So, congratulations then, Primož Roglič. Tour winner. Tour de l’Ain, that is. For all of his performances, efforts which were largely measured but contained flashes of dominance, combined with Team Jumbo-Visma’s almighty support corps over the past seven weeks, the Slovenian added just one French stage race victory to his palmarès. Remarkably, it wasn’t the big one he craved.
Somewhat exacerbated by the unusual nature of the 2020 season, this year’s GC contest at La Grand Boucle continued the trends we’ve seen in recent Tours. Gone is the model that Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali used so brilliantly between 2013 and 2015, in which they laid down race-winning moves early on. Tadej Pogačar’s path to glory was a little similar to Egan Bernal’s approach in 2019. The Colombian, remember, lost time to Geraint Thomas in the race’s first summit finish and stage 13’s individual time trial yet came good at the right time in the final week.
Not only did Pogačar manage to overcome a potentially disastrous time loss triggered by the Vent d’Autan, he then hung around more awkwardly than a UCI commissaire wanting to inspect Roglič’s bike. Because of his performance on La Planche des Belles Filles, it would appear that his Tour win was based on a time lost because of poor positioning < time lost when you have a jour sans on a mountain approach. The reality is that Pogačar’s path to victory was a lot trickier and somewhat more chaotic than it may first appear.
In the era of super teams and a Tour in which Roglič and Egan Bernal were supported by Grand Tour-winning domestiques, it was Pogačar’s staying power when isolated from team-mates that was integral to his victory. The repeated strength of Jumbo-Visma’s hand on key climbs is quite remarkable: Pogačar was isolated halfway up the Port de Balès (stage eight’s penultimate climb), six kilometres from the top of the Marie Blanque, 12 kilometres out on Grand Colombier, all of Le Puy Mary, nearly half of the Col de la Loze and five kilometres from the Montée du plateau de Glières summit. With the exception of Le Puy Mary (when Jumbo-Visma riders still favourably made up three of the 15-man GC group at its base) Roglič had at least four team-mates with him when his rival became a one-man threat.
Remarkably, despite this advantage, the 15 seconds Roglič gained on Pogačar atop Col de la Loze last Wednesday was the only time he put into his rival on the road during this year’s mountain stages. That, given the Dutch team’s undoubted strength throughout the race, seems a little careless. It was the product of a one-dimensional approach. Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge told L’Équipe: “We have to analyse all this after the race. Maybe we’ll have to change our tactics and make sure we have a more comfortable lead [in future], but it’s hard to say.”
Eddy Merckx has led the criticism of Jumbo-Visma, telling L’Équipe on Saturday: “They went looking for this defeat. It was clear that Pogačar wasn’t going to attack them. He couldn’t drop them in the mountains. They dominated and controlled everything, but they forgot this one guy. They should have tried to blow it up long before [the time trial] to get enough of a gap. It’s a good lesson in cycling.”
Revising history and analysing what ifs in a sport where something as simple as a poorly timed comfort break by a directeur sportif can cost a rider crucial seconds (as Roglič knows all too well from last year’s Giro) is a little futile. But, as William Fotheringham brilliantly observed here, Jumbo-Visma’s riders and management “may eternally regret never pushing deeper, and there may be some soul-searching over whether that was ever possible.”
Just how good were Roglič and Jumbo-Visma during this year’s Tour? Even on the Dutch team’s worse day – stage eight’s Pyrenean opener between Cazères and Loudenville – the Slovenian still benefited from a selfless and symbolic turn from Tom Dumoulin and looked comfortable when marking attacks on the Col de Peyresourde. My sense is that Roglič could have followed the one move he let go, too.
With so much focus on the four summit finishes (if you include the individual time trial) in the final eight stages, the way the Roglič rode on the Peyresourde was incredibly calculated. Paris, as the old cliché goes, was still a long way away. He was unflustered by an unsuccessful attack from Guillaume Martin, but closely marked Nairo Quintana’s acceleration over the top of the climb. Pogačar’s first two kicks were followed closely by Roglič but, given this was the only time he was exposed and vulnerable in the mountains, the Jumbo-Visma didn’t follow the third.
