Seven Lingering Questions From the Tour de France

Joe Lindsey
·10 mins read
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images

From Bicycling

The 2020 Tour de France reached Paris on Sunday, despite some doubts about whether the race would be able to go on amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Spoiler alert: no riders tested positive for COVID-19!) After a bruising Stage 20 time trial, when he stole the yellow jersey, Tadej Pogačar climbed atop the podium after the ride into Paris, followed by Primož Roglič and Richie Porte.

Here are seven questions we have from the final week of racing...

Were the Crosswinds Decisive In a Way We Didn’t Consider?

As previously noted, it’s common for crosswinds to upend the Tour de France by causing some contenders to lose time when they’re caught on the wrong side of the split field. This year, Pogačar was one of the unfortunates. But in the final reckoning, his 1:21 loss on Stage 7 may have actually helped him.

Pogačar rode aggressively in the mountains to steadily chip away at Roglič’s lead and only lost time on one stage in the race’s final week. But without the crosswind deficit, he would have taken yellow with his Stage 9 win, instead of Roglič—and that would have changed the race.

When Roglič took yellow, his Jumbo-Visma team controlled for much of the race’s second half. But Pogačar’s UAE-Emirates team was considerably weaker: Fabio Aru didn’t finish stage 9, Davide Formolo crashed out two days later, and Stage 1 winner Alexander Kristoff is a sprinter, not a climber. That left Pogačar isolated on most mountain stages.

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Had UAE-Emirates been forced to defend a lead, Jumbo might have been more aggressive attacking the Tour rookie. As it turned out, lurking close behind Roglič and taking yellow on the penultimate day was the best possible scenario for Pogačar.

Will Pogacar’s Win Create a Third Super Team?

Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images

Entering the 2020 Tour, the conventional wisdom was it would be a battle between the two strongest teams in the race: Jumbo-Visma, and the INEOS Grenadiers team of defending champion Egan Bernal. Each team has multiple Grand Tour winners on its roster. That heavyweight matchup never quite materialized: INEOS left past Tour winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas off the roster since they were judged not to be in proper shape, and back trouble eventually forced Bernal from the race.

Pogačar’s win could embolden his UAE-Emirates team to give him that support. So far, UAE has been fairly quiet on the transfer front, with just one known new signing for 2021 (Matteo Trentin). But COVID-19 has delayed the usual spring/summer contract negotiations, which may now work in the team’s favor. Almost half their riders lack a contract for 2021, while there’s still significant talent from other teams looking for contracts, including INEOS super-equipier Michal Kwiatkowski and his teammate, the promising young Pavel Sivakov; top climber Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe); and Miguel Ángel López, who will not be returning to Astana.

As INEOS and Jumbo have shown, there’s room at one team for multiple Grand Tour aspirants if the money and leadership opportunities are there, and one thing the Emirates don’t worry much about is money. Another non-issue? Pogačar himself, who’s reportedly under contract through 2024.

Is Peter Sagan’s Green Jersey Dominance Done?

Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stuart Franklin - Getty Images

For the first time in nine entries, Sagan finished a Tour without wearing the green jersey of the race’s points competition winner (“best sprinter” for shorthand). The only other year he didn’t wear green in Paris was 2017, when he got DQ’d on Stage 4 for a tangle with Mark Cavendish that crashed the Brit out of the race.

It’s might be tempting to point to his Stage 11 penalty for his loss this time around. Prior to the relegation, he was locked in a tight battle with Sam Bennett for green, but the punishment—a loss of his Stage 11 finish and intermediate sprint points due to relegation—put him in a deep hole, 68 points down.

Sagan clawed back 25 points of his deficit by Stage 14, but after that, Bennett steadily pushed the gap back out thanks to vigilant riding by his team, and simply being the better sprinter, whether at intermediate sprint points or finishes. The final margin? 96 points.

As well, Sagan was a touch off his usual game. In the past, he’s been able to capitalize on a number of top-10 finishes on sprint stages and hillier courses. This year, it’s too early to say what happened. Maybe it was the breakaways that soaked up sprint points, and maybe it was a mechanical that cost him a top placing on Stage 7, a day when Bennett had been dropped (“that’s fucking cycling” Sagan said afterward).

Sagan and Bennett are close in age, but have had far different career trajectories; Sagan joined racing’s top level in 2010, while Bennett, just a year younger, developed more slowly and signed his first WorldTour contract only in 2017. While only a year apart in age, it’s possible that Sagan’s higher mileage is starting to show in his finishing speed.

When Will France Compete for a Tour Win?

Photo credit: Michael Steele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Steele - Getty Images

Entering the Tour, host nation France had high hopes for success and—dare they dream—an end to the 34-year drought of an overall French winner. Things started reasonably well: aside from Thibaut Pinot’s Stage 1 crash, French riders won two stages in the opening week, took yellow with Julian Alaphilippe, and had Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet in the top five overall.

