After two stages where they have been skirmishing on the hilltops followed by two stages where they have been fighting to stay out of trouble, the 2021 Tour de France general classification challengers face their first major ‘test of truth’ on Wednesday.
The 27.2-kilometre time trial from Changé to Laval, a nearly circular, lumpy course with no classified climbs but plenty of false flats and grinding ascents, is sure to establish some crucial differences in the overall ranking. And that prediction was valid even before the crashes and injuries of the early part of this year’s race had taken their toll among many of the favourites.
To give one example, Jumbo-Visma were rumoured on Tuesday morning to be expecting Primož Roglič to lose around 90 seconds to Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). That was notwithstanding Roglič’s crashes and injuries.
Equally there are question marks over how the crashes and injuries will have affected other top challengers like Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), while others - too numerous to mention individual cases - have lost time in splits and delays as a result of the mass pileups.
For most of the contenders, the time trial represents a venture onto virtually unchartered waters. A medium-length time trial so soon in the Tour has not appeared since 2008, and it is equally rare in the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, coming the soonest at the end of the other Grand Tours' first weeks. Testing the legs this hard this early over a course estimated to take around 35 to 40 minutes to cover will certainly not be to everyone’s liking.
The route itself, too, lends itself to uncertainty. The mid-week course is reported to be not overly technical and is mainly run on wide roads. But it’s challenging for all, with no ‘down-time’ or lengthy descents to ease the effort from an incessant series of small climbs and a fair amount of exposed terrain. The longest ascents are roughly a kilometre each, one early on and the second close to the finish, with long straightaways in between. It is very complicated to gauge how much energy to leave in the tank for the final challenge.
Reference points for this kind of effort are minimal, too. The last time the Tour had a time trial of this length was over 29 kilometres in the nearby town of Cholet, 13 years ago. Won by Stefan Schumacher (and with a certain Chris Froome in 30th), the largest gaps between the biggest favourites were a little under two minutes, with Cadel Evans at 11 seconds on the winner and Frank Schleck at 1:56. That kind of gap is not the sort that wins or loses Tours, but it certainly would create a definite hierarchy in the GC standings, which currently has 16 riders at a minute or less on Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
However, current European time trial champion and recently crowned Swiss TT winner Stefan Küng is racing on ‘home’ terrain for the local Groupama-FDJ squad will be the main favourite for the stage win. Dangerous outsiders include former U-23 World Time Trial Champion Mikkel Bjerg and American Brandon McNulty (both UAE Team Emirates), Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) and former World TT champ Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma).
The main spotlight will undoubtably be on Pogačar and his rivals. Pogačar’s time trialling abilities are hardly an issue (just ask Roglič), but it represents the first, big test of his capacity to defend his Tour title, and whether his rivals can get the better of him. And at 39 seconds behind race leader Van der Poel, already braced to lose the maillot jaune even if the Dutchman and tipping Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) as his most likely successor, Pogačar could be back in yellow by Wednesday evening.
“Up until the finish line I was thinking about today, but now that we are finished I’m focussing on tomorrow,” Pogačar said, “I’m really excited. I’ve seen the course on the Tuesday before the Tour started, it’s quite a hard course, for power riders. The first two-thirds of the course, you need to concentrate hard and then you have a city and a little kick. It’s going to be tough, you need to know where to push and where to rest.”
“I don’t have any expectations for tomorrow,” added Roglič, when questioned about the TT. “I am satisfied I managed to get to the finish today. I’m happy I’m still in the race and I will be happy with every kilometre on the bike. I will definitely give my best and we’ll see where this gets me."
Whoever comes out ahead, as the first major set-piece GC battle, the Laval time trial will set the scene for the mountains stages, looming slowly but surely on the horizon. It will also provide a key reference point, too, for the final TT, and cause riders to adjust their battle plans for the Alps, Pyrenees, and Mont Ventoux.
A major miscalculation or loss of time could lose a rider the Tour, although this is unlikely. But for the first time in this year’s Tour, the GC cards will be truly face up on the table.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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