The 2020 Tour de France will always be remembered for a concluding time trial that blew apart the race's entire preceding narrative and which, over 36.2 kilometres, converted this year's Tour into one of the most dramatic editions in its recent history. And, lest it be forgotten in the wave of interest that Tadej Pogačar's stunning sporting heist has produced – at least since the turbulent edition of 1998 – this Tour was also one of the most uncertain to take place at all.
Pogačar's victory will doubtless reverberate down the years, even if it remains to be seen whether the young Slovenian's propulsion into the ranks of Tour stars at the age of 21 – now, on Monday, 22 – endures into the years to come. That might sound a shade far-fetched given the strength of his victory on Saturday, but then it should be remembered how widely Egan Bernal was predicted to be the rider who would dominate cycling 12 months ago. As we've seen, even the most implacable grandees of the sport can see their authority crumble overnight.
However, this was far from being the only key moment of this year's Tour – a race that has to be remembered for not only finishing in such dramatic style, but which very nearly didn't happen.
It was also a race that saw Ineos Grenadiers lose control of the Tour's GC for the first time since 2014, and for only the second time since 2012. It was a race that saw Peter Sagan out of green for the first time in nearly a decade, and that saw the French challenge for yellow evaporate in a welter of crashes, concussions and bad backs.
It was a race that, in Ineos duo Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz on stage 18, saw two riders from the same team finish first and second on a mountain stage for the first time in 12 years, and that saw the same rider – Sunweb's Søren Kragh Andersen – win twice from breakaways in transition stages, while the Dane's teammate Marc Hirschi claim a well-deserved stage victory.
And it was a race that saw Trek-Segafredo's Richie Porte finally make it onto the podium of a Grand Tour – a tribute to years of persistency, despite the repeated setbacks.
All of which made the 2020 Tour a very memorable one, even if it will likely be best remembered for its final time trial. But here are our eight flashpoints – in stage form – where we think this year's vintage edition of the Tour de France was made.
Stage 1: Nice – Nice | The Tour gets under way
"For the first time since 2004" – when Tour director Christian Prudhomme began work as an assistant to his predecessor Jean- Marie Leblanc – "I started the Tour feeling apprehensive," Prudhomme told French newspaper Le Figaro halfway through the race.
"The Tour's always a voyage in the dark – almost anything can happen – but this one felt really different."
How could it not, though? As long ago as when the slightly truncated version of Paris-Nice ground to its bizarre finale in the Alps above Nice, a delay was more than likely to be on the cards. And as lockdown after lockdown took effect in Europe, a delay became inevitable.
But on May 5, a new, tentative date was set for the start of the Tour at the end of August. Protocols were hammered out between the UCI, the teams and the organisers, and restrictions were put in place for teams, the media and organisers.
The build-up was hardly encouraging. Two Lotto Soudal staff members tested positive in the first round of COVID-19 tests in the lead-up to the start. Nice was declared one of France's zones rouges, where facemasks were obligatory at all times as the number of positive tests soared in the region. The Tour was "edging towards collapse", one journalist wrote in the Guardian, with rather baleful pessimism, barely 24 hours before it began.
But start the Tour did, with a 40 per cent reduction in terms of its total 'population', 40 per cent fewer vehicles in the publicity caravan, a zone technique reduced to just over half its usual size at 5,500 square metres, and 700,000 masks and two tonnes of hand gel to be distributed along its 3,400-kilometre route.
"It's started, but it's not the Tour," Cyrille Guimard, the longstanding commentator and team director longstanding director said. In fact, he was wrong: it was still the Tour, but one which felt different, and which produced some wildly different results compared to the last decade.
Collectively, Ineos Grenadiers had three moments that stood out in this year's Tour: their forcing the pace, somewhat inexplicably, on the Col de Lusette in the Massif Central on stage 6, Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz's stunning two-up breakaway victory on stage 18, and, last but not least, when they launched a mass attack in the final hour of the Tour's fast and furious run-in to Lavaur on stage 7.
Taking advantage of an interminable series of road furniture, exposed terrain, strong-but-not-excessive crosswinds and a peloton already shaken up by Bora-Hansgrohe's early attacks. Ineos Grenadiers' move left Tadej Pogačar and Mikel Landa more than a minute down and briefly propelled Egan Bernal into the best young rider's jersey.
The knock-on effect was considerable: Pogacar bounced back with an aggressive performance in both stages of the Pyrenees, which netted him 40 seconds on the first stage, the race's first real mountainous selection of the favourites the following day, and on top of that, Roglic's dislodging of Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) from the race lead.
Even then, France's greatest GC hope, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), was facing yet another disastrous Tour. Having crashed in the first stage, Pinot had been receiving three hours of osteopathic treatment a day, and had held on through the early Alpine stages and the Cevennes, as well as making it into the echelons.
