The 2021 Tour de France was so good that it was actually pretty dull. Some moments were so perfect that they were actually almost boring. There were so many heroes that we began hoping to unearth a villain. The best four riders in the world all won at least one stage. All four of them showcased why they are phenomenal talents, and three of them wore the yellow jersey. And yet, somehow, they enhanced their already lofty reputations without treading on each other’s toes. And that was the problem. We, as fans, love it when toes get trodden on. In fact, we want to see riders stomping on each other’s toes every day for three weeks.
Flashback to stage one and the Côte de la Fosse aux Loups. A climb so perfectly suited to Julian Alaphilippe that not even the marvellous Mathieu van der Poel was equipped to follow. Alaphilippe won solo by eight seconds. Tadej Pogačar watched Primož Roglič. The slow-starting Wout van Aert was 13 seconds back. It was an uncontested victory for the darling of French cycling (and, in fairness, large pockets of the global cycling fanbase).
Julian “Yellow-philippe” lasted just one day. Stage two was Mathieu van der Poel’s playground. A touch easier than the previous day with a double ascent of the Mur-de-Bretagne to finish. Van der Poel ripped up the climb twice, allowing himself to be wound back to the pack between summits. He showed his hand, retreated, and then played the exact same hand again. There were tears at the finish line. An uncontested victory. A truly stunning performance.
The first two stages set a new high bar for Tour de France openings. They were extremely fun and hinted at three weeks of high-intensity racing between the best riders in the world.
However, by the end of stage eight, Pogačar was five minutes clear of the nearest Ineos rider and Roglič had gone home. Not only was the GC battle over, but we were about to be denied any showdown between pro cycling’s “big three”. Van der Poel didn’t start the following morning and Alaphilippe began to settle into a key marshalling role in Mark Cavendish’s “Project 35”.
At least we still had Cavendish! The Cavendish comeback story deserves a far longer debrief but can be noted as another narrative that peaked in the first week. A truly emotional stage win on stage four marked his return to the top. How was it possible that so many people inside and outside the sport had doubted Cavendish’s deadly combination of speed and sprint artistry? The win on stage six confirmed his superiority. By Valence on stage ten we had settled back into the familiar position of expecting him to win. On stage thirteen, his nearest rival was remarkable teammate Michael Mørkøv. Cavendish was so supremely good in the first two weeks that it wasn’t even particularly fun. We (Cavendish fans) were given everything we could have dreamed up back at the Tour of Turkey, but we (humans) are naturally greedy. We grew bored of the easy wins. We wanted him to slalom between Petacchi and Kittel and Greipel and Bennett and Ewan and beat them all in a photo finish.
There were plenty of other moments which were as brilliant as they were boring. Ben O’Connor’s super form up to Tignes. Sepp Kuss solo in Andorra. Patrick Konrad’s first Grand Tour win following a clever attack on the d’Aspet. Matej Mohorič’s crisply executed lone escapes. These are all extremely popular, young and talented riders. These wins should have been lauded throughout the cycling world. But – and be completely honest – did you stay glued to your TV sets during the last 10km? They were the sort of stages where headlines could be drafted long before the finish.
Which brings us to Pogačar, who wrapped up his second Tour de France frighteningly early. Jonas Vingegaard distanced him for the briefest of moments and Richard Carapaz poked the bear in an audacious attempt to steal a stage win. Neither were successful in denting the yellow armour of Pogačar but did succeed in providing fleeting moments of excitement. Moments which made you say “wow, I didn’t see that coming”. There’s plenty of debate as to whether Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates were excellent or ordinary. I’d argue they were only ordinary because they didn’t have to be excellent. Pogačar was at complete ease in the rival Ineos train.
This Tour de France suffered from a lack of back-and-forth moments created by two or more riders equal in output. Alaphilippe and Van der Poel took turns in the spotlight in the opening week. It was only later in the race that Van Aert arrived at the party and completed a staggeringly unique hat-trick of stages which may have earnt him the bragging rights ahead of the Olympics. This Tour de France proved there are enough stages for all the best riders to shine, but only if they all pick their moments and are willing to share. Everybody ate. Everybody was happy.
For an example of a race very different to the 2021 Tour de France, think back to last autumn’s reshuffled Giro d’Italia. Big names Jakob Fuglsang and Vincenzo Nibali were miles from their dazzling best. Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria were invisible, and Arnaud Demare was the best sprinter. The GC battle was between Jai Hindley (highest previous GT finish 32nd) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (highest previous GT finish 20th). Both were eligible for the young rider competition, as was emerging fourth-place finisher Joao Almeida. The most brutal school of thought suggests none of three will ever land on a Grand Tour podium again. There was no Van Aert, and the usually entertaining Jumbo bees were absent from the GC battle. There was no Van der Poel, no Alpecin-Fenix, and not even an Alaphilippe. The entire peloton had fitness destroyed by a broken season and a COVID-themed summer. The Giro 2021 was not an elite Grand Tour.
And yet it was so depleted that it was actually brilliant. In the five days from Stage 17 to Stage 21, four riders wore the Maglia Rosa. Just three spent a full day in pink and the fourth – Geoghegen Hart – pulled it on for the first time during the race’s final podium celebrations. Geoghegen Hart and Hindley could not be split in the mountains. The pair rose together from tenth and eleventh place following the conclusion to the stage fourteen time-trial to joint first (to the nearest second) after Sestriere on the final road stage. Almeida had faltered on stage eighteen. Hindley’s senior teammate Wilco Kelderman faltered the very next day. It was thrilling.
So which was the “better” Grand Tour? The majority of fans would favour the 2021 Tour de France, packed full and bursting with brilliance. A Tour that acted as a showcase for the most exciting generation of riders in the last thirty years. An exhibition of both talent and fearlessness. But also a Tour that swept through three weeks without even a hint of real drama. What do you prefer? Brilliance or drama?
Perhaps there were enough magic moments in this edition to earn a place in your heart (thanks, Mark Cavendish) but surely we do not want another Tour where things fall so neatly into place for the majority of the elite riders.
We will never know what would have happened if Roglič – in some ways an older, quieter, craftier Pogačar – had survived the first week but the smart money says Pogačar will be a three-time Tour de France winner in twelve months time. If you’re not bored yet, it’s only a matter of time.