Two weeks deep into the chaos of the Tour de France and the heat is on, both literally and metaphorically. With climate protests halting proceedings on stage 10 and slowing them briefly on stage 16, the organisers stopped short of applying extreme heat protocols, although they were forced to spray water on the roads to avoid them melting, suggesting perhaps they should have.
The intensity of the European summer is no laughing matter, and it’s a concerning state of affairs, with the hot weather due to continue into next week. Matters were made more serious by the incessant attacking riding among those remaining at the race, from those looking to escape early and contest stage wins, through to the GC contenders trying to steal a march on their rivals. It’s been relentless, thrilling and more than a little hot under the collar.
We’ve tried to distil the very best of six stages of racing into six short snapshots to take away with you, as we catch our breath ahead of the final week.
The best stage ever?
Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you get caught up in the madness of a bike race and boldly proclaim it’s the ‘BEST. RACE. EVER!’ Usually, you quietly retract that a few days later when the adrenaline has ebbed away. Sometimes though, the hyperbole is warranted.
Stage 11 of this year’s Tour de France was one such occasion. A breath-taking, chaotic, unforgettable day of racing that began with a vintage Wout van Aert/Mathieu van der Poel breakaway which, amazingly, turned out to be the least remarkable thing about the day.
The madness began on the Col du Télégraphe with over 60km remaining, and continued onto the Galibier. Jumbo Visma scented blood with Tadej Pogačar isolated, and launched repeated attacks, before later linking up with a marauding Wout van Aert who came steaming through with a chasing group like an actual freight train. Then the final battle on the Col du Granon, with Jonas Vingegaard powering away from his Slovenian rival who broke spectacularly to slip back in the GC contest by over two minutes, riders passing him one by one as he clawed his way to the summit.
There aren’t enough words to do justice to stage 11 – it simply needed to be seen to be believed.
Aside from Magnus Cort’s joyful forays up the road, the Grand Départ in Denmark saw much less success for the home nation’s riders than the vast swathes of faithful fans that lined the streets would have hoped for. Good things come to those who wait, though, and week two saw the karmic reward for the fantastic welcome shown by the Danes, as their riders repaid the loyalty of the home fans by delivering them three stages wins in four days, along with a yellow jersey.
Magnus Cort led the charge, taking stage 10 from the break – a just reward for his tireless efforts in previous breakaways – even more so in hindsight, given his withdrawal from the race on stage 16 due to Covid.
Cort opened the floodgates, with Jonas Vingegaard picking up where he left off the next day, winning on Col du Granon to claim both the stage victory and the yellow jersey. The Danish delight wasn’t over yet, with Mads Pedersen commandeering his way to an expertly engineered and powerfully delivered breakaway win on stage 14.
Brits blossom on Bastille Day
The 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez were lined with thousands of fans on Bastille Day and, as it always does, this most legendary of climbs provided a brilliant arena for the unfolding drama.
The French have had a raw deal so far this Tour, with a distinct lack of Alaphilippe, an inconsistent presence in the GC race and no stage wins so far, and their misery was compounded on stage 12 as despite the significance of the day, they were not able to celebrate even the possibility of breaking the duck, with not a single rider in the day’s promising breakaway.
It was the Brits who stole the show in the end, with a first Grand Tour victory for multi-disciplinarian Tom Pidcock, who proved his bike handling skills beyond all doubt with a daredevil display of descending from the Galibier, reaching death-defying speeds of up to 100kph. From a leading group of three, he struck out solo at the foot of the Alpe to pull off the most spectacular win of his already remarkable career so far.
It was a first stage win for Ineos, but they, and Pidcock, weren’t the only source of British joy on the day.
Chris Froome, redemption era
It’s been a rough few years for the four-time winner of the greatest race on the cycling calendar. Following a life-threatening crash on a time trial recon at the Dauphine in 2019, the road back to top level racing has been long and arduous for the former Team Sky rider, with many writing off his chances of ever performing competitively again.
The intervening years have seen him try and fail to make an impact at many races, but cometh the Alpe, cometh the Man, and when Froome finally found his climbing legs, it was at the perfect moment. When he made the breakaway group on stage 12 there were few who would have believed Froome would make it all the way up the climb at the sharp end of the race, but he proved his detractors wrong, pulling off his single best performance on a bike since before that horrific crash, three years previously.
A stage win would have been the most incredible ending to his recovery story, but third place on the queen stage of the Tour de France is quite the statement – it suggests that, far from being over, as many would have suggested, Froome’s career is well on the way to being reinvigorated.
At the beginning of the week, the pressure was on a depleted UAE Team Emirates following two positive Covid-19 cases, but not to be outdone, the perennially unlucky Dutch team followed suit with some losses of their own on stage 16.
The day began with the news that Primož Roglič would not start, in order to allow him to recover from the injuries he sustained back on stage five. Roglič had dropped seamlessly into the role of super-domestique following the loss of his own GC dreams, showing selfless commitment to the team and working for Jonas Vingegaard for as long as he possibly could.
One man down, the day didn’t get any better for Jumbo Visma, who proceeded to lose Steven Kruijswijk following a crash, and suffered further hair-raising moments as both Tiesj Benoot and Jonas Vingegaard came down in another. A stressful bike change later, and the yellow jersey was able to re-join the peloton, but with nerves rattled and two support riders down, it’s going to be a tense final week for the six remaining team members as Tadej Pogačar will seek to exact revenge for the losses he sustained on stage 11.
It will leave fans of the Dutch team wondering just what they did in a past life to deserve such unprecedented bad luck at the Tour de France.
All to play for on GC
It’s been a long time coming, but what we have, finally, at this year’s Tour de France, is a finely poised, unpredictable general classification battle.
Sometimes the GC goes down to the wire, sometimes – like last year – it’s ceased to be a contest by the end of the second week, but this year, the combination of well-matched riders in good form, plus strong teams, and aggressive racing tactics, has led to the perfect storm, and could see one of the most dramatic final weeks in recent memory.
The GC punch-up began on stage 11, but despite Vingegaard taking so much time out of Pogačar, rather than putting the yellow jersey out of sight, it’s set up a truly tantalising contest. With the top billed pairing both down a couple of team mates, and the third serious contender, Geraint Thomas, in excellent form, and with a strong team around him, it promises to be one for the ages.