World cyclo-cross champions absolutely slaying the Tour de France are like buses: you wait ages for one, then two come along at once. Tom Pidcock became the second of the breed to win a stage of the 2022 Grande Boucle following Wout van Aert’s victories in Calais and Lausanne, when he rode to a solo triumph atop L’Alpe d’Huez. In fact there was a phase of the stage when one champion - Pidcock - was riding alone at the front, slowly but surely squeezing out a winning lead over Louis Meintjes, while five minutes further down the mountain Van Aert was pacing a rapidly shrinking GC group. The cyclo-crossers had taken over the stage.
And the multitaskers are taking over the Tour. For better and for worse, Tadej Pogačar has been sprinting, climbing, attacking, time trialling and dropping all his rivals on the cobbles; Van Aert has been doing much the same. Even Magnus Cort, another stage winner, has mixed attacking, a bit of climbing and sprinting. Pidcock? Good at climbing, evidently, very good at pacing and judging an effort, and compellingly, viscerally good at descending, of which more later.
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Pidcock is a difficult rider to work out. He tends not to give too much away in interviews though he is as pithy as hell. In the press conference following his win, the first question was: can you explain the experience of riding through the crowds on the Alpe? Pidcock thought for a few seconds, and then said, “No.” To be fair, he did then enlarge on this, describing it as “ridiculous”, and that ‘no’ actually communicated very effectively the magnitude of his achievement and the craziness of the crowds. Far better however, for the goal if not of understanding Tom Pidcock then at least appreciating him, to observe his racing style.
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The north side of the Col du Galibier is probably the harder side to climb, but ride it in the other direction and it offers interesting possibilities for the descender. There are a few hairpins near the top, and a stack of hairpins above Plan Lachat, the point about halfway down where the descent joins the valley and heads down to Valloire. In between, there is a swooping, snaking road with quite a lot of visibility. In this section of road, having attacked over the summit of the climb, Tom Pidcock escaped the gravitational pull of the peloton and set about closing a gap of 90 seconds to the front of the race.
The Brit seemed to be in freefall as he plunged down the descent. He was visibly faster than anybody else on the mountain, compact, aerodynamic and very, very physical. There’s a stillness and smoothness about some great descenders. Marc Hirschi and Primož Roglič are riders who look as if their bikes are part of them as they ride downhill. Pidcock was different on the Galibier. He was visibly using his bike as a tool - on some bends his body would remain still, but he’d lean the bike more; sometimes his arms would swing his bike one way, and then the other. He worked with the road and the descent: the angle of lean always perfectly matched the tightness of the bend, and at no point did it ever look as if he could fall off.
A snapshot: Tom Pidcock going around the outside of Arkéa rider Matis Louvel on a sharp left-hand bend on the Galibier, which will endure as one of the images of this Tour de France and of Pidcock’s career. Most riders leave it to the straights to overtake, because they know the rider they are passing will ride in a straight line. If you must overtake on a bend, the inside is a better option, because riders only ever drift outwards around corners. A move like Pidcock’s around Louvel takes skill and confidence; even a bit of creativity, or at least imagination.
Another snapshot: Tom Pidcock slaloming his bike through an S-bend on the descent of the Col de la Croix de Fer, steering with one hand while he uses the other to take a drink. And another: Tom Pidcock dropping Chris Froome, who once laid the foundations of a Tour de France win on a descent.
Photo by James Startt
What Pidcock does looks intuitive and natural, almost artistic. It is all of these things, but it is underpinned by experience and self-knowledge and therefore it is also very scientific. He spoke in his press conference of having spent his childhood riding to and from school, and incorporating enough diversions into forests that he would arrive home with his school uniform and bike muddied. He has learned so well the way that bikes behave when he rides them that his skill and decision-making is almost indistinguishable from intuition. You could suggest that Pidcock’s youth is also a weapon, that he is too young to have learned fear, but he feels no fear because his understanding of the particular branch of physics that applies to riding a bike down a hill fast is so profound.
So we stand back, watch Tom Pidcock descending the Galibier, and think we can understand him as a racer at least, because of the aesthetic beauty of his speed, the visceral manner in which he rides and the cold hard fact that he crossed that 90-second gap by the top of the Col de Télégraphe (the last part with the help of Froome).
However, none of the art and science of Pidcock’s stunning descent of the Galibier (and Télégraphe and Croix de Fer) would have mattered to the rider himself if he had not been able to also climb the Alpe in front of the others. The descending exploits were a complex matter of speed judgement, balance and tyre grip; climbing the Alpe tipped the balance more towards science, in a more straightforward test of threshold power and resilience. It might have been less spectacular than the downhill riding, but there was more to the stage than descending. In the end, the winner was the rider who did everything best.Cover image by Getty Images