It took half of stage 8 of the Tour de France to have passed for some semblance of order to settle on the first day the 2021 race hit the high mountains.
With five categorised climbs packed into the 151km and many others not officially registered – including the climb immediately out of the start in Oyonnax – the peloton (if you could even call it that) featuring the yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel had been shredded during the first 80 kilometres, on another day of furious racing where the rulebook as to how things were meant to unfold continued to be ripped up.
With no one team in control as the Tour hit the Alps, the opening half of the race was again characterised by a sense of manic disorder, with attack after attack going off the front, long before any significant breakaway was established. We’ve become accustomed to the first mountain stage of the Tour being a relatively straightforward affair, where the GC contenders typically wait until the final kilometres to, at the most, test the waters and their legs – see Orcierès-Merlette in 2020, La Planche des Belles Filles in 2019.
In fact, rewind the clock three years to the last time the Tour visited La Grand Bornand, and you had a very different race unfold despite the relatively similar parcours and it also being the first major mountain test that year (albeit on stage 10 rather than 8). Back then, a group of 21 riders was quickly given the freedom to escape up the road to contest the stage win, while behind Team Sky set a steady tempo in the peloton which everyone else was happy to follow. All the GC contenders finished the day together, with few moments of drama.
The difference back then compared to the Tour we’re seeing this year, was the Team Sky mountain train. If one tactic defined the Tour de France during the 2010s, it would be just that, with Sky and then Ineos being the team that dominated the race over the past decade.
Their method of patrolling the front of the peloton, and stacking rider after rider in a line to control affairs, especially whenever the road went uphill, became a blueprint for how to win the Tour. It was a method similarly used by US Postal in the early 2000s, with Lance Armstrong’s ‘blue train’ being the Tour’s pace setters who everyone else followed – whether they wanted to or not.
The mountain train wasn’t just a show of strength from that team, however. It meant that one team could consistently be relied on to dictate the race, and generally there’s been an order of proceedings as to how the Tour unfolds. Even when Sky/ Ineos didn’t have the yellow jersey - in the same way Pogačar didn’t until the end of stage 8 - the fact they were the overwhelmingly strongest team at the Tour meant they were the ones to lead.
Yet if there’s been one overriding theme so far in the 2021 race it’s the sense of total disorder, and the lack of any one team taking control can hardly be a coincidence.
Tadej Pogačar proved in 2020, you don’t need the strongest team to win the yellow jersey and it’s a trend that’s continued into this year’s race. If the 2010s was the era of the mountain train, the 2020s is becoming the era of the individual. Indeed, Pogačar’s astonishing long-range solo attack on stage 8, 30 kilometres from the finish line, harked back to a distant era of racing filled with individual performances such as this.
It’s remarkable, really, that if the seemingly unstoppable Slovenian has any kind of weakness in the Tour this year, his UAE Emirates team would probably be it. Their inability to control the race has been notable after eight days, and if Pogačar is to become unstuck in the next two weeks, you get the sense it would be down to poor team tactics rather than any dip in his own riding.
On stage 7, the longest of the Tour for 21 years, a gold star breakaway was allowed up the road with UAE Emirates’ at a loss to do anything about it other than burn through their resources initially trying to single-handedly bring it back.
There was similar confusion at multiple times on stage 8, with Brandon McNulty, for example, at one point chasing down an attack by Michael Woods - a rider way down on the general classification and no major threat to Pogačar. The fact that Pogačar was at one point early on, in the leading breakaway unsupported, following moves himself, summed up the change in tone.
The lack of a mountain train this year might well be circumstantial, rather than evidence of a new era of Tour tactics beginning. Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers designed their rosters exactly for such a style of racing, but with injuries severely weakening both of the race’s strongest GC squads and with Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas – two of Pogačar’s key pre-race rivals – falling out of contention definitively on stage 8, what reason do either team have to sit at the front and dictate proceedings?
Had Roglič and Thomas not crashed, and had Ineos and Jumbo had a yellow jersey still to fight for, things could well have looked very different.
UAE Emirates did eventually stamp some authority on the stage, first through Rui Costa policing the Pogačar group, before Davide Formolo set up his team leader’s long-range attack with 30km to go.
Pogačar ended the day by taking the yellow jersey and gaining more than three minutes on his nearest rivals. Pogačar has again proved that he doesn’t need a mountain train to win the Tour de France, but maybe now, with an official hierarchy being set within the GC, some kind of order will finally start to fall over the peloton.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling magazine's deputy editor.
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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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