Thursday, July 14, 2022

It's past time for some Tour de France

For Bastille Day, a little update on the Tour de France, since coverage is promised in the masthead of this blog and I've been remiss lately.

Tadej on a good day
See, there is a guy called Tadej Pogacar ("Taddy Po-GATCH -ah," more or less, if the commentators have any grasp of Slovenian pronunciation.) He's 23 and people wonder if he's the new Bernard Hinault -- Hinault being the greatest of French cyclists (Eddy Merckx being Belgian). As a rookie with some promise a couple of years ago, Pogacar snuck in on the last race day and took the yellow jacket from his countryman Primos Roglic, who was supposed to win. The next year Pogacar won the Tour again going away, and suddenly he was the god of cycling.

So this year he's very much the favorite, and there is a list of could-just-possibly-beat-him contenders:  past winner Geraint Thomas of Britain, young Dane Jonas Vingegaard (second place last year), Primos Roglic still striving, Roman Bardet a faint hope for the French (who never win any more), aging Colombian super-climber Nairo Quintana, and the young Belgian star Wout van Aart. Doesn't cycling always have the best names? 

There were some flat stages in Denmark and northern France at the start of the Tour and sprint finishers did well, but once the race got serious (that is, hilly), Pogacar took charge as expected. His UAE team is not as strong as some, and its numbers keep getting thinned by withdrawals over Covid results. But Pogacar is constantly fast in all conditions and able to accelerate like a Porsche when he has to. He responds to every challenge, holds the lead, and wears the yellow jacket (holds in reserve the white for best young rider too).

'Til yesterday. Yesterday, in the Alps and very hot weather, they left Albertville and went up the mighty Galibier, an endless ladder of steep switchbacks topping out over 2000 metres. Lots of attacks and attempts on the Galibier, and Pogacar dismisses them all. There's a group up front, but they are all nobodies -- all the contenders are clustered with Pogacar and his team. They all scream down the other side, and then up again to the top of the Col Grandin, less famous but no less steep and almost as high. 

But the Galibier attacks leave wounds. They have mostly come from support riders of Jumbo-Visma, the team of both Roglic and Vingegaard, so far overshadowed but still contending. Pogacar survives the challenges, but they keep forcing him and his support riders to respond when they want to conserve their strength. Then the Grandin. The breakaway riders up front in today's lead are winnowed down to one survivor, the Frenchman Warren Barguil. With a few steep kilometres still to go, Pogacar and the handful of contenders hanging on behind him are coming up fast.  

Then bam bam bam: what the commentator calls "the most dramatic day in the Tour de France in a decade." Well, they always say things like that. But for those of us paying attention -- and the thing about the Tour is you pretty much have to watch every single damn day to have a clue what is really going on -- it was pretty special.  

Nairo Quintana, never happy unless it is above 1500 metres and the roads are horribly steep, attacks, goes away from the peleton, and starts hunting down Barguil up front. But Quintana is way down the overall standings -- not too big a threat.  

Then suddenly young Vingegaard goes too, speeding away from Pogacar's little group. Consternation and excitement! Vingegaard is a contender -- and this time, first and only time, Pogacar cannot find the energy to respond. He starts "going backwards"  -- not really, he's still roaring up these endless slopes at maybe 18 km/hr -- but compared to Vingegaard at 20+, he's vanishing. Then Roman Bardet sweeps past Pogacar and away. Then Geraint Thomas, who was well behind and largely written off, also comes up to Pogacar and roars past him. Up front, Barguil finally "cracks" -- breakaway guys almost always do after fifty or seventy k of solo effort --and they all sweep past him.

Vingegaard finishing - you'd be crying too
At the top Vingegaard comes in along, winning by what looks like a kilometre. Quintana, Bardet, and Thomas roll in, David Gaudu and Aussie [sorry, he's a Brit] Adam Yates as well, while poor Tadej is "pedalling squares," leaning over his handlebars looking like death as he takes the final slopes. At the end Pogacar, seventh on the day, has lost the yellow jacket to Vingegaard, and sits third overall behind him and Bardet, 2 minutes and 22 seconds behind the new leader. Huge. HUGE.

So there -- all you need to impress your friends even if you don't have the expensive Flobikes streaming subscription that provides Tour coverage. Today, Bastille Day, they take on Alpe d'Huez, an even more legendary and terrifying array of switchbacks into the sky than the Galibier.  Like as not, Pogacar will have recovered and will crush all his rivals once more. Paris is still a long way away, and they have not seen the Pyrenees yet.

Happy to say there are four Canadians in the Tour again this year. Mike Woods can be a contending climber on a good day but he's much bashed up from a nasty crash a couple of days ago. And three Quebeckers:  Hugo Houle, Antoine Duchesne, and Guillaume Boivin, all Tour regulars now, but what cycling calls domestiques, support riders, none expected to sit high in the standings. I do miss Ryder Hesjedal, "the big Canadian boy," as ur-commentator Phil Liggett labelled him every time he loomed up into contention. The scenery, the France-from-above travelogue, is still a marvel.  

Update, same day.  So Tadej Pogacar did bounce back, did very well up the Alpe (actually first they went up and down the Galibier again today). But the thing is, Vingegaarde no longer needs to strike out and beat Pogacar, he just has to keep pace with him. That way, his overall lead, earned yesterday, endures. That's what he did today -- matched Pogacar pedalstroke for pedalstroke all the way to the finish, and held on to his Yellow.

Update, July 18:  from Alan McCullough:

There is an interesting review of a book on the business side of the tour [may be paywalled] in the TLS of 1 July 2022, p.7. "Le Fric: Family, Power, and Money; the business of the Tour de France" by Alex Duff.

Thanks, Alan.  Plus: Fair play to Hugo Houle: more than a domestique. The day after my report above, he went out with the breakaway, contended for the stage win until the very last seconds, and ended up third, maybe a bike length behind the day's winner. 


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