Seven Questions From a Wild Tour de France
The 2020 Tour de France reached Paris on Sunday, despite some doubts about whether the race would be able to go on amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Spoiler alert: no riders tested positive for COVID-19!) After a bruising Stage 20 time trial, when he stole the yellow jersey, Tadej Pogačar climbed atop the podium after the ride into Paris, followed by Primož Roglič and Richie Porte.
Here are seven questions we have from the final week of racing…
Were the Crosswinds Decisive In a Way We Didn’t Consider?
As previously noted, it’s common for crosswinds to upend the Tour de France by causing some contenders to lose time when they’re caught on the wrong side of the split field. This year, Pogačar was one of the unfortunates. But in the final reckoning, his 1:21 loss on Stage 7 may have actually helped him.
Pogačar rode aggressively in the mountains to steadily chip away at Roglič’s lead and only lost time on one stage in the race’s final week. But without the crosswind deficit, he would have taken yellow with his Stage 9 win, instead of Roglič—and that would have changed the race.
When Roglič took yellow, his Jumbo-Visma team controlled for much of the race’s second half. But Pogačar’s UAE-Emirates team was considerably weaker: Fabio Aru didn’t finish stage 9, Davide Formolo crashed out two days later, and Stage 1 winner Alexander Kristoff is a sprinter, not a climber. That left Pogačar isolated on most mountain stages.
Had UAE-Emirates been forced to defend a lead, Jumbo might have been more aggressive attacking the Tour rookie. As it turned out, lurking close behind Roglič and taking yellow on the penultimate day was the best possible scenario for Pogačar.
Will Pogacar’s Win Create a Third Super Team?
Entering the 2020 Tour, the conventional wisdom was it would be a battle between the two strongest teams in the race: Jumbo-Visma, and the INEOS Grenadiers team of defending champion Egan Bernal. Each team has multiple Grand Tour winners on its roster. That heavyweight matchup never quite materialized: INEOS left past Tour winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas off the roster since they were judged not to be in proper shape, and back trouble eventually forced Bernal from the race.
As INEOS and Jumbo have shown, there’s room at one team for multiple Grand Tour aspirants if the money and leadership opportunities are there, and one thing the Emirates don’t worry much about is money. Another non-issue? Pogačar himself, who’s reportedly under contract through 2024.
Is Peter Sagan’s Green Jersey Dominance Done?
It’s might be tempting to point to his Stage 11 penalty for his loss this time around. Prior to the relegation, he was locked in a tight battle with Sam Bennett for green, but the punishment—a loss of his Stage 11 finish and intermediate sprint points due to relegation—put him in a deep hole, 68 points down.
As well, Sagan was a touch off his usual game. In the past, he’s been able to capitalize on a number of top-10 finishes on sprint stages and hillier courses. This year, it’s too early to say what happened. Maybe it was the breakaways that soaked up sprint points, and maybe it was a mechanical that cost him a top placing on Stage 7, a day when Bennett had been dropped (“that’s fucking cycling” Sagan said afterward).
Sagan and Bennett are close in age, but have had far different career trajectories; Sagan joined racing’s top level in 2010, while Bennett, just a year younger, developed more slowly and signed his first WorldTour contract only in 2017. While only a year apart in age, it’s possible that Sagan’s higher mileage is starting to show in his finishing speed.
Entering the Tour, host nation France had high hopes for success and—dare they dream—an end to the 34-year drought of an overall French winner. Things started reasonably well: aside from Thibaut Pinot’s Stage 1 crash, French riders won two stages in the opening week, took yellow with Julian Alaphilippe, and had Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet in the top five overall.
As for the talent pipeline, 23-year-old David Gaudu is one of the most promising young French pros, and there are a few other solid talents in lower-division teams. Sometimes riders take more time to develop (Alaphilippe is a great example). But if there’s an heir to Bernard Hinault among France’s young riders, he has yet to reveal himself.
Out With The Old, In With The New?
But Scandinavian countries did well behind three stage wins (Dane Søren Kragh Andersen took two, while Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff opened with a stage win and day in yellow). Colombia took two stages, while Ireland’s Sam Bennett got two stage wins and the green jersey, and Poland and Kazakhstan each had a rider win a stage.
Will Doping Overshadow the Race Again?
Elsewhere in Europe, investigators said in September that they’d uncovered evidence of a synthetic hemoglobin doping product in connection with Operation Aderlass, a sports-doping inquiry that involves numerous people in pro cycling.
And Pogačar’s team, UAE-Emirates, is run by two men with past links to doping. CEO Mauro Gianetti and Team Manager Joxean Fernandez ran the Saunier Duval-Scott team in 2008 when two riders, Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli, tested positive for a long-acting version of EPO. Gianetti’s former teammate from that time, Stephane Heulot, who also later worked for Saunier Duval, said in 2008 that Gianetti was incapable of changing, a comment he reiterated this year to Ouest France. He also told le Parisien “that people like [Gianetti] are still in cycling today is unthinkable.”
It remains to be seen what comes of the Arkea and Operation Aderlass investigations. In Pogačar’s case, the circumstantial evidence against him isn’t entirely fair, but in pro cycling’s past, association has been a key factor in doping cases, and as long as people like Fernandez and Gianetti are around the sport, questions will continue.
Will Pro Cycling Face Its Racial Equity Problem?
Reza was gracious, and thanked the ASO for letting him ride on the front, but the brief spotlight the race showed on racism seemed small and late, and rushed in its consideration. While it was encouraging to see some white riders, like Tejay van Garderen, speaking out more forcefully, the race’s gesture still felt like a missed opportunity. The Tour is cycling’s most prominent event; the failure to make a bigger statement, or to really even consider one until prompted, says a lot about how much work pro cycling has to do.