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Musette Musings — 2020 Tour de France digest

By Spencer Powlison

Can we survive a world without the Tour de France? This July felt empty — no daily escape of racing through the beautiful French countryside. Fortunately, the wait is over and the 2020 Tour de France kicks off August 29 in Nice, France and finishes September 20 in Paris.

Welcome to Musette Musings — our way of stoking your enthusiasm for the Tour de France and enhancing your understanding of the world’s most enthralling sporting event.

How it works: In a throwback to my days as a journalist at VeloNews, I’ll be writing updates three times per week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In these updates, I’ll look back on the last few stages and ahead to the next few, giving you key talking points and things to watch. I’ll probably sprinkle in my own opinions about the racing action. And of course, I’ll include a healthy dose of historical context in keeping with TPC’s passion for cycling’s heritage.

If you want a little primer on how the Tour works, read The Tour de France Explained to get started!

Thanks for reading, and please leave me a comment if you have questions, suggestions, or your own hot take about what’s happening on the roads of France!

Table of contents

Grand Depart
Stages 1 and 2 - Spills and thrills
Stages 3 and 4 - The climbing starts (sort of)
Stages 5 and 6 - The worst way to lose yellow
Stages 7, 8, and 9 - The three riders to watch
Stage 10 - The struggle for sprint supremacy
Stages 11 and 12 - Hirschi's sweet redemption
Stages 13, 14, and 15 - Three reasons to take Slovenia seriously
Stage 16 - Who's really King of the Mountains?
Stages 17 and 18 - Four reasons Kwiatkowski is the best rider in the peloton
Stages 19, 20, and 21 - Is Pogacar the next Merckx?

Tadej Pogacar stage 21 2020 Tour de France
Who expected this 22-year-old Tour debutant would have cleaned up, winning three of the four major individual classifications? Photo: ASO/Pauline Ballet

Is Pogacar the next Merckx?

Tadej Pogacar just won the 2020 Tour de France with a stunning final time trial, earning a boatload of prizes along the way. Is he the next Eddy Merckx? It’s a provocative question, but face it, Pogacar delivered a provocative performance in the stage 20 time trial to win the yellow jersey.

In the context of history, Pogacar is extremely special … but as special as “The Cannibal,” Merckx, the greatest cyclist ever? Maybe not yet, but Pogacar is off to a great start.

In his debut Tour de France, Pogacar won the yellow jersey, polka-dot jersey, best young rider’s jersey, and he became the second youngest rider in Tour history to win the overall. So let’s see how all of those accolades compare.

Only 12 riders in history have won their debut Tour. Merckx is one of them. The most recent rider to do so was Laurent Fignon. Coincidentally, Fignon lost the 1989 Tour on the final-stage time trial. Saturday’s stage 20, which saw Pogacar demolish Primoz Roglic’s 57-second lead, had echoes of that fateful day in Paris when LeMond defeated Fignon.

But that’s beside the point. What other riders have won both the best young rider classification and the overall in one Tour? Last year, Egan Bernal won the white jersey and yellow. But he didn’t win the polka-dot jersey. In 2015, Chris Froome won the polka dots and yellow, but not the white jersey (he was too old at that point).

Can you guess which rider matches that haul of three overall jerseys in recent memory? Yes, it’s Eddy Merckx. Back in his day, there was no white jersey for the best young rider. But if there was, Merckx would have qualified in 1969 and 1970, being under 26 years of age. In those Tours he was also King of the Mountains and the yellow jersey winner.

So even though the “Pogacar vs. Merckx” question is a bit of a headline grab, there is meat on the bone. When looking at their debut Tours, the similarities are apparent.

However, Merckx won twice as many stages in ‘69 — six to Pogacar’s three. Merckx also won by a massive margin 17:54. Plus, he won the points and combativity classifications, for good measure. By comparison, Pogacar’s victory was one borne out of patience and careful strategy, not brutal dominance.

And it goes without saying that in the modern era, there’s no way Pogacar will match Merckx’s career tally of 525 victories across all races. It simply isn’t possible with the way racing schedules are organized in the 21st century. Nor will Pogacar win seven Milano-Sanremo, three Paris-Roubaix, or two Tours of Flanders like Merckx. He's a man for the high mountains and (apparently!) time trials, not fast sprints and rough pave.

These historical comparisons are always a bit unfair, and admittedly in the case of Pogacar, 22, it is a bit premature.

The Slovenian is on the right track, though. Merckx won his first Tour at 24, so he’s already a couple of years ahead in that regard. He’ll never match the Belgian great when it comes to sheer dominance and versatility, but in the realm of the Tour de France and other grand tours, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine Pogacar winning four more Tours, and maybe more.

How do you say “cannibal” in Slovenian, anyway?

Whatever the future holds, I hope you enjoyed this Tour. I did, and I enjoyed sharing a bit of the ride with you. Thanks for reading.

Stage 19 // Friday, September 18: Bourg-en-Bresse to Champagnole, 166.5km
Winner: Soren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

Here’s a SKA encore you’re actually excited to see … Soren Kragh Andersen that is! This dastardly Dane again foiled his rivals, taking advantage of a lull of the pace after Peter Sagan marked a move from Matteo Trentin. Andersen was surely not the strongest or best rider in that small breakaway group, but he was certainly the most tactically astute. Top sprinters like Sagan, Trentin, and Sam Bennett just looked at each other and let the race get away from them. Also, Sagan essentially waved the white flag in the green jersey competition, losing a listless sprint for eighth to Bennett.

Stage 20 // Saturday, September 19: Lure to La Planche des Belles Filles, 36.2km
Winner: Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates)
Yellow jersey: Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates)

As I covered already, Pogacar smashed literally everyone in the race, demolishing Roglic’s lead and winning the day. It was probably the greatest come-from-behind result since LeMond beat Fignon. So it naturally overshadowed other storylines. Perhaps the biggest non-Slovenian result was Richie Porte’s blazing fast ride to earn his first career Tour podium after five fruitless years marked by bad luck, injuries, and crashes. The Australian’s gain came at the expense of Miguel Angel Lopez, a brilliant climber who sure did time trial like a climber. The Colombian tumbled to sixth overall.

Stage 21 // Sunday, September 20: Mantes-la-Jolie to Paris, 122km
Winner: Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
Yellow jersey: Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates)

Sam Bennett couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect ending to his magic Tour de France. His was yet another storyline overshadowed by Pogacar’s stunning ascendance. Everyone (myself included) expected Sagan to sail to an eighth points classification victory. But he never looked like his normal self in the sprint finishes, finishing third at best in stages 10 and 21. Bennett pounced on the opportunity and became the first Irishman to win the emerald kit since the great Sean Kelly won his final green jersey in 1989. Along with winning stage 10 and 21 and placing top-three in three other stages, Bennett was capable of challenging Sagan for intermediate sprint points, helping him win the points classification. He capped it off with a decisive win on the world’s biggest stage for cycling sprinters, the Champs-Elysees. 


 Michal Kwiatkowski wins 2020 Tour de France stage 18

Michal Kwiatkowski went on an all-day escape with Richard Carapaz and they both ended stage 18 with plenty to smile about. Photo: Sirotti

Four reasons Kwiatkowski is the best rider in the peloton

You can keep your grand tour champions like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. I’m not interested in riders like Alejandro Valverde who have racked up 100+ wins over a long career. Even Peter Sagan fails to live up to my standard, with his three world championships and seven green jerseys in the Tour. 


