Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com / A.S.O./Alex Broadway
Primoz Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma team had all but won the 107th edition of the Tour de France before Tadej Poagacar put in the time trial of a lifetime up La Planche des Belles Filles, but with their domination of the 2020 Tour, the Slovenian duo had delivered something fans and pundits have long thirsted for – change.
It took a global pandemic to precipitate a shakedown and unseat Ineos, which race organiser ASO had tried to facilitate through various course designs in recent years.
The sight of an Ineos/Sky rider (or two) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) gracing the final podium as the sun sets on the Champs Elysees has almost become a given, such has been their dominance over the yellow jersey and green jersey, respectively, since 2012.
However, new kings stand to be crowned when the peloton races into Paris for the 21st and final stage on Sunday.
Ineos/Sky has won seven Tours in eight years with four riders, employing a one-eyed, formulaic approach. Similarly, Sagan won seven green jerseys in eight years, within the same 2012-2019 period, enduring across terrain where sprinters, until now, could not or would not dare to go.
But this weekend it was Pogacar (UAE Emirates) preparing to celebrate his maiden Tour title win in the French capital, ahead of Slovenian compatriot Roglic, who had dominated the race with his powerful Jumbo-Visma team until Saturday’s time trial, with Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) third. Irish sprinter Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was set to claim the maillot vert following fierce battles with Sagan that made an already brutal Tour even harder for the peloton.
Pogacar, 21, only last year was the baby-faced rookie pro who held tightly onto a giant teddy bear as he faced international media after winning the Tour of California, a different demeanour to that of the gutsy rider at the Tour, who had won two stages and the white jersey without an intimidating train to compare with the yellow crew who selflessly and tirelessly protected Roglic. And then came that dramatic climb to La Planche, where Roglic’s Tour fell away, and Pogacar added a third stage win, the King of the Mountains jersey, the overall win, and, almost incidentally, the best young rider.
As intimidating and commanding as Jumbo-Visma had been, mirroring that of Ineos in years gone by, the Dutch squad’s rule over this Tour was not as oppressive like that of the British team. Rivals such as Pogacar, put up a real fight to regain time instead of racing to protect minor places.
The change in pace set by the new order appeared to be well received among riders too, even Ineos road captain Luke Rowe, who threw out the proven script after teammate Egan Bernal abandoned his title defence before stage 17.
The 2020 Tour was always going to be unique, being held amid a global COVID-19 pandemic that forced the cancellation of most major sporting meets including the Olympics.
Even at the Grand Depart in Nice, there was serious doubt about whether the Tour would make Paris, given the crisis and red zones across France, which riders were mindful of. I questioned at the time if it was responsible to push on under the circumstances.
On the penultimate day those doubts, and fears weren’t realised, thankfully, and we all got to witness one of the most competitive Tours in almost a decade.
So, is this the start of something new? Slovenian domination? Shamrock stardom? Is the reign of Ineos and of Sagan at the Tour over, or are have they simply lost a battle?
Bennett now has the support of a sprint and classics specialist team and will surely be buoyed by what was a career-defining race for the hard working 29-year-old, who had won one stage and would be looking for a second on the Champs Elysées.
Ineos’ decision to make significant changes to its Tour team and build it around Bernal was necessary. At 23, he’s the future. Thomas, 34, and Froome, 35, are competitive but closer to the ends of their careers than the riders who were on song in France.
Also, to me it would have made no sense for a team that has built its reputation almost solely on winning Grand Tours to put all its eggs in one basket and risk not having options at the upcoming Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana should the pandemic have hurt the Tour.
Yet, choosing this season to commence that rebuild around Bernal was poor timing. The Colombian, due to the pandemic and an almost five-month competition shutdown, didn’t have the opportunity to race and more importantly bond with teammates over the traditional six-month build to the Tour. Bonding is important, especially in what this year was a less familiar and more multi-national team than the British or Anglo-centric squad that has been behind virtually all of Ineos/Sky’s title triumphs.
Jumbo-Visma operated with a level of familiarity. Tom Dumoulin, a proven champion in his own right, appeared to have no problem riding in support of Roglic when his own chances slipped, around the same time reports that Thomas didn’t want to ride for Bernal surfaced. One rival described Thomas’ omission as cut-throat and a shock.
Ineos responded better to the challenges it faced compared to past seasons, Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz’s one-two on stage 18 is testament to that. But they didn’t go to the Tour to win stages and doubt, especially in uncertain times, is harder to work with than the momentum and confidence success brings. Ask Jumbo-Visma, or the UAE Emirates team that is several seasons into a rebuild and suddenly has a Tour de France win to his name, however unlikely that looked on Saturday morning.
Is the 2020 Tour de France an anomaly or does it signal the establishment of a new order in cycling? Time will tell, but all empires eventually fall.
Photo: © SWpix.com