that - their words - “A vibe shift is coming”. The ominous-sounding follow up question: “Will any of us survive it?”
The author of the piece, Allison P. Davis, quoted the trend forecaster and social commenter Sean Moham. “One day,” he wrote, “everyone was wearing Red Wing boots and partying in warehouses in Williamsburg decorated with twinkling fairy lights. VIBE SHIFT! Everyone started wearing Nike Frees and sweating it out in the club.”
(I am a cycling journalist and did not wear Red Wing boots and party in warehouses decorated with fairy lights, nor start to wear Nike Frees, though in reading Davis’s piece I also discovered that Moham conceptualised and articulated the fashion trend of ‘Normcore’, which resonated with me.)
You could argue that some riders and teams have made it through the vibe shift that seems to have occurred at the 2022 Tour de France. If Moham were in the Tour press room, he might have observed that one day, sprinters were winning flat stages, climbers were winning on climbs and nobody mixed cyclo-cross and road racing. VIBE SHIFT! Wout van Aert was dropping everybody on punchy climbs (and almost winning hors-catégorie Pyrenean finishes), Tadej Pogačar was dropping classics specialists on the cobbles, Michael Matthews was winning on steep uphill finishes. Everybody was attacking with 40, 50, even 60-plus kilometres to the finish. And now Christophe Laporte has won the flat stage into Cahors.
There’s a definite retro feeling to the trends that have emerged at the 2022 Tour de France. Wout van Aert’s dominance of the green jersey competition and his ability on all terrains is reminiscent of the Irish rider Sean Kelly, who at the Tour also won bunch sprints, hilly stages and mountain stages in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as coming close to winning time trials. Pogačar’s ease on all terrain and aggressive racing strategy have been reminiscent of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, who was also a Paris-Roubaix champion, though the two are diametrically opposed in temperament.
Laporte’s victory may be the most retro of all. Attacking the peloton in the final kilometre and holding off the sprinters’ teams on flat terrain is in my opinion the greatest way to win a bike race, and it has been both rare and a dying art in the last couple of decades. When sprinters’ teams were less organised and drilled, in the 1970s and 1980s, a certain kind of rider, usually a thoroughbred rouleur, could win Tour stages like this: Jelle Nijdam won the Gap stage of the 1989 Tour in this fashion; Viatcheslav Ekimov did the same in Mâcon in 1991. Alexandre Vinokourov did it quite spectacularly on the Champs-Élysées in 2005, and the last rider to succeed in this way was Fabian Cancellara, equally spectacularly, because he did so in the yellow jersey, who won in Compiègne in 2007.
Few riders have ever won Tour stages with the final-kilometre attack, though riders used to try more often than now, mainly because modern sprinters’ teams have more or less perfected the leadouts and it’s physically impossible to ride faster than them. However, this Tour has seen disruptive and unpredictable strategies and tactics almost every day.
Laporte’s success was built on the strength and confidence of his Jumbo-Visma team. Jumbo-Visma have a little form in trying to surprise the peloton this year - a three-up attack with Laporte, Van Aert and Primož Roglič saw Laporte win a stage at Paris-Nice. A similar strategy on stage 4 into Calais saw an Olympic Sprint-style leadout from the team on the final climb with 10km to go, which shredded the peloton before Van Aert prised himself clear of everybody over the top and won alone. This time, Van Aert worked early, helping to bring the three riders who’d escaped in the final 30km, Fred Wright, Alexis Gougeard and Jasper Stuyven, and who were still resisting towards the final kilometre. Laporte saw the opportunity and jumped across to the leading trio, using them to shelter him from the wind before he was able to jump again, having received a better leadout than he ever got at Cofidis. Behind, the sprinters and sprinters’ teams, demoralised and worn down from a very hard and hot Tour de France, didn’t have enough left to chase the Frenchman.
In Davis’s description in The Cut of the vibe shift from Red Wing boots to Nike Frees, there was an existentially terrifying follow-up: “Now, some did not make it through the vibe shift… They bunkered down in Greenpoint and got married, or took their waxed beards and nautical tattoo sleeves and relocated to Hudson.”Jumbo-Visma, especially Van Aert and Laporte, have made it through the vibe shift. So, despite his defeat to Jonas Vingegaard, has Tadej Pogačar. The Ineos Grenadiers are also showing signs of doing so - mainly in the form of Tom Pidcock, whose stage win at L’Alpe d’Huez was unlike anything seen at the Tour for many years. Even Mark Cavendish picked up the prevailing mood with his attacking win at the GB Champs. Astana, B&B Hotels and Lotto Soudal, however, have done the cycling equivalent of taking their waxed beards and nautical tattoo sleeves and relocating to Hudson. The Tour has changed. You don’t win stages by being normcore.