I only have eyes for Michal Kwaitkowski.

No, the Polish rider hasn’t won as many races as these other frontrunners, but for my money, he’s the best cyclist of this generation thanks to his unmatched versatility. Here’s how he does it.

1. Winning worlds with style

First and foremost, he won one of the most difficult, unpredictable races in the season. His 2014 world championship victory was also a masterclass on how to launch a brilliant late-race breakaway and succeed. Sagan delivered this kind of magical ride in Richmond at 2015 worlds, but his other worlds victories have come from sprint finishes, which aren’t as aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.

2. Crushing all kinds of classics

Valverde has won hilly classics built for climbers. Sagan has won cobbled classics in Northern Europe. Kwiatkowski has done both. He won E3 Harelbeke in 2016. The year before he won Amstel Gold Race, and the year after he won Clasica San Sebastian. Kwiatkowski even won Milano-Sanremo in 2017, a race ostensibly designed for sprinters. No other cyclist has that diversity in their results.

3. Stage races can't scare him

Like his teammate Froome, as well as Contador and Valverde, Kwiatkowski has performed at some very tough one-week stage races — Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta ao Algarve, specifically. Sure, those results aren’t super flashy, but they again differentiate him from Sagan, let alone pure sprinters like Mark Cavendish or Tom Boonen.

4. He is the ultimate teammate

Finally, what seals the deal is Kwiatkowski’s ultimate devotion to his team. That’s why until stage 18, he’d never won a stage at the Tour de France. Instead, he’s been destroying the peloton by setting a fierce tempo at the front, day in, day out for the last six times he’s raced the Tour. That’s why it was so rewarding to see him finally win a stage on Thursday. Not only that, he helped his teammate Richard Carapaz take the polka-dot jersey along the way.

So what do you think? Chime in with your own take on Kwiatkowski or another cyclist you feel is the best of this generation! On with the recap...

Stage 17 // Wednesday, September 16: Grenoble to Méribel/Col de la Loze, 170km
Winner: Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

The Tour’s queen stage lived up to the hype. The final three kilometers saw a brutal battle between the top contenders. Finally, we began to see clearly who would most likely earn the final podium place in Paris, and his name is Miguel Angel Lopez. The Colombian catapulted off of what was apparently a mistake of an attack by American Sepp Kuss. Fortunately for him, it wasn’t a fatal error. Primoz Roglic held steady in the lead and even gained a bit on Tadej Pogacar who for once looked human. Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, and Mikel Landa all wilted, seeing their podium dreams fade on Col de la Loze.

Stage 18 // Thursday, September 17: Méribel to La Roche-sur-Foron, 175km
Winner: Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos-Grenadiers)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

The Tour can be such a tease. Things looked to be heating up on the final categorized climb to the Plateau de Glieres. En route to the Tour’s only gravel road, Rigoberto Uran was dropped. Adam Yates was dropped. Then on the dirt, Richie Porte flatted. Tadej Pogacar looked to be in trouble. Then, to my chagrin, everything slowly came back together on the descent and run to the finish. The top-10 changed slightly with Uran and Yates losing time, but overall, it was status quo after stage 18.

The archives

Scheduling a stage 20 time trial in the Tour is a bit like requiring an overtime in the Super Bowl — no matter who is winning the game (or race). On one hand, if a close race comes down to the final time trial, it can afford exquisite drama. If the race is more or less decided … well, not so much.

The most memorable late-race time trial has to be the final TT held in Paris to finish the 1989 Tour de France. Much has been written about how Greg Lemond overcame a huge deficit to Laurent Fignon, winning yellow and essentially torpedoing Fignon’s career.

The next year, LeMond won his final Tour with a time trial flourish in stage 20, completely dismantling Claudio Chiappucci, who, as mentioned previously, was a glorious climber and a dismal time trial rider. Over the 45.5km route that day, LeMond took an impressive 2:21 out of Chiappucci in the overall.

Twenty-one years later, in another stage 20 time trial, the scenario repeated itself. All-arounder Cadel Evans entered the Grenoble time trial 57 seconds behind race leader Andy Schleck after surviving the previous day’s climb to Alpe d’Huez. Schleck, the pure climber, was no match for Evans, who went on to become the first Australian to win the Tour de France. Though the stage 20 time trial was short at just 41 kilometers, Schleck lost 2:31 and the yellow jersey.



Since that dramatic 2011 Tour, we’ve seen four other stage 20 time trials at the Tour — 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2018. Apart from 2014, Team Sky has dominated all of those Tours, most notably in the mountain stages. Counterintuitively, that display of force on the climbs has made the time trials more tame. Few pure climbers have been in contention when it came time to race the time trial on the penultimate day. What will Saturday’s time trial hold in the 2020 Tour? Read on...

The road ahead

The final weekend of the Tour kicks off with stage 20, a time trial with a twist. It will finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, a wicked 6km climb that averages 8.3%. I bet Chiappucci and Schleck wish they had that kind of climb in their fateful time trials. However, race leader Primoz Roglic is a supremely good time trial rider and climber, so I do not fear for his overall lead. Perhaps the top-10 results will shuffle slightly. Then it will be on to Paris for the traditional sprinter’s stage.

... But wait, you say, didn't Tadej Pogacar just beat Roglic in the Slovenian time trial championships? Yes, he did. However, that was only a 15.7km course and Pogacar won by just nine seconds. If you go back to the 2019 Vuelta, Roglic beat Pogacar by 1:29 in a 36km time trial. Above all, the endurance demands of a time trial late in a grand tour are so different than that of a single-day time trial race, that Pogacar's national TT title doesn't seem very meaningful in this circumstance.

Spencer’s Picks: I keep predicting Roglic will win a stage, and gosh darnit, I won’t stop now, I think this is his day to cap off a dominant Tour with a stage win. Caleb Ewan is my pick for the final sprint because unlike Sam Bennett and Peter Sagan, he hasn’t been spending a ton of energy chasing intermediate sprint points.


 

Tour de France King of the Mountains
The polka-dot jersey is still in play at the Tour de France with two big mountain stages remaining. Photo: ASO/Pauline Ballet

Who's really King of the Mountains?

The simmering struggle for the King of the Mountains title is coming to a boil in Tour de France’s final week. As has been the case for the last three editions, it looks like a Frenchman will win the polka-dot jersey, but who? Will it be the young and consistent Benoit Cosnefroy or the aging veteran Pierre Rolland who is going big on a few final climbs?

This dynamic reflects the different strategies that can work to earn the King of the Mountains title. On one hand, Cosnefroy’s consistency counts for a lot. He’s worn the polka-dot jersey since stage 2 but never made a huge impact on the race. His specialty seems to be earning points on the first climb of the day and then sitting back to let the stage-hunters vie for victory. He won top KOM points on five stages in the early goings: Stages 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9.

However, the 24-year-old Frenchman's lead was whittled down to nothing on Tuesday as Rolland pulled even in the KOM points. Rolland is a far more audacious climber in the high mountains. It’s understandable, given that he’s won two Tour stages and a stage at the Giro. In stage 16, Rolland earned maximum KOM points on two categorized climbs. He also racked up points on stage 15. At this rate, he looks poised to earn the KOM crown, a title he’s yet to win. But the race isn’t over yet!

