As the dust settles on the Tour that almost never was, Felix Lowe takes a look back at the main talking points, the winners and the losers of a race which that could well be the harbinger of a new exciting era in pro cycling – one dominated by the Pogačars, Hirshis and Van Aerts, rather than the Valverdes, Sagans, Van Avermaets and Ineoses…
Taking place deep into the summer instead of the usual July and held against the worrying backdrop of a global pandemic and a bold decision by one of the top teams to drop two of its three former winners, the 107th edition of the Tour de France was always going to be a unique race throwing up a few surprises.
If many of us predicted a Slovenian rider would have stood atop the podium in Paris, few would have been bold enough to pick out the Tour debutant Tadej Pogačar – himself an eleventh hour addition to UAE Team Emirates' roster – over the pre-race favourite Primož Roglič to be the first of his countrymen to win the race's fabled yellow jersey.
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This friendly rivalry is as good a place as any to start in this run down of Tour winners and Tour losers…
Pogačar and Roglič
Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic celebrate at the end of stage 21 of the Tour de France 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
For many of us, it's still quite hard to fathom what we witnessed on La Planche des Belles Filles on the last Saturday of the Tour.
Until then, Tadej Pogačar had ridden his debut Tour much like he had done his debut Vuelta – as a lone ranger, picking off victories while riding the coattails of other more established teams. And just like the Vuelta, where he won three stages in the mountains, Pogačar found himself in the GC mix by virtue of his climbing excellence.
Just as in the 2019 Vuelta, Roglič took the leader's jersey after a ninth stage won by his compatriot; unlike the Vuelta, he was unable to hold onto that lead all the way to the finish.
Calling Roglič a "loser" seems harsh given he was, for so long, in total command of the Tour. His team kept a lid on everything before their star man provided the final flourish – whether that was winning at Orcières-Merlette, piling on the hurt on the final ramps of the Col de le Loze, or riding clear on the gravel of the Plateau de Glières.
‘This is happening!’ - The moment Pogacar overhauled Roglic
But if you don't stick the knife in deep enough, the wounds may yet heal. For all his team's dominance, Roglič didn't do enough individually to win the Tour – as emphasised so brutally on the final climb of the race, where his deficiencies were laid bare so cruelly as the world (and his two star domestiques, Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert) watched in disbelief.
Pogačar, on the other hand, didn't so much come good as continued doing what he had been doing – that's to say, ride absolutely brilliantly as an individual, especially while going uphill. The joy fans felt for the 21-year-old was quite naturally tempered by the sadness one felt for the defeated – but that shouldn't take anything away from the peerless Pogačar's performance.
Just as we can celebrate Greg LeMond while feeling for Laurent Fignon after that time trial in 1989, so too can we feel the same emotions here 31 years later. The big difference being that the Frenchman had already won the Tour twice. Roglič, 30, may never get another chance to win a race which could be dominated by his countryman for years to come. Although we said that about Bernal, didn't we...
Team UAE Sunweb and Visma Grenadiers
Alexander Kristoff of Norway and UAE Team Emirates / Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia and UAE Team Emirates Yellow Leader Jersey / Mask / Covid safety measures / Team Presentation / during the 107th Tour de France 2020, Stage 21
Image credit: Getty Images
You would be hard pressed to find someone who felt UAE Team Emirates were the Tour's best team, but the results would say otherwise. The team formerly known as Lampre bookended their race with yellow jerseys as Alexander Kristoff was the unlikely winner in the opening stage at Nice before Pogačar capped an astonishing individual performance with yellow (as well as polka dots to go with his already secure white jersey).
Considering the team's supposed leader, Fabio Aru, left mid-way through after being tailed off in the Massif Central, with the previously in-form Davide Formolo also crashing out, the overall haul for UAE was as fantastic as it was unlikely. But that's cycling for you – an individual sport played out in teams, where individual results are also collectively celebrated.
Take Team Sunweb as another example. They entered the race with an exciting roster of breakaway talent, plus the Dutch sprinter Cees Bol. After the best part of two weeks trying to set things up for Bol without any joy, the team notched splendid solo wins through Swiss tyro Marc Hirschi and the impressive Søren Kragh Andersen. For the heroic Hirschi, it was third time lucky after two heartbreaking near-misses – attacking zeal which earned him the combativity award.
Jumbo Visma protect their leader Primoz Roglic at the Tour de France during Stage 10
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Jumbo-Visma, too, won three stages – through the versatile Wout van Aert and Roglič, himself – yet you could not see two more glum faces than those of Van Aert and Dumoulin as they watched the man they dragged around the country for three weeks fall on the final hurdle. As a team, Jumbo-Visma were flawless for three weeks, yet their leader came undone at the death, unpicking all the work they had done. Cycling can be so cruel.
