Nine stages deep and we’re all in – the cobbles tackled with grim stoicism, La Super Planche des Belles Filles conquered, mostly on two wheels, (except for Louis Meintjes who ran over the line) and a fourth country – Switzerland – checked off in the tour brochure.
With the business of the Tour de France well underway, what conclusions can be drawn from the full-blooded racing we’ve witnessed this week?
Magnificent Magnus and the polka dot defence
From the first road stage in Denmark, the smiling, moustachioed king of cool was on a mission – he was coming for your mountains points, and he was going to wear a damn fine spotty jersey and honour it for as long as he possibly could.
He set about inserting himself into the first breakaway of the Tour de France, and after swiping every single KOM point on offer, he took the maillot à pois on a merry jaunt through the Danish countryside the next day, with not a care in the world that he was all by himself.
When he returned for more of the same on stage four, he broke a record held since 1958 by Federico Bahamontes, becoming the first rider to crest the first eight climbs of the Tour de France. He racked more than 400km in the breakaway and we loved to see it.
There’s something joyful about the way Magnus Cort rides. When he popped up in the break yet again on the cobbled stage 5 to Arenberg, you could only laugh. There weren’t even any mountains points available on that stage.
The chaos of Aert
From honouring the polka dots, to honouring yellow. Week one of the Tour belonged to one man: Wout van Aert.
The irrepressible Belgian all-rounder was everywhere in the opening stages of La Grand Boucle, wearing his trade kit just once before he began a series of days in green and yellow. After racking up three consecutive second places on the first three stages – the first man to do so since Alfredo Binda in 1930 – he went on to rectify this on stage 4. His blistering attack on the final climb secured the former Belgian champion his first stage win, and his second followed three stages later with an uphill sprint into Lausanne.
Even when he’s not in the hunt for stage wins, he’s still front and centre, when it comes to race action. His balls-to-the-wall charge to close the gap to a charging Pogačar on stage five was something to behold, and quite possibly ensured the longevity of the general classification as a contest. On stage six, he fought tooth and nail to instigate the day's early break, and when it finally established itself, 80km later, he was a part of it – with just two companions. He dropped them both and led a fruitless solo charge which was caught with 12km remaining on the stage, leading many to question the motives behind the move. Yet his teammates enjoyed a relative day of rest in the peloton by dint of Van Aert’s attack, and the man himself displayed the most famous jersey in the world, knowing it would be his last day in it. An unforgettable week from a rider who really can do it all.
At last year’s Tour, the young Slovenian waited until stage eight to assert his dominance, riding away from everyone at the first given opportunity up the Col de la Colombière.
This year, curiously, he simultaneously looks absolutely imperious and also like he might – perhaps – be beatable. He performed well on the cobbles, although he rode on Jasper Stuyven’s wheel for this final 10km. He won an uphill sprint into Longwy, but was only pressed into action in the final few hundred metres. Yes, he won on La Super Planches des Belles Filles after a leg-breaking battle to the Tour’s first summit finish, but it was the attack of Jonas Vingegaard that drew him out, on a climb which suits his explosive power more than that of his Danish rival.
Let’s not for a moment suggest he’s not capable of not only winning this Tour but once again grinding his rivals into the dust. However, let’s hold in our minds the adjacent possibility that he might not. Vingegaard could leave him behind on the longer climbs, and this GC race might very well be a nail-biter.
Jumbo-Visma baffle and delight
Say what you like about their laissez-faire approach to race strategy, you can’t deny that Team Jumbo-Visma have brought the drama to this year’s Tour de France. From the aforementioned super-heroics of Van Aert through to the bike-swapping panic during stage five on the cobbles, Jumbo-Visma have certainly kept everybody guessing.
While UAE unite unequivocally behind one leader, the Dutch team not only have multiple leaders, but multiple goals. The efficacy of their strategy has been picked over ruthlessly by the armchair critics but love it or loathe it, they are providing entertainment, along with keeping the GC race very much alive.
It may be unorthodox and at times a little chaotic, but is there anyone who isn’t rooting for the guy who put his own shoulder back in, by the roadside, while his team rode past without noticing, trying to protect the other leader? You couldn’t make up a crazier narrative.
Veterans only victors in week of nullified breakaways
It’s been a lean old Tour so far for the baroudeurs, with a tension among the GC teams leading to the breakaways being kept on a particularly short leash. There was heartbreak for Lennard Kämna on stage seven, just 250m from the line on La Planche des Belles Filles, but AG2R Citroën’s Bob Jungels became the second rider 60km solo, one year on from the endofibrosis surgery that he feared may end his career in the sport. Given his early career success, he could just about be considered a veteran – Simon Clarke, however, definitely fits the label.
The Israel-Premier Tech rider was left without a contract following the loss of World Tour status of Qhubeka-NextHash in 2021. The New Zealand native came through from a group of four to claim victory on the line in stage five, following a thrilling finish into Arenberg.
The stranglehold of the GC teams must surely ease as the race wears on, so look out for an increase in breakaway wins in the coming weeks.
The raw end of the deal
Prior to stage one in Denmark, the withdrawal of two riders with covid led to grave concern over how many would make it through the first week.
Nine stages in, and miraculously, just one rider – UAE Team Emirates’ Vegard Stake Laengen – has left the race with the virus. The rest of the fallen have suffered the usual ill fortune that can occur in any bike race. Daniel Oss was forced to retire with a fractured vertebra following a collision with a fan on the cobbles on stage five. Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) did not start stage nine following a knee injury. And Alex Kirsch (Trek-Segafredo) left the race with sickness.
Illness, injury and crashes have led to 11 riders leaving the race so far, a fairly average rate of attrition for a Grand Tour (this year’s Giro had 166 riders left at the exact same point).
Those who remain in the race despite their bad luck include GC hopeful Ben O’Connor, who has suffered setback after setback, and finished stage nine a dismal 49 minutes down, one year on from his epic stage win in Tignes. Mathieu Van der Poel, who labours on despite his form deserting him following a hard-fought Giro d’Italia. And Primož Roglič, who must feel as though he is living in the shadow of some kind of curse at the race he so dearly wants to win.