Context is key here: the Vent d’Autan caused Pogačar to lose 81 seconds the previous day, a time loss that ultimately resulted in being more like Froome’s uncostly miscue in similar conditions against Alberto Contador en route to Saint-Amand-Montrond in 2013 than when Quintana ultimately lost the race to Froome in Zeeland five years ago. “When I lost time [at Lavaur], I think Jumbo-Visma stopped focusing on me,” Pogačar told L’Équipe. “I was able to attack and regain time in the Pyrenees.” Jumbo-Visma DS Grischa Niermann described Pogačar’s 40-second time gain as “a pity”. In the context of the whole Tour, it was arguably the second most important momentum shift.
In a three-week race it’s easy to forget moments that seem inconsequential at the time. Without the help of Jan Polanc, Pogačar could have been out of the GC race within the first week after puncturing on the Col de la Lusette. The UAE rider’s second known flat of the Tour came at a time when the race was really on. Undeterred by criticism for adopting a similar yet unsuccessful tactic on Orcières-Merlette, INEOS were setting a “really hard tempo” (Roglič’s words) on the Lusette, making it a potentially disastrous time to have a problem.
“The stage proved to be harder than I expected, also because I had to stop for a puncture near the brow of the last climb,” said Pogačar. “The team acted quickly and Polanc came back to wait so I didn’t have to spend too much energy.” The UAE duo were helped slightly by the fact that the Lusette – Mont Aigoul doubleheader, which looked promising on paper, failed to generate any attacks from the real GC contenders. But, as discussed above, if Pogačar had suffered this mechanical problem when isolated, he may not have recovered from it.
UAE need to recruit well in the coming weeks to ensure Pogačar has a team fit for a title defence in 2021. Polanc performed well in week one, and David de la Cruz became a solid last man after the early departures of Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo. It’s worth remembering that, while Bernal’s Tour was pretty miserable, two of his three best days came on flat terrain when echelons formed en route to Lavaur and twice during stage 10. This was no accident: the Colombian was kept out of trouble brilliantly by Michal Kwiatkowski, Richard Carapaz and Luke Rowe at potentially race-defining moments. Pogačar is extremely capable at wheel-surfing but he arguably needs an equivalent of Rowe or Groupama-FDJ’s Stefan Küng to help him navigate potential traps during sprint stages as much as he requires a reliable climbing lieutenant.
With a budget reportedly around half that of INEOS’, UAE may struggle to recruit domestiques de luxe on the level of Kwiatkowski or Wout Van Aert. But, as Bahrain-McLaren showed with the likes of Pello Bilbao and Damiano Caruso, relatively unglamorous and low profile team-mates can prove to be incredibly useful.
BONUS TIME, PART TWO
Both Pogačar and Roglič gained over 30 seconds in time bonuses throughout the Tour. Their individual gains (32 seconds for the winner, 33 for the Jumbo-Visma rider) may seem a little irrelevant after 87 hours and 20 minutes of riding, but they were still more than the rest of the top 12 combined.
More importantly, Pogačar’s ability to nigh-on match his rival’s bonus time gains second for second from the end of the Pyrenean stages meant that Roglič was never able to use the primes to build a comfortable margin. The UAE rider’s advantage he took into Paris with him (59 seconds) was bigger than the gap Roglič held over him for all but one day between Orcières-Merlette and La Planche des Belles Filles. It is irrelevant now (and, as I said earlier, somewhat futile), but Roglič’s psychological advantage over his nearest challenger would have been significantly greater had they been separated by, say, 90 seconds on GC going into Saturday’s time trial as opposed to just 57. The unthinkable may well have proved to be just that. A Slovenian would have definitely won the Tour still, of that we can be certain, but it just might have been the 2020 Tour de l’Ain champion who wore the maillot jaune in Paris.
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Main photo: SWpix.com / A.S.O. / Pauline_Ballet