Stage 7 of the 2021 Tour de France between Vierzon and Le Creusot was, in the bland parlance of set-piece pre-race prognostications, a day for the break. And indeed it was. It’s just that nobody expected the break to contain the race leader Mathieu van der Poel, a former Tour winner and four-time grand tour champion, Vincenzo Nibali, a Vuelta winner, Simon Yates, a Milan-San Remo winner in Wout van Aert, the reigning Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders champions Jasper Stuyven and Kasper Asgreen and the current holder of the green jersey, Mark Cavendish. Plus 22 more riders, including the eventual stage winner Matej Mohorič, a former junior and U23 world champion.
It was what the French call an ‘echappée royale’ - a ‘royal break’, containing an illustrious list of riders, and perhaps it was no surprise that the longest stage of the 2021 Tour should contain four different Milan-San Remo winners (Cavendish, Nibali, Van Aert and Stuyven).
The success of the break was UAE Team Emirates’ failure. The team of the Tour champion and yellow-jersey-in-waiting Tadej Pogačar were unable to control the break and they chased for a long, long time. At one point the break’s lead was seven and a half minutes. Ineos Grenadiers, or their previous incarnation of Team Sky, would never have let such a large and dangerous break up the road during their Tour winning years.
Nibali had already ceded 2:55 in the general classification, and is not even certain to finish the Tour, since he has been using the Tour as training and race practice for his main target of the Olympic Games road race, but when the gap rose above six minutes and UAE continued to concede ground, the idea of the Sicilian winning the Tour by accident started to look like a possibility. At 36, Nibali may be past his best, but he’s only six months older than Mark Cavendish.
At 249.1km, the stage was something of a throwback to the old days. Stages of 250km and more were common in the old days, but this was the longest day since the 2000 Tour.
The racing also looked like a throwback. Modern fans are used to successive generations of dominant teams - US Postal, then Sky/Ineos - controlling the racing from grand départ to Champs-Élysées, tamping down the ambition of their rivals and even choosing which riders would be allowed up the road. But in the past, splits and large breaks which had a big effect on the GC were far more common. The most famous was in the 1956 Tour, when regional rider Roger Walkowiak made his way into a couple of very significant breaks and gained enough time to win the Tour. In 1987, a break of 25 riders gained six minutes on stage 3 and shaped the GC all the way to Paris, putting Charly Mottet into the yellow jersey and enabling the Frenchman to finish fourth overall. Claudio Chiappucci almost won the 1990 Tour by getting into a smaller break on stage 1 but gained so much time that he only lost the yellow jersey on the penultimate day of the race.
The present and the past are never far away from each other in cycling. This opening week of the Tour, the most exciting and varied there has been for decades, has been a reminder of that. Cavendish has won stages after four very bad years; not only that, apart from his 2016 resurgence, the last time he looked so imperious at the Tour was in 2012, nine years ago. Mathieu van der Poel is possibly the best expression of the close relationship between cycling’s past and present - he’s a quintessentially modern racer, but his father also wore the yellow jersey and his maternal grandfather was the greatest Tour hero there has ever been.
The 2021 Tour is being raced in a way that would have been very recognisable to the fans of the previous century, when the sport was, in general, more open and unpredictable. At the same time, it’s also being raced in a way that is very much of its time. One reason for this may be the advent of start-to-finish television coverage. In 2020, the green jersey competition made several stages compelling viewing all day. Today’s stage was similar, with compelling racing from start to finish. But the biggest reason is the riders: Van der Poel, Van Aert et al are in the process of ripping up the rulebook when it comes to aggressive riding, imaginative tactics and long breaks. It may look like old-school racing, but it’s also modern racing.
In the end, Tadej Pogačar might have read through the general classification and felt satisfied that what could have been a catastrophic day ended up not changing much overall. Nibali gained a few minutes but is still behind the young Slovenian by 29 seconds. Van der Poel now leads him by 3:43, but the Dutchman is untested in the high mountains and it’s still assumed he’s planning to leave the race in order to focus on the Olympic mountain bike race. Primož Roglič, struggling with injuries, lost ground and is effectively out of the GC. Meanwhile, Richard Carapaz spent a lot of energy attacking, spending 20km trying to chip back some of the time he had lost in the first six days, then getting caught on the line. Pogačar looked for a long time like he could be the day’s big loser; in the end, not much significant happened in the GC.
However, the effects of today’s stage will be measured in the days and weeks to come. UAE Emirates lost control of the race and only managed to manage their deficit with the help of TotalEnergies, who had no reason to contribute. Pogačar may be the strongest rider in the race, but his team is visibly fallible; what’s more the physical effort of having to chase hard virtually all day on the longest Tour stage for 21 years may hamper their chances as soon as tomorrow, when the race hits the Alps.
Stage 7 of the 2021 Tour was a throwback to the past, but in the open, imaginative way it was raced, race followers will be hoping that it’s also the future.
Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor.
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