Van der Poel’s compatriot Hennie Kuiper, two-time vice-champion of the Tour de France, was apocryphally quoted in Tim Krabbé The horseman on the theme of energy expenditure: “Running is licking your opponent’s plate before setting off on your own. Van der Poel offered his rivals a three-course meal of energy-consuming decisions.And yet he could still launch an elemental ferocity attack even if defending race champion Tadej Pogačar and his shadow Primož Roglič were the only riders able to follow his Colbrelli pursuit. Pogacar, who is no stranger to upsetting the Tour de France by acts of bicycle violence, did not bother to follow Van der Poel’s departure, and said so: he could have followed, he would have done. The rest of the Tour ended up in a fight for a very distant second place.
By taking the yellow jersey on the Côte de Mûr-de-Bretagne, Van der Poel did in two days what his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor never succeeded at 14 Tours. The feat and emotional resonance made Van der Poel cry, and cycling fans cried. Van der Poel runs with locked caps; there is nothing in the matter of subtlety, finesse or art. Physiologists can trace his ability to accelerate again even as his body returns to its cyclo-cross efforts, or note that his father and maternal grandfather were both world-class pros, but what made him really separate from everyone in the Mûr-de-Bretagne peloton that was it: chaos.
Chaos is in the air at the 2021 Tour de France. It drifts along the race like the sea breezes blowing northeast over Brittany from the Atlantic coast, carried by the air like salt. Van der Poel is an agent of chaos; he profits. Ditto with yesterday’s winner Julian Alaphilippe. It’s not just the racing style of the two yellow jerseys in the race so far. The chaos on Stage 1 was literal: falls, strains and a cardboard sign with a simple salute to the incumbent’s grandparents disrupted, baffled and inflicted physical pain and injury to the peloton.
The Tour de France is an eternal struggle between control and chaos. Over the past decade and more, control has won. The history of modern cycling is one of organized and strong teams that stifle the industry and the ambition of more aggressive riders and teams, and we all know which team I’m primarily talking about. The chaos is hidden under a thin veneer, but above all, the Tour is the most controlled race in the world of professional cycling.
But chaos has won so far in this Tour. The contrast between the two competing and conflicting approaches to cycling can be summed up by the contradictory approaches of Van der Poel and the Ineos Grenadiers in the last 25 kilometers of today’s stage. Ineos, which has been more responsible than any other team in the history of cycling for crushing offensive ambition with cold, harsh organizational logic, physiological superiority and control, has come through an absolutely classic stage. With 23 km to go and the peloton intact, they had a full complement of eight riders lined up on the right side of the peloton at the front. They seemed… in control. The fourth category climb through the village of Mûr-de-Bretagne and then the first climb of the final climb cost them two riders, but they still led the peloton between the last two climbs with a line of six. One by one, their riders led and then took off in slow motion and over long distances: Van Baarle, Geoghegan Hart, then Kwiatkowski in the final climb, and Porte le Haut with the two leaders of the general classification Carapaz and Thomas in his wake. .
But this is the old way. Ineos was perhaps the most efficient and logical race and maintained an illusion of control. But cracks emerged, not only in their inability to face Van der Poel, but also in the fact that Geraint Thomas was dropped and conceded 23 seconds to the Dutchman and 15 to several of his overall rivals. So far in 2021, chaos has overcome control.
Maybe it’s just Brittany. There are still two stages to go in France’s craziest cycling region, but the route will calm down, level out and probably favor the stage 3 sprinters. But at the same time, the Tour 2021 is not still settled. And it is the riders who refuse to be constrained by the received wisdom, standard tactics and control instincts of established cycling that have thrived.
Edward Pickering is the editor of Procycling magazine.
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