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Tour de France analysis: Ultimately, a dull race

Tour de France 2021 - 108th Edition - 19th stage Mourenx - Libourne 207 km - 16/07/2021 - Tadej Pogacar (SLO - UAE Team Emirates) - photo Dario Belingheri/BettiniPhoto©2021
Tadej Pogačar rides protected by UAE Team Emirates on stage 19 of the Tour de France (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

If you believed the commentators on Eurosport, you might be tricked into thinking that this year’s race was a Tour de France “back to its best”, and that the whole thing had been packed full of exciting action. Of course, they have to jazz it up a bit, they want the public to turn on to watch the Tour. However, on reflection, it is not so certain that this Tour has been anything special. 

The first week was exciting, but that’s a solid fortnight ago, and it almost feels like a different lifetime. That’s the thing with the Tour, it’s a journey around France, and however electrifying the beginning was, you only remember the end, which has been disappointing.

It might be too soon to call this an underwhelming Tour, the stage 20 individual time trial might be just as exciting as last year’s, and it might be the most exciting Champs-Élysées stage since 1989. Emphasis on might, though. 

What was set up to be an electric battle all the way to Paris fizzled out quite early on. The time trial on the penultimate day, which would have been incredible if the race for the yellow jersey, or even the podium was still on, will turn into a bit of a procession, a day before the actual procession into Paris.

At the start of today, all four distinctive jerseys had been all but decided. It has been clear that Tadej Pogačar would win the Tour de France effectively since the first time trial on stage 5, and definitely since stage 8. With that, Pogačar automatically wins the white jersey, and his two mountaintop stage wins over the last weekend won him the polka-dot jersey too, almost by accident. No matter the exciting battle for king of the mountain points over the previous days, Pogačar simply crushed that competition too. 

Meanwhile, by winning four stages and not facing a coherent opposition in the points race - it just was not enough, Michael Matthews - Mark Cavendish has won the green jersey. This, it must be said, has been a great story, one of the redeeming features of this Tour; yet it is not enough to save the overall narrative from the doldrums.

This has been a race of excellent chapters, rather than an overall excellent book. In the opening, there was dramatic racing in Brittany, crashes, Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel in yellow, that first return of Cavendish to the biggest stage. Since then, there have been flashes of brilliance, but it is always difficult to think of the race as a whole particularly favourably if the battle for top spot on the podium has not been special.

Of course, this has not been Pogačar’s fault, he has merely raced what has been put in front of him. If a healthy Primož Roglič had remained in the race, then it is possible we might have had a Tour that was still alive going into the penultimate day, the same goes if Ineos Grenadiers leaders had not crashed repeatedly early on. At the same time, it is possible that Pogačar would still have ridden away from them all. 

Richard Carapaz, Jonas Vingegaard and the rest of the GC contenders have not been able to put up a consistent fight, to take it to the man who looks like the strongest rider in the world right now. Even their tactics have been largely dull, refusing to take the attack to UAE Team Emirates and the maillot jaune, on stages where they could have tried something, such as stage 16 to Saint-Gaudens. Even in the high mountains they have waited until the last climbs to try anything; even if this might have changed nothing, it would have been worth trying something.

It is worth remembering that a second place for Vingegaard would be career-changing, and that this is Carapaz’s second Tour de France, his first as a defined leader for Ineos. Perhaps it is a bit harsh to expect more of them, but it is not unfair to desire a more dramatic Tour. 

Nine stages of the 18 so far have been won by just three riders - Pogačar with three, Cavendish with four, and Matej Mohorič with two - with the possibility of the final two stages being won by Pogačar and Cavendish again. Deceuninck-QuickStep have won five stages, in fact, just eight teams have shared all the stage win spoils at this year's race, and Deceuninck and UAE hold all of the jerseys. 

Trickle-down economics does not apply in the professional peloton, with an overwhelming majority of teams going home from the Tour empty-handed. This feels like an issue when so many squads rely on this, the biggest race of the year, for all of their exposure. For such a race to be dominated by so few just contributes to the disappointment of a dull Tour.

It has been a tough edition, that is for sure, and riders have spoken of their sheer exhaustion towards the end of the race. Perhaps we expect too much of these human beings, but after 2019's and 2020’s high bars, the 2021 Tour de France has been a bit meh. On to the Vuelta.

Adam Becket is Procycling magazine's staff writer. 

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Adam Becket is the staff writer for Procycling magazine, which is his first role in cycling journalism. Prior to covering the sport, he wrote about ecclesiastical matters for the Church Times and politics for Business Insider. He has degrees in history and journalism. A keen cyclist himself, Adam’s favourite race is the Tour of Flanders or Strade Bianche, and he is desperate to go to the Piazza del Campo for the end of the race one day.