The final stretch to Paris: Perspectives of Tour de France’s third week
Jul 12 2021 10:14 pm CET

The final stretch to Paris: Perspectives of Tour de France’s third week
The final stretch to Paris: Perspectives of Tour de France’s third week
Tour de France

The most important pro cycling race in the world is heading to its final and decisive week.

By: Marcelo Hernández

Although the current GC leader Tadej Pogacar, holds a relatively comfortable lead over his main rivals there are several key days to be tackled yet and no certainties at all. The fight for podium places is going to be particularly tough since the GC contenders have shown similar strength and the time gaps between them are quite small.

The first segment of this year’s Tour featured some of the most exciting stages in recent years, with epic performances from riders like Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogacar, among many others, who delighted fans with a combative style of racing. Nevertheless, as the race left the Alps behind and the General Classification began to take a definitive shape, the yellow jersey fight slowly reached a stalemate.

This does not mean that the overall race has lost interest. It is actually the contraire since cycling fans around the world were able to witness remarkable features such as Wout van Aert’s brave exhibit of strength in the Mont Ventoux stage or the historic renaissance of Mark Cavendish, who took his third and fourth stage victory in this Tour thus matching Eddy Merckx’s record of stages in the race. Also, the king of the mountain classification is being fought fiercely.

But things have cooled down in the fight for yellow. Pogacar’s clear superiority at the individual time trial and the Alpine weekend gave him a significant time advantage that has been relatively easy to manage so far. There were several attacks from other podium contenders during the Mont Ventoux and Andorra stages, and, each time, Pogacar managed to put out the fire through a combination of good legs, confidence in the robust time gap he currently holds, and the effort of other GC contenders and their teams.

During this second rest day, the GC of the Tour appears peculiar: first there is the 5’18” gap between the yellow jersey holder and the 2nd best placed rider Rigoberto Urán, and on the other hand there are only 15 seconds between Urán and the fourth position rider Richard Carapaz, and only 58 seconds between Urán and the sixth placed rider Wilco Kelderman. These small gaps between the riders that aspire to fill the three podium boxes, added to the apparently equal strength among those aspirants have developed into the stalemate that was mentioned before.

Both in the Mont Ventoux and the Col de Beixalis, the final climb of Sunday’s stage, we saw the GC standoff in display and particularly how any of the contenders was able to gain time over the main group besides the efforts of Vingegaard, Carapaz, Ben O’Connor (surprisingly well placed in the GC) and others. It is clear that all the riders within the first six places in the GC are quite equal in strength, at least for the moment.

During the first week of the race was Carapaz who tried to distance his rivals, mainly in the seventh and eighth stages, to no avail. The second week it was Vingegaard’s turn to spend power on Mont Ventoux without any time gaps for the GC, and those two precedents are surely in the minds of the riders at the time to tackle the most decisive moments of the race.

It must be said that there were indeed changes in the GC, that the race has not being completely frozen. Alexey Lutsenko is making a great Tour but in each of the last mountain stages he has lost some time, making it difficult for him to reach podium positions. Enric Mas also struggled in Tignes and Ventoux and beyond the recovery he showed in Beixalis, due to his rather poor skills in time trialing, the time he has lost jeopardize even more any podium ambitions.

Under these circumstances, what we can expect from the final week of this Tour?

First, is worth noticing that the two hardest summit finishes of the entire race (arguably two of the only three high mountain summit finishes (if you count Tignes) are still ahead: the 17th and 18th stages with finishes on the top of Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden respectively. This means the race is still to arrive to a terrain entirely favorable to the purest climbers. Almost all the mountain stages already completed to this point have featured a longer or shorter descent before the finish line, and that element have acted against time gaps as in the cases of Carapaz and Vingegaard. This doesn’t mean that ending stages after a descent is inherently good or bad for races, but in this particular case with this particular race situation it has been a constraint for time gaps.

Among the Top Five riders of the GC at this point, Richard Carapaz could be labelled as the theoretical purest climber of the group, besides of course Tadej Pogacar who has shown a great shape in all terrains so far. ‘Theoretical’ because Carapaz has been experiencing a sort of metamorphosis during his time with Ineos Grenadiers and moving toward being a more complete rider and that could lead to a risk of a decreasing of his high mountain climber skills. The Ecuadorian delivered unexpectedly good time trial performances at the last Vuelta a España and the recent Tour de Suisse, and at the same time in this Tour he hasn’t being the strongest climber of the podium group which includes Urán, Vingegaard, and maybe Mas and Kelderman, as we expected him to be.