The King of the Mountains competition will come down to the next two days.

Stage 17 is simple: An hors category (HC) climb midway through and an HC summit finish. The GC contenders should gobble up points at the finish. So Cosnefroy will have to put up a fight on the Col de la Madeleine, the day’s first climb. Given his record scoring KOM points early in stages, he might have a shot.

Thursday’s stage 18 is a far more complicated barrage of five categorized climbs. If either Rolland or Cosnefroy miss the breakaway, they’re out of the race for the polka-dots. If they can both get in the move, then expect an exciting battle through the Alps to decide the King of the Mountains.

Then again, remember that top riders in the overall are also poised to win the polka-dot jersey. With his knack for winning summit finishes, Tadej Pogacar could be the one to be crowned the ultimate King of the Mountains.

Stage 16 // Tuesday, September 15: La Tour-du-Pin to Villard-de-Lans, 164km
Winner: Lennard Kamna (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

I was a little hard on old Lenny Kamna for his failed attack in stage 14. The Bora team had destroyed the race to back Peter Sagan’s desperate bid for the green jersey. Sagan came up short that day. Maybe that’s all the Bora team needed to see, and it’s on to plan B. At least the team now has one win to its credit, and honestly it was a pretty classy solo win on Kamna’s part. Thankfully, all of the top-10 GC contenders other than Nairo Quintana stayed together. No post-rest day funk means we’ll have a proper race through the final mountains.

The archives - Chiappucci's daring raid

The Tour’s final mountain stage on Thursday will be 175 kilometers — that’s long right? Well not if you’re Claudio Chiappucci.

In the 1992 Tour de France, stage 13 went over several of the major climbs we’ll see on Thursday’s mountainous stage 18 route, such as Cormet de Roselend and Col des Saises. But this year's stage pales in comparison to the 254.5km epic that Chiappucci won in ‘92. In fact, Chiappucci spent more kilometers in the breakaway that day (about 200) than the entire distance of the 2020 Tour’s stage 18.

Chiappucci was bold and fearless. He was a pure climber who was no match for the era’s dominant Tour champion, Miguel Indurain, when it came to time trials. So the spunky Italian gambled on a long-range attack in stage 13, unafraid of the many mountains ahead.

In fact, on the highest paved road in the Alps, the Col d’Iseran, he dispatched his breakaway companions, opting to ride alone to the finish in Sestriere. This Alpine finish is hallowed ground for Italy’s cycling faithful — here, campionissimo Fausto Coppi won en route to his second and final yellow jersey.

Forty years later, Chiappucci took on the mantle as Italy’s great hope. He ended up second in the 1992 Tour. And he never managed to win a grand tour overall, in part due to his weak time trialing. But despite all of that, his fearless exploit in the Alps is remembered as one of the best days of racing in the modern Tour.

Richard Moore rightly included it in his book “Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France.” His detailed account of the day is worth a read. 



It’s also worth noting a couple of American riders’ performances in that Tour. Though Andy Hampsten couldn’t stay with Indurain on the final climb to Sestriere, he regrouped and won on l’Alpe d’Huez the next day. Greg LeMond was not so fortunate. He finished almost 50 minutes behind on stage 13 and later dropped out. He’d only return to the Tour once more in 1994.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most Tour results in the ‘90s, the spectre of doping can overshadow the results. Moore addresses that in his chapter on the Sestriere stage. LeMond has always been outspoken about the suspicious performances that began in the early ‘90s. “Something had changed in cycling. The speeds were faster and riders that I had easily out performed were now dropping me,” he wrote in a CyclingNews column. 

The truth behind Chiappucci’s epic victory in stage 13? Who knows, apart from the Italian himself and a few confidants. Regardless, you have to admire the courage to attack with 200km to go. Hopefully someone in the 2020 race will try throwing a Hail Mary like that on Thursday.

The road ahead

As noted in my analysis of the King of the Mountains race, we’ve got two exciting mountain stages coming up. They’ll be just as important in the race for yellow. However, I expect they’ll play out in very different ways. As we saw on Sunday in stage 15, I expect Jumbo will dominate the final climb in stage 17 to set up Primoz Roglic to win if not comfortably defend his lead. Stage 18 could be a little more chaotic. With many climbs and precious few flat kilometers in the valleys between them, perhaps we’ll see a sneak attack… maybe an Italian will channel their inner Chiappucci?

Spencer’s picks: Wednesday is the queen stage, the toughest day of the Tour, the highest point on the route. It’s got to be Roglic on stage 17. Stage 18 is the wildcard, and frankly I’d love to see Alejandro Valverde sneak away and win something (anything!) for Movistar — so far that team has nothing to show for the last 16 days of racing.



2020 Tour de France stage 15 finish
Pogacar... Roglic... These aren't the typical names of cycling champions, but it is time to accept the fact that the Slovenian stars are here to stay. Photo: Sirotti

 

Slovenia… Seriously!?

Count me among the many cycling fans who underestimated Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar before the 2020 Tour de France. I knew this Slovenian duo was good … but this good? Here are three reasons why we shouldn’t be that surprised (other than the fact that they are super-fit and climb faster than anyone else at the Tour right now).

1. Roglic has the best team in the race

The Dutch Jumbo-Visma team is ridiculously stacked with talent. For crying out loud, Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin is working as a super-domestique! Along with him, there is Tony Martin, a four-time world time trial champion, and Wout van Aert, who’s fresh off of a win at Milano-Sanremo. Plus the squad is bolstered by climbing specialists George Bennett and Sepp Kuss, who each have won major stages and overall races.

2. Roglic and Pogacar have had (mostly) good luck

Over 21 days, pretty much every rider has a mishap or a problem. For Pogacar, it was missing the split in the crosswinds on stage 7. For Roglic it was … well … Nothing so far! Not to jinx either rider, but a trouble-free race can be the difference between a top-10 result (hello, Richie Porte!) and a podium finish.

3. Roglic has been here before

This is the first year Roglic has really gone to the Tour with plans to race for the overall, so many fans would be excused for not seeing his potential as a true contender. But serious cycling geeks will quickly point out that Roglic won the 2019 Vuelta a Espana along with several other major stage races. Even though he came into the sport relatively late in life relative to some, he has proven he can handle the pressure.

Bonus! Pogacar has pure talent

Unlike Roglic, Pogacar has been racing seriously since his teenage years. Even back then, he proved himself on the world stage. In 2018, he won the Tour de l’Avenir, “The Tour of the Future.” This French stage race is an opportunity for junior riders to show off their talent, almost a Little League World Series for cycling, except less crazy parents. Many Tour de l’Avenir winners have gone on to be the best cyclists in the sport. Won’t be long before Pogacar will be added to that list, I reckon.

Stage 13 // Friday, September 11: Châtel-Guyon to Pas de Peyrol, 191.5km
Winner: Daniel Martinez (EF Pro Cycling)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

The 13th stage proved quite unlucky for a number of Tour contenders. Egan Bernal was especially bad on the summit finish in Central France, losing 38 seconds to race leader Primoz Roglic and up-and-comer Tadej Pogacar. Those two Slovenian sensations finished side-by-side while EF’s Daniel Martinez earned his first stage victory. On the other hand, French riders Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet lost time and fell out of the top-10 overall. Let’s also keep an eye on Colombians Rigoberto Uran and Miguel Angel Lopez who are creeping closer to the podium.

