You’d have been forgiven for thinking that stage 16 of the Tour de France was a flat stage for the sprinters, not a day featuring four climbs in the Pyrenees, for the action, or lack of, we saw among the GC contenders. The first day of the third week of the 2021 Tour was marked by an almost complete absence of anything happening between the main contenders, not for the first time on a hilly stage in this year’s race. Paris is now just five days away, but the rivals to yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar seemed content to wait another day to try and change their fortunes, despite rapidly running out of road to do it on.
As the Pogačar peloton trudged up the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, the third of the day’s climbs ranked category 2, riders from Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Emirates, Jumbo-Visma and EF Education-Nippo fanned across the road. The pace was leisurely, at best. The breakaway was over 12 minutes ahead up the road, comfortably secure that the stage win was from within their ranks. By comparison, the gruppetto featuring green jersey Mark Cavendish was only four minutes behind and closing, the speed had slowed so much. By the time the peloton crossed the line, 30 kilometres later, they’d ceded another 90 seconds in time to the winner.
Coming at the start of the third week, the day after the rest day, and with two high mountain summit finishes to come on stages 17 and 18, it made sense that stage 16 was a day for the breakaway to contest. Yet that doesn’t explain why the middle mountain stages in the Tour have become almost neutralised territory when it comes to the GC battle. Rather than being primed for an ambush, it’s almost guaranteed they are days where no one will attack.
It was a similar story on stage 7 to Le Creusot, the longest stage of the Tour for 21 years which packed five tough hills into the final 90km. Sandwiched into a sprinter-heavy opening week, the terrain provided opportunities if riders or teams wanted to attack. An echappée royale had long gone up the road to contest the win, and while Richard Carapaz accelerated to try and test Pogačar or any of his GC rivals on the steep Signal d’Uchon climb with 18km to go, it was a solitary move and one reeled back in by his old team Movistar. It came to nothing at the finish.
Fast forward another week to stage 14 to Quillan. A grippy stage en route to the Pyrenees, featuring five climbs of varying degrees of steepness and difficulty. There was barely an inch of flat road, and yet there was no movement whatsoever from the GC contenders.
It’s a trend that can be traced back in the last few editions of the Tour. Stage 2 in 2020 around Nice featured an incredibly early appearance by the Alps, with ascents of La Colmiane and the Col de Turini as well as a further two categorised climbs before the finish. The intention from ASO was to spark the GC battle into life immediately. Except the GC riders didn’t get the memo and rode around together before puncheurs Alaphilippe, Marc Hirschi and Adam Yates attacked in the final kilometres to contest the win.
Stage 5 in 2019 took the Tour through the Massif Central to La Planche des Belles Filles, and while there was a reordering of the GC at the end thanks to the steepness of the finishing climb, that was more a war of attrition at the end than a battle from the front. There were five climbs that came before it that were all prime territory, but which were ridden as one.
The same can be said of stage 12 to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, the first of four crucial days in the Pyrenees, where Alaphilippe was expected to face an onslaught for his yellow jersey. Even with added bonus seconds atop the final climb, the peloton let a break go and the GC riders marked each other instead. A year before in 2018, stages 10 to La Grand Bornand and 16 to Bagnerès-de-Luchon met a similar fate despite offering plenty of hills and descents to attack from.
Riders aren’t machines and the challenge of a grand tour is how to manage efforts over the 21 stages. You can’t go all-out every day and attack and attack again, it will eventually catch up - see Simon Yates’s capitulation at the 2019 Giro d'Italia or Julian Alaphilippe at the 2019 Tour, while wearing the race leaders' jerseys. But that doesn’t explain why teams seem to only conserve energy and wait for the high mountains and see middle mountain stages as a chance for respite, rather than a chance to attack.
In the case of this year’s Tour, Pogačar is overwhelmingly the strongest rider in the race at both the time trials and in the high mountains - his advantage of over five minutes to anyone else says as much. If he can’t be beaten there, why aren’t riders or teams looking to stages such as this as an alternative to catch him off guard or at least tire him or his team out before the high mountains? On Eurosport, Bradley Wiggins summed it up as an “anticlimax of a stage”. “There’s not many stages that you get the opportunity like that to take it to Tadej Pogačar. But it’s another day down, another day closer to Paris. I don’t quite understand what happened today,” he continued. “You can’t race every day... but you’re not gonna beat this lad unless you start attacking him now.”
Another factor that’s a blessing and curse of the Tour is that nothing is bigger or more important than it. It means that teams are constantly weighing up what’s worth most to them, be it stage wins, protecting a position on GC or going for a jersey. And as the days tick down towards Paris, protecting what you’ve got rather than rolling the dice and losing it all is a gamble most won’t want to take.
ASO can provide the riders with the route at the Tour, but it’s up to them what they want to do with it. And while attacking might be a tactic that makes you lose at the Tour, it’s also the only way riders are going to win.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling magazine's deputy editor.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling’s deputy editor. She joined the magazine in 2017, after working at Cycling Weekly where she started on work experience before becoming a sub editor, and then news and features writer. Prior to that, she graduated from City University London with a Masters degree in magazine journalism. Sophie has since reported from races all over the world, including multiple Tours de France, where she was thrown in at the deep end by making her race debut in 2014 on the stage that Chris Froome crashed out on the Roubaix cobbles.
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