Tour de France Sea Change
Depending on your definition, we haven’t seen a stage in the Tour de France in 11 years, 14 years, 26 years or 36 years like the one we saw on stage 11 when Jonas Vingegaard put double defending champion Tadej Pogacar to the sword on the Col du Granon.
For those who weren’t watching (and those who missed part because of commercials while watching on tv…seriously buy Peacock and watch the world feed with Anthony McCrossan and Nico Roche commercial free), Pogacar started the day with a lead of just 39 seconds over last year’s runner up Jonas Vingegaard (who he beat by over 5 minutes a year ago).
The stage, while being one of the hardest in the Tour this year, was not expected to make the big difference. First of all it was the first truly big mountain stage. Those often end up a stalemate with a few seconds changing hands in the late stages via a sprint for bonus seconds or a late attack in the final km for 15–20 seconds difference. Additionally, stage 12 is to Alpe d’Huez, the Tour’s most famous mountain and the place where Tours were saved and/or won many times since 2000.
The difference between today and others in recent years: the champ didn’t also have the strongest team. I mentioned 11 years ago. We’ll get to that 2011 Tour de France later. But ever since then, either the overwhelming favorite had the best team (see the Team Sky/Ineos wins every year from 2012–2019 except 2014), there was no overwhelming favorite (2020), or a key contender (or contenders) had crashed out early in the race (2014 and 2021).
Today, Jumbo-Visma decided to put the whole team to work. And the team is a veritible All-Star team. Jonas Vingegaard is the new leader of the race and was 2nd overall last year. Primoz Roglic has won the last three Vueltas, was 2nd to Pogacar in 2020 and also has a Giro podium in 2019 on the record. Steven Kruijswijk was on the podium in 2019 and would have won the 2016 Giro if not for an unfortunate run-in with a snowbank (see below). Sepp Kuss is the best American climber produced without doping since Greg Lemond and won a stage last year. Tiesj Benoot is a classics star who is also a good climber, especially on the lower slopes. Wout van Aert is in the Green Jersey as the points leader, won three stages on all different terrain types last year (high mountains, time trial and bunch sprint) and has two stage wins already this year. Christophe LaPorte is in the middle of a career best season. Basically this team is stacked.
I would be remiss not to mention the profile for this stage. If not for the Alpe d’Huez stage still to come, it would have been circled as the Queen Stage (hardest stage of the Tour). The Telegraphe/Galibier combo is known as one of the most difficult in the Tour, mostly because of the horrible elevation (Galibier summits at 2642 meters). And the Granon was making only its second appearance and first since 1986.
And so Jumbo-Visma went to work. Before the Telegraph was done, Benoot and Roglic (who was 2 minutes down because of a crash on the cobblestone stage) attacked together, drawing Pogacar out with Vingegaard on his wheel, Kruisjwijk following and Kuss marking the rest of Pogacar’s already weakened by Covid UAE team behind.
Roglic continued to attack on the Galibier forcing Pogacar to chase. Here the first mistake was made. At some point, Pogacar should have let Roglic go. Sure you normally don’t want to let someone like Roglic go up the road. But Roglic had attacked numerous times. And he’s riding injured from his crash (he has to pop his seperated shoulder back in himself). Is Roglic really going to overturn two minutes from 60km out? Or is he going to crack on the Granon?
As all this was happening, we also need to mention what was happening up the road. Van Aert had infiltrated the breakaway at the beginning of the stage. Ostensibly this was to get the 20 points at the intermediate sprint point (which he got). But remember that Van Aert won the Mont Ventoux stage last year. And he was holding on for dear life on the Galibier, eventually making it over the top before Pogacar and Vingegaard (and also the Ineos pair or Adam Yates and Geraint Thomas along with former podium finishers Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet).
As the race regrouped in the valley before the Granon, sure Pogacar regained his top domestique Rafal Majka (riding with Covid but with a low enough viral load that he was allowed to stay in the race for some reason). But Van Aert dropped back and pulled Roglic and Kuss back to the group that contained Kruisjwijk and Vingegaard. This allowed Roglic to take one more dig at the bottom of the Granon before he capitulated, eventually dropping over 11 minutes on the stage. Roglic and Kuss celebrated together like they had won the stage when they crossed the line together (Kuss has been the primary mountain sherpa for Roglic for 3 years now and they have a great working relationship).