Stage 14 // Saturday, September 12: Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon, 194km
Winner: Soren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

The struggle for the green jersey continued, but Sagan’s strong-arm tactics didn’t pay off — at least not as much as he might have hoped. His Bora-Hansgrohe team drilled it for the first half of the race, succeeding in dropping current green jersey-holder Sam Bennett on the early climbs. Coming into Lyon, it seemed to be Sagan’s day. But then on a minor climb late in the stage, Sagan’s last remaining teammate Lennard Kamna attacked when he really should have sat back to help his sprinter. This tactical blunder left Sagan solo in the final five kilometers, and Sunweb capitalized. First Tiesj Benoot attacked. Then Marc Hirschi went. Finally (as is often the case in cycling) the third attack stuck, and Soren Kragh Andersen rode alone to his first Tour stage win with a perfectly timed move.

Stage 15 // Sunday, September 13: Lyon to Grand Colombier, 174.5km
Winner: Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

And just like that, Egan Bernal, the defending champion, one of the top favorites to win the Tour, is out of the race. What happened? We’ve yet to get the full story. No matter the explanation, he cracked on the Grand Colombier, and the overall standings got a major shake-up. There wasn’t a lot of tactical nuance to the 18-kilometer finish climb. Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team simply kept ramping up the pace and the front group disintegrated. The GC picture is much clearer now, and Roglic looks to be in control.

The archives - Belgium's King of the Mountains

A pure climber from Belgium? It’s not impossible, but it is rare. While many of his countrymen preferred to pound the pave in cobbled classics races like Paris-Roubaix, Lucien Van Impe was crowned King of the Mountains of the Tour on six occasions. The last time he earned the final polka-dot jersey was 1983, also the last of three times that he rode first over the Col de la Madeleine, a major climb in Wednesday’s stage 17 route.

Van Impe found himself straddling the eras of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, so he only had one Tour de France overall victory to his credit, in 1976. Undeterred, Van Impe finished 15 Tours de France over the course of his 18-year career. He won six King of the Mountains titles, finished on the podium five times, and won nine individual stages.

Here’s a short clip of van Impe racing in that 1983 Tour, on stage 18 when he topped the Madeleine first but could only manage fourth place at the end of a massive 247km stage with five categorized climbs.

The road ahead

After Monday’s rest day, we have two very different stages that will both be very hard. Stage 16 has a bit of an awkward plateau climb at the finish. This could provoke some exciting action, but most likely a breakaway will succeed. Watch out for GC contenders who are out of sync after the day off. I expect Roglic will be fine, but at least one of the top-10 contenders could have an off day and lose minutes. Wednesday’s stage 17 will be a good old-fashioned hard Alpine stage. I actually went out and tried to simulate this route with my compatriot Bruce, and I can assure you, there’s nowhere to hide over this amount of climbing and distance. Fittingly, the Souvenir Henri Desgrange will be awarded to the rider that is first to the top of the finish climb in Meribel. That’s the special prize for the first climber to reach the Tour’s highest elevation in a given year.

Spencer’s picks: Between Hirschi and Kragh Andersen’s exploits, I think any good climber on the Sunweb team would be a fine choice to win Tuesday’s stage 16. The GC riders will likely give the breakaway plenty of leash, saving their energy for stage 17. For that Wednesday showdown, I feel it has to be Roglic to impose himself on the Tour as yellow jersey.




Marc Hirschi 2020 Tour de FranceMarc Hirschi tried, tried, and tried again — and he finally won his first Tour de France stage. Photo: ASO/Pauline Ballet

Hirschi’s sweet redemption

I’m not sure about you, but when I do a bike race (when I used to do bike races, I guess!), there weren’t many second chances. You finished, you went home, you go through Monday's "what-ifs" with sore legs.

Well, the Tour gives second, third, fourth… heck even 12th chances, and that’s a good thing if your name is Marc Hirschi.

It was heartbreaking to see Hirschi lose stage 3 in a sprint finish after riding off the front most of the day through the Pyrenean mountains. Prior to that third-place finish, this Swiss Tour de France debutant was second in stage 2 behind Julian Alaphilippe.

So on Wednesday, as he raced solo into the final five kilometers, after escaping the day’s breakaway with 28km to go, you have to wonder how it must have felt. The chase wasn’t far behind. The terrain was tough and undulating as the race had entered the meaty Massif Central region.

He hung on for the win, and you know what? That was his first career professional victory. After the bitterness of two near-misses, stage 12 served up sweet redemption for Hirschi. Every day of the Tour has a compelling story, you just have to know where to look.

Stage 11 // Wednesday, September 9: Châtelaillon-Plage to Poitiers, 167.5km
Winner: Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

As advertised, Wednesday panned out as a pure sprinters’ stage. We were treated to one the closest, down-to-the-wire finishes you can hope to see in the Tour. Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Peter Sagan, and Wout van Aert all lunged for the line, shoulder-to-shoulder. Unfortunately, the result was marred by a tangle between Sagan and van Aert. The former world champ pushed up the right side and forcefully shouldered van Aert out of the way. Sagan was relegated to last place in the sprint. Whether or not you agree with the race jury, this seems to spell the end of Sagan’s bid for another green jersey in the points classification. Bennett’s lead has opened up, and he’s doing just fine scrapping for points at intermediate sprints. But the Tour is unpredictable — and Sagan knows that better than most, having been disqualified in 2017 for a sprint crash with Mark Cavendish.

Stage 12 // Thursday, September 10: Chauvigny to Sarran, 218km
Winner: Marc Hirschi (Sunweb)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

Since we just went pretty deep into Hirschi’s victory, no need to go too far into stage 12. The GC riders stayed safe. The sprinters weren’t in contention. Everyone is holding fire until Friday’s summit finish.

The archives - Colombier craziness

We cannot go too far back in the archives for the Grand Colombier because 2020 will be only the fourth time the race has climbed this beast of the Jura mountains. Plus, this year will be the first summit finish atop the Grand Colombier.

Hopefully, it will afford the drama of stage 9 in the 2017 race, the last time the Tour climbed the Grand Colombier.

That stage saw Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas both crash out of the race on the tortuous descents. A group of six top contenders ran the gauntlet of four categorized climbs and rolled into Chambery to race for the win.

Colombian Rigoberto Uran suffered a major mechanical, his electronic shifting malfunctioning just a few kilometers from the finish. The Mavic neutral service car rolled up to try and help. The best they could do was to put his bike in the hardest gear and hope he had the legs for the sprint.

He did, and the result was legendary. Out of that select group that raced for the win in stage 9, Uran is one of the few who is in the 2020 race, and he’s certainly the best-placed overall, heading into Friday. Will Uran have another magic day on the Grand Colombier this Sunday?

The road ahead

The Tour always has a bit of a mid-race lull between the Pyrenees and the Alps. Maybe you like the sprints and the unpredictable breakaways we saw this week. Or maybe you prefer the fight for yellow in the high mountains. I’ll admit I’m more inclined to the latter, so this weekend will be an exciting first act of the Tour’s grand finale. On Friday, stage 13 finishes on the Pas de Peyrol, the highest climb in the Massif Central. Stage 14 to Lyon will be hilly, but not a true mountain test. The real must-watch TV comes on Sunday in stage 15 that finishes atop the Grand Colombier, a fearsome hors categorie climb.

