AFor a long time with the precocious talent of Tadej Pogacar and the astonishing return of Mark Cavendish, the Tour de France 2021 has become a race marked by three influential all-rounders: Julian Alaphilippe, winner of the first stage; Mathieu van der Poel, winner of the second stage and yellow jersey of six stages before retiring on Monday; and Wout van Aert, who dominated the most difficult mountain stage of the entire race on Wednesday, winning the Malaucène stage after two climbs of the formidable Mont Ventoux.
The Frenchman, Dutchman and Belgian share a few things: none of them started the 2021 Tour as an overall contender, they are all Classic for a Day specialists, and their roots lie in cyclocross, the short and intense winter version of road racing. Van Aert and Van der Poel have between them dominated the discipline for several years – there have been some memorable good duels between the two this winter, culminating with the world championship won by Van der Poel – while the time of Alaphilippe in “cross” came when he was a junior; he won silver at the world championships in 2010.
The trio’s impact extended far beyond Alaphilippe and Van der Poel’s stage victories on the opening weekend of the race. The longest stage of the race, from Vierzon to Le Creusot on the first Friday, was transformed when Van Aert, who was riding for Jumbo-Visma, split the peloton in two from the start with a series of relentless attacks, forcing a massive split that also included Van der Poel, who wore the yellow jersey for Alpecin-Fenix. This in turn put the Emirates Pogacar team on the defensive, and the result was a 249km stage race at 45.5km / h.
Wednesday’s twin climbs of Ventoux came after Alaphilippe launched a brutal offensive from the start, winning the breakout that led to Van Aert’s victory. There wasn’t a lot of tactical sense in what he was doing – when the Ventoux was tackled for the second time the Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider was clearly out of gas – but it was a spectacular race , reflecting another truth: the trio’s offensive running style is a bonanza for viewers.
The way Van Aert, Alaphilippe and Van der Poel ran marked the end of the catenaccio stereotypical team tactic style that marked the eras of Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong and Team Sky / Ineos. Arguably this prompted Pogacar to ride more offensively, and there was a good chance that with the return run in the Pyrenees, Alaphilippe and Van Aert would be on the move again. However, this is not a universal good; this Tour saw an unusually high number of retirements, brought about in part by bad weather and accidents, but also arguably because the men’s racing style meant less respite for the fighters.
Cyclocross riders entering road racing aren’t exactly new. The most famous example is that of the Belgian Roger de Vlaeminck, whose record in the Classics for a day is just behind that of Eddy Merckx. Over the years, champions like Bernard Hinault have done cross country to keep in shape in winter. Most recently, Peter Sagan started out in mountain biking and cyclo-cross, and achieved a hat-trick of world titles on the road.
But traditionally cross-country racers have targeted one-day classics, or – as Sagan notably did – the price of Tour points. De Vlaeminck ran the Tour once, with little effect. The difference with the 2021 Tour is that Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe had an impact on the overall standings and the big mountain stages, and on the way the Tour unfolds.
The hallmark of cross country racers is that they don’t run to a script. They seem ready to attack anywhere and anywhere, and team tactics and team briefings sometimes seem irrelevant. Alaphilippe has raced this way on the Tour in the past – the approach took him to fifth overall in 2019 – but he no longer looks like an outlier. With the Crusaders on the move, this Tour has at times ceased to be the “chess on wheels” they say it is.
There is a different mentality, which comes from the fact that cyclocross races are short and intense: followers of the genre are used to running hard for an hour, and the main tactic is the use of power and superior maneuverability to roll the opposition of the rear wheel. This is exactly what Van Aert did by sharing the peloton en route to Le Creusot, while Van der Poel could be seen doing the same at the finish of the third stage in Pontivy, when his last acceleration took place. set up the stage of his teammate Tim Merlier. to win.
Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe helped define this year’s Tour de France between them, but they are not alone in cycling as a whole. Yorkshire’s Tom Pidcock has already made a huge impact in his first professional season and may well shine on the Tour in the future, if Ineos can adapt his robotic racing style to his talent. But they follow in the footsteps of two pioneering women: the Dutchman Marianne Vos and the Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.
Vos, the 2012 Olympic champion, last week won her 30th stage of the biggest women’s stage race, the Giro Rosa, another milestone to add to her three world titles, seven world gold medals in cyclo-cross and Olympic and world track titles. Ferrand-Prevot, meanwhile, was simultaneously world champion in road bike, cross country and mountain bike in 2015. And next year, with a women’s Tour immediately following that of the men’s, all-rounders of both sexes could take center stage for a full four weeks. .