But Alaphilippe lost his yellow to a penalty on Stage 5. Then Pinot imploded in the Pyrenees as the effects of his crash became fully apparent. Bardet dropped out a week later after a crash of his own left him with a concussion, while Guillaume finally cracked in the Massif Central, had a supremely ill-timed flat on a summit finish, and was unable to recover.

France’s Tour wasn’t a disaster by any stretch. But it wasn’t what they hoped, and the future is cloudy: Bardet and Pinot will be 30 and 31, respectively, in 2021. Alaphilippe’s stunning 2019 Tour is likely a one-off he won’t repeat. Martin made incremental improvement from last year, but likely won’t find the support he needs for a podium shot on the underfunded Cofidis squad.

As for the talent pipeline, 23-year-old David Gaudu is one of the most promising young French pros, and there are a few other solid talents in lower-division teams. Sometimes riders take more time to develop (Alaphilippe is a great example). But if there’s an heir to Bernard Hinault among France’s young riders, he has yet to reveal himself.

Out With The Old, In With The New?

Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele - Getty Images

In fact, of the old-guard powers of the sport—France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and The Netherlands—France managed better than most. Spain riders finished fourth and fifth overall in the general classification, but failed to win a stage. Italy similarly struck out, and managed just ninth as its best overall placing. Wout van Aert was singlehandedly responsible for Belgium’s success, while the highlight of Dutch riders’ Tour was Tom Dumoulin’s support of Primoż Roglič’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the win.

Traditional cycling powers won four stages and minor podium placings in the secondary jersey competitions. But the big spoils went to riders from less-traditional countries, who took all the jerseys, the podium spots, and 14 stage wins. Slovenia obviously gets top billing for the 1-2 finish of Pogačar-Roglič. That duo also took four stages and, for Pogačar, the white and polka-dot jerseys in addition to yellow.

But Scandinavian countries did well behind three stage wins (Dane Søren Kragh Andersen took two, while Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff opened with a stage win and day in yellow). Colombia took two stages, while Ireland’s Sam Bennett got two stage wins and the green jersey, and Poland and Kazakhstan each had a rider win a stage.

Will Doping Overshadow the Race Again?

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

After the race finished in Paris, news emerged that French authorities had searched the hotel of one team, Arkéa Samsic, and questioned riders and staff, including leader Nairo Quintana. Authorities also arrested two team staffers.

Elsewhere in Europe, investigators said in September that they’d uncovered evidence of a synthetic hemoglobin doping product in connection with Operation Aderlass, a sports-doping inquiry that involves numerous people in pro cycling.

And there are questions about Pogačar as well, stemming from both his team and his own race-shattering performances on two stages. On those days, Stage 9 and Stage 20, Pogačar sustained power outputs at a level only attained in the past by riders who doped. Pogačar broke a nearly 20-year-old climbing speed record on the Col du Peyresourde, set by Alexandre Vinokourov, who later tested positive for blood doping in the 2007 Tour.

And Pogačar’s team, UAE-Emirates, is run by two men with past links to doping. CEO Mauro Gianetti and Team Manager Joxean Fernandez ran the Saunier Duval-Scott team in 2008 when two riders, Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli, tested positive for a long-acting version of EPO. Gianetti’s former teammate from that time, Stephane Heulot, who also later worked for Saunier Duval, said in 2008 that Gianetti was incapable of changing, a comment he reiterated this year to Ouest France. He also told le Parisien “that people like [Gianetti] are still in cycling today is unthinkable.”

It remains to be seen what comes of the Arkea and Operation Aderlass investigations. In Pogačar’s case, the circumstantial evidence against him isn’t entirely fair, but in pro cycling’s past, association has been a key factor in doping cases, and as long as people like Fernandez and Gianetti are around the sport, questions will continue.

Will Pro Cycling Face Its Racial Equity Problem?

Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD - Getty Images
Photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD - Getty Images

On the final stage of the Tour, some riders wrote anti-racism slogans on the masks they wear before taking the start, and Kevin Reza, the only Black rider in the Tour peloton, briefly rode at the front of the race. But the gesture was fleeting, which led to criticism of its sincerity; as Reza himself said in a Eurosport interview that minced few words, cycling has long been behind other sports in its commitment to racial equity and developing Black athletes—currently there are just a handful in the WorldTour. (Reza himself has been the target of at least two incidents where riders used racist language toward him, and discipline in those cases has been wantingly short.)

Reza was gracious, and thanked the ASO for letting him ride on the front, but the brief spotlight the race showed on racism seemed small and late, and rushed in its consideration. While it was encouraging to see some white riders, like Tejay van Garderen, speaking out more forcefully, the race’s gesture still felt like a missed opportunity. The Tour is cycling’s most prominent event; the failure to make a bigger statement, or to really even consider one until prompted, says a lot about how much work pro cycling has to do.

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