Spencers pick: It would be nice to see how Friday’s stage shakes out before making any predictions. After all, the climbers have been quiet all week long. That said, Roglic hasn’t had a single misstep so far this Tour. I can see him holding yellow into the race’s final rest day on Monday.



Tour de France 2020 stage 10 sprint
Sagan has his hands full with the slate of strong sprinters in the 2020 Tour de France. Photo: Sirotti

 

The struggle for sprint supremacy

Peter Sagan used to be a sure thing, but it’s 2020 — everything has changed. When it comes to the race for the sprinter’s green jersey in the Tour de France, it seems that Sagan has serious competition.

Going into Tuesday’s stage 10, he had a slim seven-point lead over Irishman Sam Bennett. Bennett collected his maiden Tour win on the western coast of France, and now he’s wearing green, a solid 21 points ahead. Wout van Aert has defied logic by riding support for his teammate Primoz Roglic in the mountains then winning a sprint the next day. And with one stage win, Caleb Ewan isn’t looking bad either. Sagan has his hands full.

There are precious few sprint stages left. Stage 11 is clearly an opportunity. Stages 12, 14, and 19 are hilly but potential opportunities. Stage 21 in Paris, as usual, is the crown jewel every sprinter wants to claim.

What Sagan needs to do to win green: Maximize mid-stage bonus points in the mountain stages, win one of the upcoming hilly stages (not so easy, given breakaways will be likely).

What Bennett needs to do to win green: Win stage 11 or 21, continue placing well in bonus sprints and hope that breakaways succeed in stages 12, 14, and 19 to stiff Sagan on points.

What Ewan needs to do to win green: Win stage 11 and 21, hope that Sagan loses out on both mid-stage bonus sprints, either due to other sprinters like Bennett or a breakaway. Like Bennett, he’ll also want to see breakaway groups stay away in the three hilly stages to come.

Stage 10 // Tuesday, September 8: île d'Oléron to île de Ré, 168.5km
Winner: Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

While the run along France’s western coast was windy, it didn’t deliver on truly devastating crosswinds. There was a bit of drama with third-place overall Tadej Pogacar crashing, but he chased back and safely finished in the group. The finish sprint afforded the most excitement and intrigue. Sagan’s sprint was pretty underwhelming. As explained above, I have some real doubts if he can win an eighth green jersey.

The archives - The metamorphosis of a sprinter

Maybe Sagan will consider broadening his horizons? It worked for Laurent Jalabert. In the early years of his career, Jalabert was a sprinter. Then, after a terrible crash in a finish sprint at the 1994 Tour de France, he reinvented himself as an all-arounder.

After promising his wife he’d leave behind his reckless ways as a sprinter, Jalabert stormed back in 1995. After several major wins in the spring — Milano-Sanremo and Fleche Wallone, most notably — he returned to the Tour. There, he won stage 12 through the Massif Central, a wild, mountainous region where the 2020 race will be headed on Thursday and Friday in stages 12 and 13.

As usually happens on Bastille Day during the Tour, a Frenchman made a bid for glory, and in 1995 it was Jalabert. He launched an audacious breakaway at the start of a marathon 222.5km stage through the Massif Central. With help from a couple of teammates in the breakaway, he was soon the virtual leader of the race.

Behind, the heads of state panicked and drove the pace through the mountainous terrain. Jalabert set off alone from the breakaway and won in Mente to the joy of the home crowd. He didn't have enough time in hand to take yellow, but he moved up to third overall.

The Massif Central lends itself to unpredictable racing, thanks to its tough terrain and less-familiar climbs. Hopefully we'll see this kind of drama later in the week.
 

The road ahead

As we’ve already covered, Wednesday and Thursday should give us some answers about the green jersey competition. Hopefully, the GC contenders will stay out of trouble so they can all return to the spotlight on Friday when the race finishes atop the highest mountain pass in the Massif Central, Pas de Peyrol.

Spencer’s picks: I like Caleb Ewan for stage 11’s sprint, and I think a breakaway will survive in stage 12. The summit finish on Friday will be a bit of truth serum for the GC riders — have they been good about recovery, nutrition, hydration, and energy conservation? You can’t fake it after 13 days of racing. I think Roglic will extend his overall lead.



Primoz Roglic Tour de France stage 9 podiumWill this masked man win the yellow jersey at the end of the 2020 Tour de France? Photo: Sirotti

Stages 7, 8, and 9 - The three riders to watch

Heading into the Tour’s first rest day, there are 166 riders in the race, but really, there are just three riders in the race. After nine stages, I have my eye on these three contenders. Here’s why.

Primoz Roglic: He took the yellow jersey on Sunday and has looked flawless on the climbs. His Jumbo-Visma team has the most firepower in the mountains. I’ve yet to see an argument against him winning the 2020 Tour.

Egan Bernal: The defending Tour champion hasn’t been completely dominant, but his Ineos-Grenadiers team is sneaky good. They singlehandedly tore the race apart in Friday’s crosswinds (more on that in a moment). Plus, Bernal had the legs to attack at the end of stage 9.

Tadej Pogacar: This 21-year-old is a wildcard, but so far, he’s been noticeably better than the other leaders on the climbs. However, he doesn’t have a strong team to support him, and he is unproven as a GC rider in the Tour. He’ll keep things entertaining!

Stage 7 // Friday, September 4: Millau to Lavaur, 168km
Winner: Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Yellow jersey: Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)

Don’t assume the mountain stages are the most exciting days or the most impactful parts of the race. A moment of inattention by some riders, and some crafty positioning by Ineos-Grenadiers, and stage 7 turned wild and woolly in the crosswinds. That, combined with a fierce tailwind in the final 20 kilometers, made it basically impossible for hopefuls like Pogacar, Mikel Landa, and Richie Porte to chase back the leaders. Time was lost. It was a brutal day.

Stage 8 // Saturday, September 5: Cazères to Loudenvielle, 141km
Winner: Nans Peters (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Yellow jersey: Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)

At last, the breakaway survives, and at last the French get a win in their home Tour. This first day in the mountains was exciting — both for the winner and the GC battle behind. Pogacar came storming back to recoup some of the time he lost the day before, a display of climbing and pure determination. On the other hand, Thibaut Pinot lost all hope of delivering a yellow jersey to the long-suffering French faithful, falling off the pace with a sore back. Also, spare a thought for Ilnur Zakarin. He might have been the best climber in Saturday’s breakaway, but his frighteningly sketchy descending technique cost him a chance to win the stage.

Stage 9 // Sunday, September 6: Pau to Laruns, 153km
Winner: Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)
Yellow jersey: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)

Pogacar — funny name, fabulous rider. Perhaps we should all start brushing up on our Slovenian because between him and Roglic, this small Central European country is all over the Tour de France. Stage 9’s final climb up the Marie Blanque revealed these two as the true favorites, alongside Bernal. Yes, Mikel Landa was there too, but he remains 1:42 behind Roglic overall. Yes, another group of riders finished 11 seconds behind, but they were clearly outclassed on the final climb.

The archives - The winds of treachery

The results don’t tell the whole story. They never do. Take stage 16 of the 1986 Tour de France. Bernard Hinault held his 34-second lead over teammate Greg LeMond after the 246.5km stage through Provence. Jean-Francois Bernard won solo. The end… Right?

