Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Can anyone or anything stop Tadej Pogačar winning the Tour for the second time in a row? Will Mark Cavendish break the Merckx record? And what do the final three Pyrenean stages have in store? Peter Cossins analyses the questions remaining to be resolved during the Tour’s final week…
1. Can anyone stop Tadej Pogačar from winning the Tour?
It’s not impossible, but appears to be very close to it. We saw him wilt a little on Mont Ventoux when Jonas Vingegaard attacked and the Slovenian was unable to respond, on the last stretch to the summit of the climb at least. The race’s final three days offer the Dane several opportunities to repeat that feat, particularly the latter two, which are both summit finishes. The first at the Col du Portet is the most challenging, Tour route director Thierry Gouvenou describing it as the toughest climb in the French Pyrenees. What’s more, when it first featured in 2018, Geraint Thomas did gain ground on his closest rivals. However, if Pogačar ends this stage with his lead intact or at least only marginally reduced, the title should be his.
2. What will conditions be like on the final three mountain stages?
The forecast is for a considerable easing in the heat that’s been with the race since the Alps. Tuesday’s stage into Saint-Gaudens should see rain and temperatures in the mid-teens/low sixties – in this event, all riders will need to tackle the very steep and tricky descent off the Col de Portet d’Aspet with caution. Wednesday’s stage to the Col du Portet is shaping up as a little bit drier but still quite cool. Thursday’s Tourmalet/Luz Ardiden stage looks the best of the three weather-wise, a little warmer and with no rain currently forecast. Note that Pogačar tends to thrive in inclement conditions.
3. Is Mark Cavendish in danger of missing the time cut in the last three mountain stages?
Yes, particularly on the final two. However, there are also two significant things in his favour. Firstly, the heat in which he struggled on the long and testing road into Andorra won’t be a factor. Secondly, the stages to the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden feature longish sections on the flat before the climbing starts, so he should remain in the peloton until 60km from home on both days, and his Deceuninck shepherds should be able to see him through from there. The Portet is probably his biggest hurdle because it’s so consistently tough throughout its 16km.
4. Will breakaway winners continue to dominate?
Although we’ve seen plenty of aggressive racing between the GC contenders, they’ve not yet been in contention for stage wins in the mountains, where victories have so far gone to solo escapees Dylan Teuns (Le Grand-Bornand), Ben O’Connor (Tignes), Wout van Aert (Malaucène), Bauke Mollema (Quillan) and Sepp Kuss (Andorra). This run is likely to continue on Tuesday’s stage to Saint-Gaudens, when the final big climb tops out almost 30km from the line. The two summit finishes that follow would normally favour the GC teams, but none of them have yet shown the ability to impose enough control to stifle and reel in breakaways. With this in mind, almost every team will want a rider or two in the break on each of these three stages.
5. Will Mark Cavendish break the Merckx record?
If he gets through the Pyrenees, he will have two excellent chances to do so at Libourne on Friday and, of course, in Paris, where he has already won four times on the Champs-Élysées – note that the finish line is another 200 metres or so up the avenue this year due to work being carried out at its bottom end. With the abandon of Nacer Bouhanni, Cavendish’s list of most likely rivals has dwindled to just one name, Jasper Philipsen. Given his sprinting form, Cavendish should take at least one more win.
6. Who’ll be the King of the Mountains?
The contest for the polka-dot jersey has been the best for years, with four riders currently going at each other hammer and tongs approaching the summit of every categorised climb. Wout Poels moved into the jersey on the stage into Andorra, his tally of 74 points putting him eight clear of Michael Woods, and 10 ahead of Nairo Quintana and Wout van Aert. Arguments can be made both for and against the chances of each of this quartet, but Poels currently looks the favourite as he’s got a strong kick at summits. While van Aert has shown he’s even quicker at these moments, he may be distracted by the need to support Jumbo leader Jonas Vingegaard.
7. Who’ll win the final time trial?
The 30.8km course between Libourne and Saint-Émilion is much flatter than the first TT in Laval and should therefore suit the specialists much more. This should put Swiss Stefans Küng and Bissegger in the frame, as well as Wout van Aert and Kasper Asgreen. As it’s the Tour’s final weekend, some of the GC contenders should be in contention too, most notably Pogačar and Vingegaard.
8. Will Ineos fail to win a stage for the first time since 2014?
This depends on two things. Firstly, on whether or not you regard Egan Bernal’s solo raid on the Col d’Iseran in 2019 as a victory. The team’s only success of that race is not officially classified as one because the stage was shortened due to roads being washed out in a freak storm, but Bernal did end it in the yellow jersey, so it was undoubtedly a considerable triumph. Secondly, on whether they continue to focus their still considerable resources on trying to blow apart the GC race for the benefit of Richard Carapaz. I hope they do because they appear to have Pogačar’s UAE teammates on the rack and this tactic could end up netting them a victory at the same time.
9. Who’ll finish on the final podium?
While Pogačar is odds on to win the Tour, the battle to finish on the two podium steps beneath him is much more difficult to call with just 58 seconds covering Rigoberto Urán in second place from Wilco Kelderman in sixth, with Jonas Vingegaard, Richard Carapaz and Ben O’Connor squeezed in between them. Vingegaard looks the favourite for second place, given his apparent edge in the mountains on these riders that is allied to a more significant advantage in the final time trial. Of the other four, Urán has been consistently strong in the mountains and, like the Dane, should gain time in the TT. As a result, Carapaz, O’Connor and Kelderman will probably need to gain time in the mountains over the next three days to be in with a chance of a podium finish.
10. How good has this Tour been?
So far, very good. The racing has been enthralling almost every day, and even on the quieter stages the re-emergence of Mark Cavendish as the Tour’s leading sprinter and his chase of the Merckx record has meant that it’s still been very watchable. The lack of control and almost anarchic feel to the racing should continue over the closing days, bearing in mind that just eight of the 23 teams currently have a victory to their credit. Strap in, because the rollercoaster ride isn’t over it…