Ineos Grenadiers, on the other hand, never looked even as remotely dominant as the Jumbo train. Once Egan Bernal's back injury ended the Colombian's race, Ineos had no Plan B and were forced to fight for scraps.
Richard Carapaz suddenly started riding like the rider who won the Giro, not the rider being called on to help his fellow South American win a second Tour. But the Ecuadorian eschewed the chance to win a maiden stage on his third day in the break in favour of gifting a win to teammate Michal Kwiatkowski. It provided one of the race's stand-out moments – although it was bittersweet for Carapaz, whose polka dot consolation prize was taken away from him by the voracious Pogačar.
While the ingredients are there for Jumbo-Visma, who collectively came through with flying colours, Ineos need a huge rebuild now to keep in touch. While their fortunes contrasted these past three weeks, both, ultimately, will leave the Tour with less to shout about than Sunweb and UAE. It's a funny old sport, cycling.
Movistar and Lotto Soudal
Of course, if we're looking at the official standings then Movistar should be cited as the big winners for finishing on top of the team classification for a seventh time. Alejandro Valverde may have been wearing a cloak of invisibility, but Enris Mas also managed to ghost his way to a top five finish.
By contrast, Lotto Soudal were rooted to the bottom of the team standings having lost two riders – Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb – on the first day, while owning the bottom three places on the final GC through Caleb Ewan, Frederik Frison and the lanterne rouge, Roger Kluge.
And yet, Ewan won two more stages to bring the 26-year-old's Tour tally to five as he edges closer to Robbie McEwan's Australian record of 12 wins.
Bennett and Sagan
Sam Bennett and Peter Sagan
Image credit: Getty Images
Peter Sagan hasn't been at the races for quite some time – indeed, his last pro win came over 14 months ago at the 2019 Tour. If ever there was going to be a chance to end his vice-like grip on the green jersey, it was this Tour – even if he showed with an early breakaway in the opening weekend that he still had that uncanny ability to sniff out the right move and pick up the intermediate sprints required to win the green.
But an eighth green jersey was to prove a bridge too far for the former triple world champion, Sagan outperformed by the rider who had to leave his Bora-Hansgrohe team just to have a proper chance at Tour glory.
Deceuninck-QuickStep's belief in Sam Bennett paid off as the Irishman opened up his Tour account to move into green on the Île de Ré. Bennett continued consolidating his grip on green for the rest of the race despite the increasingly desperate efforts of Sagan to stem the turning tide. A win on the Champs-Élysées capped a breakthrough Tour for Bennett, the first Irishman since Sean Kelly to win green since 1989.
Debutants and the old guard
A theme of the race was the relative inexperience of the stage winners compared to those who used to dominate the month of July. Fourteen of the 21 stages were won by riders who were making their Tour debuts, while only three riders – Kristoff, Roglič and Kwiatkowski – were in their 30s.
It says a lot when a Julian Alaphilippe victory seems to be one for the old guard, but that's what it feels like when you glance through the list of stage winners. Indeed, Alaphilippe's regular, yet increasingly fruitless, attacks as the race progressed were something of theme, as the likes of Hirschi, Kragh Andersen, Lennard Kämna and even compatriot Nans Peters cast the Frenchman very much in the shadow.
And then, of course, there's the yellow jersey himself. Pogačar became the first rider since Eddy Merckx to win the yellow, white and polka dot jerseys in the same Tour – all one day before his 22nd birthday. He joins the likes of Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Fignon as a Tour winner on his debut, and became the youngest winner in over a century, since 19-year-old Henri Cornet in the second edition of the race in 1904.
Slovenia and the French
Team Jumbo rider Slovenia's Primoz Roglic (L) and Team UAE Emirates rider Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey attend the start of the 21st and last stage of the 107th edition of the Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
Like the metaphorical buses, you wait for years and year for a Slovenian to arrive, then all of a sudden you have two in a row – and you don't know which one to clamber onboard.
After last year's first Colombian victory in the Tour, 2020 sees the first Slovenian to win. What's more, there were two of them on the first two steps of the podium in Paris. It's not something we would have predicted a few years ago, but Roglič, who came to the sport late, has now podiumed in all three Grand Tours (while winning the Vuelta), and Pogačar's rise has been meteoric.
It will be interesting to see if Bernal – and Ineos, and Colombia, I suppose – can come up with some kind of answer to the dual threat posed by the two Slovenians.