The 1986 Tour de France might be the most talked-about edition of the race, at least in English-language media. Books have literally been written about that race’s inter-team turmoil between Hinault and LeMond. ESPN documentaries have been produced. Much has been made of Hinault’s attacks in the Pyrenees, especially stage 12 to Pau and stage 13 to Superbagneres. We also talk a lot about their side-by-side ride up Alpe d’Huez. But stage 16?

Well, I have crosswinds on the brain after stage 7 on Friday. Stage 10 of this year’s race on Tuesday could have them in spades again. And that devilish windy condition played a big role in the drama of stage 16 back in 1986, though it’s not as talked about.

Ever the cunning racer, Hinault saw an opportunity, and snuck away into a small breakaway, leaving LeMond behind. The gap opened fast as the famous Mistral winds pushed the peloton to its breaking point. Would LeMond lose the Tour to the very teammate who’d promised him full support? It didn’t look good for the American.

Desperate, LeMond turned to Brit Robert Millar for help. He promised Millar a favor down the road — whenever that might be. And with that gentleman’s agreement, Millar’s Panasonic team put their heads down and chased back the Badger through the blistering winds.

Whenever crosswinds come into play, expect an exciting day of racing, no matter the result. Read more about that stage of the 1986 Tour in this excerpt from the VeloPress book, "Slaying the Badger."

The road ahead

As I suggested, Tuesday’s stage 10 could have more crosswinds on the menu. Looking at the forecast for this coastal region in Western France, I’m not seeing truly violent conditions, but you never can tell. Plus, the stage after a rest day can be perilous. Sometimes the riders lose their racing rhythm on a day off. Wednesday’s stage 11 looks to be a garden variety sprint stage.

Spencer’s pick: Both stages 10 and 11 look to favor a sprinter or classics rider. Peter Sagan dropped his chain in the stage 7 sprint, so I think it’s time for him to get revenge and win at least one of these stages. Other than him, why not Wout (van Aert)?


Julian Alaphilippe Tour de France stage 6
Julian Alaphilippe was none too pleased to be wearing his ordinary Deceuninck-Quick-Step jersey in stage 6 of the Tour. Photo: ASO/Pauline Ballet

Stages 5 and 6 - The worst way to lose yellow

Stage 5 // Wednesday, September 2: Gap to Privas, 183km
Winner: Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Yellow jersey: Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)

Well this was a pretty weird stage. No breakaway. Julian Alaphilippe lost the yellow jersey on a technicality. And the superstar climbing domestique of stage 4 won the day in a proper bunch sprint.

What’s going on at the Tour?!

First, the breakaway question. The peloton is a fickle, unpredictable conglomeration of nearly 200 different people. Sometimes, the stars just do not align. My former colleague, Andrew Hood, wrote an analysis for VeloNews, and the logic makes sense. This first week of racing is super-hard. Stage 5 was predominantly downhill with a headwind. It just added up to make a breakaway seem like a suicide mission. 

I can wrap my head around that. On the other hand, when the race officials docked Alaphilippe 20 seconds for taking a bottle inside the final 20 kilometers of racing, I was stunned. Technically, a rider can’t get a roadside feed in the last 20km of a stage. Does that rule get bent from time to time? Certainly. More than anything, I’m surprised that the Tour dinged a home favorite like Alaphilippe for such a trivial infraction.

All of that overshadows Wout van Aert’s impressive win, unfortunately. The 25-year-old gets all the credit for his second stage win — he had little to no team support, unlike Ces Bol, the rider he beat in a head-to-head sprint. While Bol had a phalanx of Sunweb teammates setting him up for the sprint, van Aert was on his own. That’s by design. His Jumbo-Visma team is focused on winning yellow with Primoz Roglic. Even though van Aert buried himself working for Roglic the day before, he still had the firepower to win a sprint in the freelancing style of Peter Sagan.

What can’t Wout do??

Stage 6 // Thursday, September 3: Le Teil to Mont Aigoual, 191km
Winner: Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
Yellow jersey: Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)

The plot thickens. A lot of fans (myself included) thought we’d have some answers after this mountaintop finish. Instead, we have more questions.

Is Alaphilippe actually chasing the yellow jersey? Before the race, he said he was simply stage-hunting at the Tour, like he’s done in years past. After losing the lead on stage 5, he made a cheeky move in the final 300 meters of stage 6 to gain a second on the other riders. Was that a display of Gallic pride or something more? Remember, the long-running Quick-Step franchise has never won a grand tour overall, which would make a potential Alaphilippe Tour victory all the more meaningful.

What’s eating Egan Bernal? I wrongly predicted the Colombian would win this stage and take control. Instead, we saw his teammates, like Michal Kwiatkowski, nervously looking over their shoulders, wondering why Bernal was getting gapped in the final kilometer of racing. The defending champ might have come to France a bit undercooked.

Who will make an impact this weekend? More mountains are on the horizon. Essentially all the GC favorites are within seconds of each other. I’m not sure if I dare make a prediction!

The archives — 100+ years of the Pyrenees

I challenge you to find another sport with the depth of history that cycling has. Sure, Fenway Park was built in 1912, but the Tour de France was racing over the Col de Peyresourde in 1910. And yes, you guessed it, the peloton of 2020 will race that same climb on Saturday in stage 8.

While the Peyresourde is more diminutive and less heralded than its fearsome neighbor, the Col du Tourmalet (not on this year’s Tour route), it’s still rich with history, having been a part of 69 Tours to date.

The Tour first rode through the Pyrenees in 1910. The Peyresourde was part of a grueling 326-kilometer stage 10 that also included the Aspin, Tourmalet, and the Aubisque. Octave Lapize won that stage to the Atlantic coast in a time of 14 hours, 10 minutes. Slow, yes, but the Frenchman was aboard a primitive single-speed bike riding unimproved dirt roads through some of Europe’s most rugged mountains.

Since then, all manner of champions and flash-in-the-pans have topped the Peyresourde ahead of the Tour peloton. Some names that stood out to me as I scanned the records on CyclingCols.com: Ottavio Bottechia (1924), Fausto Coppi (1951), Federico Bahamontes (1963), Lucien van Impe (1972), Bernard Hinault (1981), Chris Froome (2016) … and many many others. Best of all, if you’re ever in France with a bike, you can ride the Peyresourde too. Try doing that in Fenway ...

The road ahead

By the time you read this, stage 7 may be finished. With some early climbs and a long, flat run to the finish in Lavaur, expect another sprint finish. I’d love to see a showdown between Sagan and van Aert.

So let’s turn our focus to the Pyrenees, the mountains separating France and Spain. A range far less developed and heralded than the Alps but still magnificent.

Stages 8 and 9 are similar: They’re moderately long at 141km and 153km, respectively. They each have approximately three major climbs, but none are longer than 15km. And both days finish after descending back to the valley. I think all of this adds up to detente among the GC contenders, though we might see one or two lose time due to a crash, mechanical, or a jour sans (an off-day).

Spencer’s pick: I expect a rider from the breakaway will win at least one of these days. It'll likely be someone who’s been hiding in the pack and saving his energy for the right opportunity, someone like Pierre Rolland, Fabio Aru, or Warren Barguil. Those riders are great climbers but no longer true threats for the overall. Though his lead is a mere three seconds, Adam Yates has a fighting chance of keeping yellow until the Tour’s first rest day. If not, Roglic is ready to step into the lead.