So even when Carapaz is, on paper, one of the greatest prospects for going in full attack mode on stages 17 and 18, there are some doubts. He has being unable to drop his three main rivals in the latest mountain stages, such as Vingegaard did on Ventoux, and for brief moments he even struggled to follow the Danish wheel on Beixalis. Nevertheless, in previous Grand Tours Carapaz has shown a revitalized form during the third week and this Tour could be also the case; the Ecuadorian has also the need of gaining time against Vingegaard and Urán prior to the final time trial, so he will have to try his best.

Ineos Grenadiers has played a kind of ‘defensive aggressiveness’ tactics in the latest mountain stages: controlling the pace of the race trying to isolate the Top Five rivals and to drop any other riders that could be orbiting those positions, such as Lutsenko, Pello Bilbao, Guillaume Martin or any other. Of course, that also has benefited Tadej Pogacar, but that strategy may be understood under the lens of trying to drop Urán or Vingegaard, instead of an all assault on the yellow jersey. We probably will see that same tactic play out on the Tourmalet – Luz Ardiden day. Will this strategy lead up to an all-in Carapaz attack? Probably, but the question about if that attack will be successful will remain, however.

Jonas Vingegaard has been up to the task of redeeming the Jumbo Visma GC aspirations after a very rough first week. Even when his team tactics are not too focused on protecting him, such as in stage 15, the Danish has been able to go toe-to-toe against Ineos and Pogacar. If there is a rider that right now seems more likely to drop Pogacar in a climb is Vingegaard, who already done it on the Mont Ventoux. On that day, the long descent played against him and he was caught by the cashing group of Pogacar, Urán and Carapaz.

But in the upcoming summit finish stages the situation could develop in favor of Vingegaard. He reached the top of Ventoux with a 30” advantage over Pogacar, so the question is: Will he be able to repeat that feature on Col du Portet or Luz Ardiden? There are two factors to take into consideration for that answer: how is he going to physically manage all the effort and fatigue after 16 days of very hard racing, and how ambitious is his goal. Is he happy arriving to the time trial with some advantage against Urán, to ensure a 2nd place in the GC, or he wants to go against Pogacar himself?

Meanwhile, Urán is very well placed in the GC. The experienced Colombian rider has been already on the podium in Paris and his ambition this year is to repeat that goal. He has been racing during this Tour as strong as in his best seasons and has also being very tactical in his efforts. With the good legs Urán has shown, he is one of the biggest winners of the controlling strategy of Ineos Grenadiers, arguably alongside with Pogacar. The work of the British squad hasn’t been enough to drop him but hurt several of his rivals, which are the same rivals of Vingegaard and Pogacar.

But Urán also needs a little more time over Vingegaard to be sure about a 2nd place in the podium. He has a fine instinct to identify weakness in his rivals and probably won’t attack until the very precise moment he needs to in order to maximize damage, since his team is not strong enough to support him during the most decisive moments. Until then he will remain riding strong at the pace of Ineos, in the case that they continue with the same strategy.

Of course, all of this analysis starts with the assumption that Pogacar will continue to be as solid on this point. There is any chance that the Slovenian will have a bad day during the third week?

This is only the third Grand Tour in which he takes part of, and in the past two, he wasn’t under the pressure of being the big leader, so we have no real precedent. In interviews he has declared a couple of times that he has being pushed to the limit on several occasions, if that is indeed true, there might be a little hope for his rivals that he could run empty on one of the hard stages there are left.

The perspective for this final week of the Tour is that the race will probably be very tactical, with the podium contenders trying not to spend more power than necessary; but who is stronger than who is still an unanswered question so any race plan will have to deal with a high level of uncertainty. Riders such as Carapaz, Mas or O’Connor (as long as he can resist in those positions) are forced to attack before the final time trial, while Pogacar will have to defend the jersey against attacks coming from everywhere.

Even when the 5 minutes of advantage in favor of the yellow jersey, there are no certainties for the next week, and we surely going to witness surprises in the fight for the final podium in Paris.



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