No one gave Kristoff a hope in hell to pick up a maiden yellow jersey in Nice, but the Norwegian veteran showed his strength in inclement weather to take the first spoils of the race.
The next day, Alaphilippe denied Hirschi on the Promenade des Anglais, and the Swiss would suffer the same fate a week later when pipped by Pogačar and Roglič in the Pyrenees after spending over 90km out alone. But it was to prove third-time lucky for Hirschi, who finally got his win a few days later.
Hirschi may have added another – plus the polka dot jersey – were it not for a nasty crash the day Ineos Grenadiers bounced back with their Kwiatkowski-Carapaz one-two. But anyone who beats a French rider to the overall combativity award must have had a pretty good race, so a big bravo to the 22-year-old rouleur.
Other Tour debutants to take stage wins included Dani Martinez and Miguel Angel Lopez, as well as Pogačar, Kämna, Peters and Kragh Andersen, while Alexey Lutsenko, Bennett and Kwiatkowski picked up maiden Tour stage wins. In the case of Lopez, it was astonishing that the Colombian was still around to contest for a win after his acrobatic crash into a road sign early in the race...
Lopez hurtles into signpost in terrifying crash
Wout van Aert showcased the breadth of his extraordinary talent by winning two stages while often setting an infernal tempo for his leader, Roglič, in the mountains. The ultimate result of the race begs the question of what Van Aert may have achieved had he been able to ride for himself; Bennett may have not won the green jersey so easily, that's for sure.
Van Aert's work was carried out at the heart of a Jumbo-Visma team for whom the tireless Sepp Kuss also excelled – the 25-year-old American showing, especially on the Col de la Loze, just how capable a climber he is, as well as a dependable teammate. A starring role as a leader surely beckons wherever he eventually ends up.
A career-first Grand Tour podium for Richie Porte would have put a smile on most people's faces, the veteran Australian finally coming good for Trek-Segafredo.
Bahrain-McLaren's aggressive tactics in the Alps may not have came off, but they arguably had a bearing in the outcome of the race by tiring out the man who was then in yellow, while helping Damiano Caruso take a career-first Tour top 10. While he couldn't pull the trigger, Mikel Landa took a solid fourth place, while compatriot Enric Mas rode under the radar for fifth.
Britain's Adam Yates enjoyed an unexpected stint in yellow but came up short in his on-going quest to win a Grand Tour stage, while Dutchman Tom Dumoulin put his injury troubles aside to take an impressive seventh in support of Roglič, finishing behind only Pogačar in the final time trial.
A very behind-the-scenes bravo to Michael Mørkøv for consistently piloting Sam Bennett to intermediate sprint points, while pushing out Sagan behind, while the likes of Neilson Powless, Pierre Rolland, Matteo Trentin and Benoit Cosnefroy did their best to get in breaks as often as possible.
And things had looked rather good for the GC prospects of Romain Bardet, Bauke Mollema and Nairo Quintana until the trio left the road on the stage to Puy Mary, with the concussed Frenchman eventually abandoning after the Dutchman, and the Colombian soldiering on, but only to seventeenth in the standings.
After all the hype, Thibaut Pinot's GC challenge barely lasted a day after his early fall – a cruel setback which will lead to yet more soul-searching. Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot will question his decision to leave the in-form Arnaud Demare at home.
Emanuel Buchmann was never fully fit enough to do a GC job for Bora-Hansgrohe, while the late call-ups at Ineos Grenadiers – Pavel Sivakov and Andrey Amador – were laid low by early crashes and never really recovered.
There are too many more to mention but the likes of NTT duo Roman Kreuziger and Michael Valgren did very little, while Elia Viviani's struggles at Cofidis continued as the Italian's search for a win post-QuickStep continues.
Contrary to public perception, Alejandro Valverde was riding in the 2020 Tour de France, but never finished higher than tenth place in a stage on his way to 12th overall.
Usually so consistent and omni-present, Valverde was so absent he became an irrelevance – his nosediving form all the more incredible considering the Spaniard finished between Roglič and Pogačar on the podium of the 2019 Vuelta. Whether it's just old father time catching up, or if the Covid-19 lockdown hit Valverde more than others, remains to be seen.
But his sidestep into the shadows was endemic to the new general trend sweeping through the peloton. Like Greg van Avermaet, the former Olympic champion still clinging on the gold accoutrements of his reign from Rio, Valverde has become yesterday's news as Pogačar's victory seems to have drawn the curtain down on the old guard, ushering in a new hierarchy and a new age for the sport.