2020 Tour de France, stage 4 mountains
The Tour peloton rode to the top of Orcières-Merlette in stage 4, but would it prove to be a decisive summit finish? Photo: A.S.O./Alex Broadway

 

Stages 3 and 4 - The climbing starts (sort of)

Stage 3 // Monday, August 30: Nice-Sisteron, 198km
Winner: Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal)
Yellow jersey: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)

There’s more than one way to be a sprinter. Were you surprised to see the usually untouchable Peter Sagan fade in the final 100 meters of the stage 3 sprint to finish a lowly fifth place to winner Caleb Ewan? Although we often talk about “sprinters” as a single type of rider, the truth is there are different ways to approach the craft.

While Ewan was off the back on stage 1 after a crash and finished dead last on stage 2, Sagan was in the break on stage 2 to collect bonus points, and he hotly contested the intermediate sprint in stage 3. So while Ewan was (relatively) fresh for Monday’s final sprint, Sagan had been burning matches over the last few days.

Sagan is playing the game to win the green jersey. He racks up points on sprints where less versatile riders — like Ewan or Alexander Kristoff — are off the back. If that means he sacrifices a couple finish places in a drag race like we saw in stage 3, so be it. For Sagan, it is all about standing on the Paris podium in the green jersey. On the other hand, Ewan’s objectives are stage wins.

Stage 4 // Tuesday, September 1: Sisteron-Orcières-Merlette, 160.5km
Winner: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma)
Yellow jersey: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)

As I suspected, this was a tough finish but not selective enough to drop any real GC contenders. When a climb finishes with a 16-rider sprint for the win, you can tell it was not a pure mountain stage. Not to mention the fact that “classics” rider Wout van Aert rode tempo at the front up until the final 1,500 meters — impressive, but not something you can expect to see in the high mountains. Drafting certainly was a factor on this finish climb.

All this is to say, don’t read too much into stage 4’s results. Roglic is clearly on great form. At this point, he has plenty of teammates for support. But everyone else who finished behind? Well, I’m not sure. Nairo Quintana, Julian Alaphilippe, Miguel Angel Lopez, Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot, Mikel Landa, Tom Dumoulin ... The list goes on. All of these riders were there, but will they be there in another week or so? I think we’ll know more after stage 6 ...

The archives - Once in a blue moon

In stage 6 on Thursday, we’ll see the race finish on Mont Aigoual, a rare climb in the world of pro cycling. The Tour de France has only been here once before, stage 17 of the 1987 Tour. That year, Mont Aigoual was a fairly insignificant climb on a long route to Avignon, won by sprinter Jean-Paul van Poppel. While that stage wasn’t particularly memorable, the 1987 Tour — the 1987 season for that matter — saw one of the rarest feats in pro cycling.

With Bernard Hinault retired and Greg LeMond recovering from the hunting accident that nearly killed him, 1987 was the perfect opportunity for Stephen Roche.

He started the season by winning the Giro d’Italia, despite infighting with his Italian teammate Roberto Visentini. Then, Roche went to the Tour. After a see-saw battle for GC with a record eight different riders wearing yellow, he beat Pedro Delgado in the final day time trial to win the overall by just 40 seconds. Two grand tour victories in one season … impressive. But wait, there’s more!

Roche then went on to win world championships in Austria at the end of the season, completing the mythical Triple Crown of cycling — winning the Giro, Tour, and world championships road race all in a single season. Only one other rider has this achievement to his credit: the greatest of all time, Eddy Merckx.

The road ahead

By the time you read this, stage 5 from Gap to Privas may be finished — that’ll be a flat day for the sprinters. You can bet they’ll make the most of a chance to take a win since there are precious few flat stages in this Tour.

On Thursday, the race finishes atop Mont Aigoual, and unlike that stage of the 1987 Tour, this time, it will serve as a true climbing stage. Stage 6 will be a long day at 191km but up until the final 35-odd kilometers, it will be mostly flat. That should leave everyone with fairly fresh legs to really attack the long finish climb, which is broken up into two pitches.

Spencer’s pick: Egan Bernal might be the top Tour favorite and defending champ, but he’s never won a stage in the race. I’m betting he’ll want to stamp his authority on the race early. Plus, stage 6 looks remarkably similar to the stage he won in the 2018 Amgen Tour of California on Gibraltar road. Look for the Colombian to win the day and take yellow off Alaphilippe’s back.



2020 Tour de France, stage 1 in the rain
Rainy conditions made for a sketchy stage 1 at the Tour de France. Photo: ASO/Alex Broadway

Stages 1 and 2 - Spills and thrills

Stage 1 // Saturday, August 29: Nice-Nice, 156km
Winner: Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)
Yellow jersey: Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates)

It’s only fitting that the Tour of 2020 starts on a dreary, rainy day. Bad weather and slippery roads essentially neutralized the race, making for a boring procession around Nice, apart from a few wild crashes and the sprint finish. I don’t fault the riders for essentially agreeing not to race until the end. There’ve been a few terrible crashes in the last month or so since racing resumed. I also don’t blame the organizers — bike racing is held outdoors, always at the mercy of the weather. It’s just a shame things kicked off this way.

However, while the rain poured down on the men in stage 1, the women shined earlier in the day, racing La Course. Saturday’s one-day women’s race didn’t have marquee billing, but it was the must-watch race of the day, if not the weekend. How could you not love a small breakaway group that includes two former world champions and the current champion?

Trek-Segafredo’s Lizzie Deignan won the day after she and her Trek-Segafredo teammate Elisa Longo Borghini put on a clinic. Longo Borghini covered every attack in the finale, leaving Deignan with the freshest legs to win the day. Impeccable teamwork.

Stage 2 // Sunday, August 30: Nice-Nice 186km
Winner: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
Yellow jersey: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)

A punchy final climb ... a small breakaway … a fast descent to the Mediterranean coast … Julian Alaphilippe wins the sprint by the skin of his teeth with the peloton bearing down on him! Wait, are we watching the Tour? Instead, stage 2 looked a lot like the one-day Milano-Sanremo classic, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s wonderful.

This stage was also uncharacteristic for the Tour — at least the second stage of the race — with two significant climbs midway through. I dug into the archives as far as I could, and I couldn’t find another edition of the Tour that had such significant climbing so early in the race.

The climbs weren’t an outright test, but I noticed a leading indicator that was intriguing. Which team controlled the pace all the way up the massive Col de Turnini? And then throttled it up the Col d’Eze? It was Jumbo-Visma, the team of top favorite Primoz Roglic and his sidekick Tom Dumoulin (no slouch either). Wow, solid work from the Dutch team, right?

Wrong.

To me, this smacked of insecurity on the part of Jumbo-Visma. It’s wise to stay in good position at the front, but only when it’s totally necessary, only when it will really pay off. Otherwise, it is wasted energy.

Notice that, in the final kilometers, Ineos-Grenadiers materialized at the front of the peloton to drive the group home behind Alaphilippe’s breakaway, thus minimizing the time gap. To me, that seemed like smart racing borne out of confidence and restraint. Instead of riding the front hard for perhaps the hardest 70 kilometers of the race, the team of defending champion Egan Bernal waited, and played its cards in the final five kilometers, when it really mattered. With that, the break's advantage went from about 20 seconds to 2 seconds. 