But in the reverse of 2019, where he was caught out by the splits and then made up for it in the mountains, this time around, Pinot could not hold on on the Porte de Balès. He did not abandon for a fifth time in nine participations – and kept going all the way to Paris – but while the Frenchman suffered, Pogačar was flying.
Stage 10: Ile d'Oleron – Ile de Ré | Waiting for coronavirus results
When the Tour breezed into Ile d'Oleron the day after the first rest day, it was to find a sleepy coastal resort only reachable by a long road bridge and full of holidaymakers in swimsuits and t-shirts, somewhat grotty marinas and lines of shops selling hipster marine jewellery. All in all, it looked like the classic, uneventful second week transition stage start, where the chief worry would be where to park on a pier jammed with other press vehicles without risking tipping the car into the water below.
Instead, Ile d'Oleron developed into a melting pot of extreme tension as the Tour peloton waited with bated breath for the results of the second round of COVID-19 tests for all of its 160-plus riders and 650 race followers in total.
"We've done all we can," UAE Team Emirates head medic Jeroen Swart told Cyclingnews. But would it be enough to guarantee a start?
As it turned out, with rumours floating around at high speed, all of the fake news heavily compounded by the bizarre, and distinctly unfavourable, working conditions that the media had found itself in throughout this year's Tour – as the world at large knows all too well by now, interviews via Zoom or over the phone are no replacement for face-to-face contact – it was only barely less than 90 minutes before the start that we knew all the riders were in the clear. The show would go on.
Although another round of tests were due a week later, this was the point when we knew, for sure, that the Tour would last for at least 15 stages, and began to feel like a three-week race, rather than a disjointed series of Classics.
Stage 10: Ile D'Oleron – Ile de Ré | Bennett gets his stage
There have been a lot of tears shed in this year's Tour. Michal Kwiatkowski brushing back the tears as he remembered Ineos' late sports director Nico Portal after winning on stage 18 was one such occasion, and Primož Roglič's admission that he cried after losing the Tour to Pogačar was another.
But no win or defeat was as visibly emotional, perhaps, as Sam Bennett's heartfelt tears after finally getting his first Tour de France stage win at the age of 30. The Deceuninck-Quick Step sprinter's Tour triumph had been a long time coming, that's for sure, with illness, injury and crashes having laid him low time after time – not to mention his previous team, Bora-Hansgrohe, regularly leaving him on the sidelines in July as well.
All of which made Bennett's victory a very emotional one, but also one that, after so many years of three steps forward, three steps back, and at the end of a crash-filled, fraught stage, suddenly appeared straightforward. Bennett's team – and in particular Michael Mørkøv – gave the irishman exactly the lead-out he was looking for.
"It was almost too perfect," Bennett said afterwards. But his emotions revealed how badly he had been wanting this one.
Fourteen kilometres from the summit of the Grand Colombier, when Nairo Quintana's bid to win the Tour de France came to an end, it was almost to be expected. The Colombian, his arms and legs a welter of scrapes and scratches from a high-speed crash two days before, refused to surrender, but his body had told him that enough was enough.
But what no one could expect, at a point when multiple favourites were still part of the peloton, was that Egan Bernal was to fall behind at almost exactly the same time. A shadow of his usual self, the defending champion struggled even to follow the pace set by teammates Kwiatkowski and Jonathan Castroviejo – one too low, humiliatingly, even for the injured Quintana.
For Bernal, the writing had been on the wall at the Puy Mary, when he lost 30 seconds to Roglič and Pogačar despite producing what he insisted were his best-ever numbers in terms of performance. That contradiction is perhaps explained by a collective raising of the game across the peloton after months of confinement, relatively few pre-Tour races or injuries and – in most cases – missing out on the intense training that had, some believed, caused the Ineos leader to be so far off his game.
Be that as it may, Bernal also had a back injury – which had seemed like a legitimate excuse for him to abandon the Critérium du Dauphiné – and which had come back to haunt him at the Tour. He struggled on through the opening stage of the third week, losing nearly half an hour on stage winner Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe).
But this was the epilogue to an unmitigated disaster that heralded, too, the end of an era of Ineos Grenadiers' longstanding domination of the Tour's general classification. It was anything but a high-profile, backs-against-the-wall disappearance from the GC battle, but no team had ever, prior to Sky/Ineos, been able to rule the roost for so long. Had Ineos Grenadiers come back from their August defeats at the Tour de l'Ain and the Dauphiné to control the Tour itself with an iron grip, would anyone really have been surprised? September's low-key nature of Bernal's departure could not – or should not – hide the earthshattering importance of that moment.
Five days earlier, the lung-busting ascent of the Puy Mary had suggested that the Tour de France general classification was coming down to a straight fight between Roglič and Pogačar – but the even more brutal slopes of the Col de Loze confirmed it.
