Now the Tour de France riders get to recover. And the team support staff, the organisers and the media are also able to swap exhaustion for downtime. A good tour, yes in many ways. It was also a tour that came with some lighter and heavier clouds.
For spectators at home and those who could make it road-side, it was a fairly normal tour. The Australian SBS crew broadcast the tour remotely and the Eurosport/GCN subscription service, which is growing in popularity, featured a big team of reporters on-location along with remote commentators and studio moderators. The Covid impact has shown that broadcasting in this manner is possible and can be successful. The seven hovering helicopters following the pelotons everyday ensured that the live broadcast was uninterrupted and even the onscreen graphics fro Le Tour are getting better, we can see time-gaps and the dots also provide a good indication of which riders in which group we are looking at. Rider data is still too short, but a ‘max power output’ is still unusable if we don’t see 5 second or 30 second averages.
For spectators on location, the Tour was almost back to normal. Many European nations are quite progressive in their vaccinations.Over 55% of the French population are completely vaccinated and roadside masks were no longer obligatory except in certain locations close to the finish line. All media, riders and workers were regularly tested and wore masks whenever there was any interaction… even when it was only interaction on the end of a long pole. The strict rules for Covid prevention introduced the potential for a complete team to be disqualified, though it still felt more relaxed this year and there were no upsets like on some of the spring classics that saw teams forced to leave.
And while there were plenty of fines for minor infringement for riders, staff and media – there were no fist fights and nothing more than a word between riders… well, with the exception of the well publicised tantrum by Mark Cavendish who wasn’t having a sunny moment.
The final results saw a fairy-tale tour for Cavendish, albeit minus the Stage 21 win in Paris. There was a fantastic challenge for the King of the Mountains jersey which swapped hands lots of times and it was well-rounded with wonderful break-aways and stage wins that included fantastic scenery and iconic locations Tadej Pogačar of Team UAE takes his second tour win and as a sympathetic young rider, he also oozes talent and proves that his upset win in Stage 20 in 2020 was not just a fluke.
And we are also seeing a generation of young riders who have little Grand Tour experience, but they are able to win stages and be serious GC contenders. This change is exciting as it is harder to predict and also releases spectators from some of the predictability that has taken away from the suspense and excitement we want to see. The win by Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel was also a highlight and enabled him to take the yellow jersey from crowd-favourite, Julian Alaphilippe until Pogačar then gained the maillot jeune on Stage 8.
The General Classifications fight for the top ten placements was also exciting through to the end and the 25 year old Perth rider, Ben O’Connner of Team AG2R had a stellar tour with the Stage 9 win and retained fourth place overall. Even with the tour yellow jersey (virtually) in the bag, the stage wins and KOM were exciting, along with the potential of Michael Matthews being able to challenge the points jersey.
Slightly Cloudy Moments
The 2021 winner deserves his win and Team UAE were effective, although not brutally dominant like Team Sky who’s strategy and star riders made them effect winning, but severely dampened the excitement. In 2021 at the Tour de France, Pogačar established an early lead in the tour and even though he proved himself with three stage wins, he was untouchable and his decisive lead could not be challenged. This unchallenged dominance is a credit to him, but as a spectator, hearing and even expecting that the Tour is probably decided so early in the race is not uplifting when two weeks remain.
While the UCI carried out hundreds of bike tests and the obligatory rider anti-doping tests successfully, there were some noises from the peloton about strange sounds that could be heard from some of the bikes. The suggestion was possible mechanical doping by four of the teams with a hub-integrated ‘energy recuperator’ as opposed to a motor that contains magnets and could be more easily detected. Having watched UCI officials conduct their testing of some of the bikes, it would be hard to imagine that this could go undetected but it is also not impossible either.
While we saw a number of withdrawals from injury or missing cut-off times, Olympic participation was also a motivator for some of the riders to cut the tour short. The 2021 Tokyo Olympics is a big opportunity and the timing is challenging as many of the world’s best riders have an opportunity at the Tour de France and the Olympics directly after. Fatigue and recovery time following the Tour de France could impact performance. None the less, to see riders choosing to withdraw from the Tour de France so that they can instead focus on the Olympics does detract a bit and it also means that their teams are down a rider.
One of the background disappointments were ‘war of words’ from team bosses directed to riders, in particular against the Irish Deceuninck – Quick-Step rider Sam Bennet who reported an injury that prevented him from competing. This decision ultimately opened the door for Cavendish and the team are ecstatic about his success… but comments on-record that question the character of team riders is just not good taste.
The crashes were the big dark cloud over the 2021 Tour de France. Even though some crashes and road rash are expected, the severity of the crashes knocked a lot of riders out of the race including a host of sprinters and also GC contenders which essentially changed the entire dynamic of the race. Team INEOS Grenadier had a handful of GC contenders and Thomas Geraint and Richie Porte suffered heavily from multiple crashes and were no longer in contention. Jack Haig of Bahrain Victorious, Simon Yates of BikeExchange and Victor Campenaerts of Qhubeka NextHash were all strong GC contenders who pulled out.
Last years almost winner Primož Roglič was force to withdraw as well as sprinters Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan who would have otherwise been a stronger challenge for Mark Cavendish. In total 43 riders withdrew, only 9 of these were outside of the time limits. Team Arkea Samic was reduced to 3 riders and some other teams only had 4 riders from th e8 who started. The crash caused by the spectator (Allez Omi Opi) was unfortunate and hopefully a lesson to roadside fans who are idiots. There were also two crashes in the later stages of the tour that followed announcements from the race director about poor road conditions, these warnings were fairly late and warnings not necessary then broadcast by the team to the riders.
Most of the crashes were simply rider errors. When the bunch is moving along without significant break aways or strain, these inattentive moments caused havoc and it can be asked, how can they be avoided or minimised in future (without silly rules)?
Another dark shadow was the raid on Team Bahrain Victorious. The stage 19 win by team rider Matej Mohorič with the sealed lips sign was confusing as it can be easily misinterpreted. The team performed well at the Tour and doping investigations in cycling always drag-on and are shrouded in a veil of murky information so it is unfortunate and means that the doping cloud is still there.
It is a new Era…
… and veteran rides like Andre Greipel announce their retirement while young riders are starting to get their name on the board against the (cycling) household names. It really feels as though there is a big shake-up in the world of cycling which is good news for cycling fans.