The archives - Robic's romp 

Although Col de Turini is a well-worn road in Monte Carlo car rally, Sunday’s stage 2 was only the fourth time this maritime climb has been part of the Tour.

The Tour of 1950 was the second time the race went over the Turini. Jean Robic didn’t win a stage or an overall classification that year, but he did make his mark as first rider over the Turini. It's only fitting that another Frenchman, Anthony Perez, was first to the top this year.

Robic would leave the 1950 Tour empty-handed but was always remembered for his victory in the 1947 Tour, the first held after World War II, and a world championship title later in 1950.

The small, plucky Breton embodied the French spirit in the wake of a world war that ravaged the country. Robic was just as willing to tangle with Bartali on a Pyrenean mountain stage as he was to grab bottles filled with mercury atop a high mountain pass to descend faster and also skirt the race’s rules against bottles filled with solid material.

There’s not a lot of archival footage from mid-century Tours de France, but this montage from the 1950 race shows a bit of the bikes (with bottles still mounted to bars!) and the eventual winner, Ferdi Kubler. Also note that back in this era, the Tour finished on the Parc des Princes velodrome near Paris, not the Champs-Elysees, as became custom from 1975 onward.

The road ahead

We’ll meet again after stage 4, which happens to be the next chance to check in with the top GC riders and their teams. Not only was it early to have big climbs on stage 2, but it’s also early to have a summit finish on stage 4, at Orcières-Merlette, a ski area north of the stage start in Sisteron. It won’t be grueling — 10.4km averaging 6% — but it won’t be easy either.

And remember that many top riders are licking their wounds after a weekend of crashes. Thibaut Pinot, Tom Dumoulin, Miguel Angel Lopez, Daniel Martinez, and many others are healing and recovering. That takes valuable energy, which could otherwise be used out on the road. Let’s hope they can bounce back.

Spencer's pick: I really liked how Alaphilippe was riding in the first two stages. I don't think stage 4 will be tough enough to really whittle down the field, so I expect Alaphilippe to win his second stage and extend his overall lead.


 Tour de France rides through Paris
The Tour de France is finally here! Follow along with Musette Musings. Photo: Sirotti 

Grand Depart 

August 28: Nice

It’s been 40 years since the first and only time the Tour kicked off in the Mediterranean city of Nice. Back then, Bernard Hinault was at the height of his powers, on the legendary Renault team directed by Cyrille Guimard. That year, Hinault won his third Tour on the trot, more than 14 minutes ahead of second place. Yes, the French had a lot more to cheer for back then.

Today, no Frenchman enters the 107th Tour with a legitimate claim to become champion. Maybe Thibaut Pinot is worth considering after his second-place finish in the Criterium du Dauphine, a classic Tour tune-up. But face it, defending champion Egan Bernal is the top favorite.

Likely rivals: Primoz Roglic, Nairo Quintana, Bauke Mollema, Miguel Angel Lopez
Dark horses: Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, Rigoberto Uran, Enric Mas, Julian Alaphilippe
Point of contention: Roglic and Bernal both dropped out of the Dauphine with injuries. Are those actually serious setbacks, or are these stars just playing coy, hiding their true form, and resting up for the Tour’s first-week climbing stages?

The road ahead

The pure sprinters might be disappointed by this Tour’s Grand Depart. The only way to find flat terrain around Nice is to ride up and down the stony beach. The Tour organizers did their best to orchestrate a relatively flat run-in to stage 1. But, the would-be wearers of the race’s first yellow jersey will have to survive multiple climbs in excess of 1,000 feet. A flat first-day promenade this is not.

Spencer’s pick: Peter Sagan seems like the prime suspect to survive the tough hills and win a high-pressure sprint to kick off the Tour.

Then on Sunday, stage 2 will tear the race apart with little prelude. The first 100 kilometers of racing will go over two category 1 climbs. Plus, there are two more stinging, short climbs at the end before dropping into Nice. Expect a thrilling finish and more than a few contenders to be caught off-guard by the early — oh so early — start to proper climbing.

Spencer’s pick: I love a ‘cross-over rider (get it?!) and former world cyclocross champion Wout van Aert has been so good since this season started (re-started) that I think he can handle the climbs and win from a small group in the end.

Also of note, Saturday will also include La Course, the Tour organizers’ limited concession to pro women’s cycling. It’s unfortunate that the female peloton only has one day to race on the world’s biggest stage. The good news is that the best women in cycling usually deliver an exciting race, especially on a route like this, which has two notable climbs before a flat 20km to the line. Sure, summit finishes are flashy, but often a race profile like this results in unpredictable action in the finale with ample attacks and tactical intrigue.

La Course favorites: Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Lizzie Deignan
Dark horse favorites: Lauren Stephens, Jolien D’hoore, Leah Kirchmann

Oh, and spare a thought for the 149-odd riders that Hinault pummeled into submission on the opening day time trial in Nice of the ‘81 Tour. Back then, it was common to race twice in a day — split stages. Meaning that that Tour actually had 25 races, including two split-stages and a prologue, compared to today’s 21 stages. These days, things are (slightly) more civilized.

Here's a little glimpse of what the Tour was like 40 years ago:


7 comments


  • Aaron, I totally agree. Van der Poel and Van Aert are exceptional. I think I view them as a slightly younger generation, yet to fully fill out their palmares, compared to Kwiatkowski. Also, since we were deep in the TDF, my thinking was mostly centered on road performances, but no doubt their ‘cross records (and MTB too in the case of MvdP) are downright ridiculous. WVA has stunned me this season so far, and I can’t wait to see more. As for MvdP, I’m waiting for him to notch a few more major road wins, which are inevitable! Thanks for reading.

    Spencer Powlison on

  • No doubt Michael Kwiatkowski is great and versatile but that, to my knowledge, is limited to road. I don’t think any conversation about best and most versatile cyclist of a generation can be had without bringing in the likes of both Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert who are only 25/26 and winning big across multiple disciplines (classics, 3week tours, gravel, TT, XCO/XCC MTB, CX) and in multiple ways and have potential to do a lot more. so maybe they need to win a few more but no one doubts they will. My 2cents. :-)

    Aaron Clark on

  • I think it’s too early to say whether he’ll be the next Merckx, he’s got to have the longevity and only time will tell. He’s a talented one no doubt and will have success in his career but not sure I can say he’ll be as dominant as Eddy was in his day. Maybe more like a Hinault or Kelly is a safer bet at this time, in my opinion. Nice story.

    Neri on

  • While it is tempting to wish for a new Merckx , riders with the great Merckx drive are rare indeed . Beyond wishful thinking it is a safe bet that there will never be another Eddy Merckx . Bar none King Eddy was the greatest cyclist of my lifetime . There have been a few who came close but none that matched Merckx .

    Wyatt on

  • Great content! Thanks! I wish more Americans knew of Kwiato!

    Lee Sandstead on

  • Really loving these Spencer! Nice to be able to keep up with limited free time to watch this year!

    Matt on

  • Nice writeup Spencer! I’m digging the bullhorn bars in the time trial in the 1987 Roche wins video. I still have a pair of bullhorns on my vintage Serotta.

    Looking forward to reading more as the weeks go on.

    joe connelly on


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