And then with 5.5 km to go, Vingegaard put in the big attack. Majka pulled forward to pull the move back for Pogacar and Pogacar couldn’t go. The Jumbo-Visma strategy was complete as Vingegaard emtied the tank, putting nearly 3 minutes into Pogacar in the final 5 km. Shockingly, Quintana, Bardet, Thomas, David Gaudu and Yates all beat Pogacar to the line. Ambush complete.
And Stage 12 includes the other side of the Galibier (virtually right from the start), the 2000+ meter Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez.
Now for the history. From an entertainment standpoint, this was the best GC stage since 2011. On a lot of these same roads. That year on stage 18 Andy Schelck attacked 60 km from the finish in an attempt to win the Tour. He had 4 minutes in hand at the bottom of the Galibier, the finishing climb that day but it was whittled down to 2 minutes by eventual Tour winner Cadel Evans who also cracked defending champion Alberto Contador on the climb.
The next day included Alpe d’Huez just as this year does and Contador attacked 90 km from the finish drawing out Schleck, Evans and fading yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler. The resulting anarchy put Schleck in the yellow jersey only for Evans to overturn it in the time trial to win the Tour the next day.
And while that stage cracked the best GC rider in the peloton, it didn’t feel as momentous as this. In fact, no leader cracking has been as momentous as this since Bernard Hinault cracked on this very climb the only previous time it was used in 1986, handing the Tour win to Greg Lemond.
Since then, for a variety of reasons, the patron of the peleton either hasn’t been cracked, or there have been mitigating circumstances that made the situation not as momentous.
The most recent patron Chris Froome was cracked in 2018. But it was by his own teammate Geraint Thomas and Froome was coming off winning the Giro for the first time in his career, attempting to win both the Giro and Tour in the same year for the first time since 1998. Then Froome crashed and suffered a debilitating injury that kept him out for over a year while training in 2019.
The only time Froome didn’t win the Tour during his stretch was 2014. Where he was felled by a crash. And while I don’t believe Froome would have won in 2014 had he not crashed, it was going to be because Vincenzo Nibali had crushed the race on the cobblestones (which gave him an unassailable lead but isn’t a true capitulation).
Before that you have Contador. Yes he cracked in 2011. But he also was riding while appealing a doping suspension that kept him out of the 2012 Tour and he had destroyed the field at the Giro a month earlier. Not exactly a definitive defeat like this.
Before Contador you have Lance Armstrong. I don’t think we need to mention the doping as much as Lance was never cracked until he unretired. Not the same Armstrong and while he was still good in 2009, it was clear Contador was better than him at every step.
Take it back further and you have the curious case of Jan Ullrich. But his time as the patron was short. He was usurped by Armstrong while he was out on a doping suspension. And his defeat in 1998 to Marco Pantani came in the 1998 Tour. If you don’t know about the disaster that was the 1998 Tour, let’s just say other than turbo doped Pantani completing the Giro-Tour double, nothing about this race is remembered for the racing…cough…Festina Affair…cough…TVM soigner arrested carrying doping products at the border…cough…riders strike in the middle of a stage.
Go back before Ullrich and you have Bjarne Riis and Ullrich cracking Miguel Indurain. Of course those two are two of the most notorious dopers in cycling history. And Indurain, while never caught, has long been suspected of doping considering he won five consectuive tours with two Giro-Tour doubles at the start of the EPO era and climbed with the best in the world despite being one of the largest Tour winners of all time. He’s either the greatest endurance athlete of all time by such a ridiculous margin that nobody will ever touch him or he was doped.
Greg Lemond was beaten into submission by Indurain and a doped up EPO fueled peloton. Which takes us back to Lemond beating Hinault to find such a momentous occasion in the mountains. In 1986. We’ve seen nothing like this in a presumably “clean” peloton since 1986. Nodding back to history, Hinault won the next day on Alpe d’Huez. Expect the same from Pogacar.
As for team tactics like this, you have to go back 14 years. That day Cadel Evans was likely the strongest man as Tadej Pogacar was. But he was worked over by the CSC team which included using yellow jersey Frank Schleck as a decoy on Alpe d’Huez to free Carlos Sastre to attack and win the stage and take the yellow jersey from his teammate. Evans would crush Schleck in the time trial but was couldn’t haul back everything neccessary to beat Sastre, being beaten by under a minute for the second Tour in a row.
How long until we see something like this again? Depends. Unlike other times this happened, either doped or not, the man taking over the lead isn’t younger than the man he beat. And if this stage took too much out of Jumbo-Visma, maybe Pogacar overturns this tomorrow. If that happens, this is a mere footnote and Jumbo-Visma would have to pull this off again in the Pyrenees. Which if it happened would move this Tour de France into all-time great status.