It's true that Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez managed to claim an impressive stage win, dropping both Slovenians and moving, somewhat tenuously as it emerged, into third overall. But Lopez's notoriously unreliable time-trialling abilities made it hard to believe that he'd continue to maintain his threat in the GC in the Vosges chrono, and so it proved.
Roglič and Pogačar, on the other hand, managed to put the most significant time gains of the Tour into the remainder of their pursuers. Richie Porte moved up to fourth, but had dropped from 2-13 to 3-05, and Adam Yates remained in fifth, but had dropped from 2-03 to 3-15 behind. Rigoberto Uran, previously third at 1-34, had slumped to sixth at 3-24. The remainder had all lost well over a minute.
One of the Slovenians, it seemed, would win outright, and Roglič's 15-second advantage over Pogačar – plus two bonus seconds, stretching his lead overall from 40 seconds to 57 – made it look like it was the older Slovenian who had the situation best under control.
"I thought after the Loze that it was settled at that point, and I was racing for second," Pogačar would say on Saturday evening.
But with the glorious benefit of hindsight, it's fair to say that some alarm bells should have begun ringing, too, in the Roglic camp.
"He was on the point of cracking," Jumbo-Visma sports director Frans Maassen said afterwards. "Is it enough for Saturday's time trial? We don't know."
Just as there have been armchair debates over the wisdom, or not, of bringing Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to the Tour, so the forum arguments over whether teammates Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz should have sprinted for the finish at La Roche-sur-Foron rather than simply reaching an agreement beforehand will likely rumble on deep into the winter.
But ultimately, what mattered the most was what the victory came to symbolise: Ineos Grenadiers might have been brutally decapitated by the loss of Egan Bernal in the Tour, but their riders were determined to show that they still could put on a performance of their own. The GC might have been out of reach, but dropping the rest of a huge breakaway on a day with 4,600 metres of climbing is an impressive achievement in itself.
On top of that, Carapaz's self-sacrifice – and strength – in the final week was never less than impressive. Present in three breaks on three consecutive days, Carapaz told Kwiatkowski that he was willing to let him win in exchange for a clear crack at the king of the mountains jersey. And he kept his word.
If this breakaway is worth singling out for its exceptionally unusual result – the previous joint victory by two riders from the same team was in 2008, with Juan Jose Cobo and Leonardo Piepoli, although Piepoli was subsequently disqualified for doping – it's meant to shine a light on all of the great breakaways that the Tour has witnessed this year. No disrespect to the other teams who managed to pull off what is always one of the most technically challenging kinds of successes, but Sunweb's ability to take three victories in this fashion, this year, via Marc Hirschi and two for Søren Kragh Andersen, was, this year, in a class of its own.
"Nobody can win alone," Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge told L'Equipe halfway through the Tour as he proudly outlined his team's collective strength, comparing its 'total cycling' strategy to the 'total football' strategy of the Dutch national football team of the 1970s, and added, "I'd love it if people talked about 'the yellow machine' in the same way that they talked about 'the orange machine' back then."
But if Jumbo-Visma was a well-oiled Tour-winning machine in 2020, then Pogačar on Saturday was the race's Luddite, able to wreck its strategy to the point where even before Roglič could tackle the last, ultra-steep 300 metres to the finish line, the yellow machine had ground to a complete halt.
Just to compare the teams a little more extensively, UAE Team Emirates have wrongly been accused of being barely able to support Pogačar, for all they lost their two mountain riders, Davide Formolo and Fabio Aru, midway through the race. The other riders' hard work – and in particular Jan Polanc's efforts when Pogačar punctured in the first week's mountain stage in the Massif Central and ran into problems during the echelons stage – are credit to that.
But it's also true that the final, devastating blow to Roglič's reign in yellow in the stage 20 time trial was a solo effort by Pogačar. A third stage win, a king of the mountains title win, a confirmation of his best young rider's jersey and the yellow jersey itself, of course, all fell his way in one fell swoop.
It remains to be seen long-term what effect Pogačar's win will have on stage racing in general, but while the result does not launch a new star in the Grand Tours – that would have happened with a second place in Paris for Pogačar, given his age, and he was already half-way there after his third place in the Vuelta last year anyway – it does mean Pogačar's status as one of the leaders of the new generation of young racers is now firmly cemented into place.
And as for that all-dominating approach of teams like Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, it's even clearer that it needs a full review because if riders like Pogačar can steal these super-teams' thunder at the last minute, then perhaps another approach is needed in the very near future.
The impact of Pogačar's win, then, will only become clear over the months and years to come, because its knock-on effect will likely be considerable. But, in the meantime, it brought down the curtain on the 2020 GC battle in a way that made it a highpoint, not just of this year's Tour, but arguably the entire decade that preceded it, too.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.
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