The 2021 Tour de France kicked off on Saturday in Brittany with a road stage rather than the traditional Prologue Time Trial. The teams lined up at the start hoping that the first few days would pass under the tyres without too much drama, after all the Tour is a three-week marathon not a one-day sprint.
The beautiful Breton countryside looks green and benign with white sandy beaches and lush green fields, but it is notoriously tough for racing cyclists, with constant small climbs and descents, narrow, grippy roads, wind coming from all directions at once and thousands of passionate Breton bike racing fans, the opening stages were always going to focus the collective attention of the peloton.
The Tour is built upon tradition and to honour the fact that Alpecin-Fenix rider Mathieu Van Der Poel was starting his first Tour de France he and his team were given special dispensation from the UCI to switch their kits to match those worn by Mathieu’s grandfather the great Raymond Poulidor – the best French rider to never win the Tour de France or wear the races famous Yellow Jersey. Poulidor or ‘Pou-pou’ as he was known gained the additional nickname of the ‘eternal second’ because he was in his prime alongside race-winning machines Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil.
The Alpecin team did their level best to make the dream come true of a rookie stage win and yellow jersey for MVDP, but the stage didn’t go to plan. And not just for the Alpecin team either…
The Tour de France has its entire route lined with raucous and passionate cycling fans, literally millions of people wait patiently by the roadside to cheer their favourites as the peloton rips by at eye-watering speed. Sadly some people forget their responsibilities to themselves and others. One young lady stepping into the path of the approaching peloton with a homemade cardboard placard in an attempt to get her message and face on the tv, clipped Jumbo Visma’s Tony Martin and as he fell the ensuing accident brought down more than half of the peloton. Bikes and bodies were broken, a massive set-back for the teams and riders and this was just day one.
But it was to get worse as, once the race had regrouped, the speed increased to over 70kph, then as the road narrowed, as it does so often, funneling the peloton like piping icing onto a cake, there was a touch of wheels and down the peloton went for a second time. This one was even more brutal and only a precious few evaded the need to sleep on top of the sheet that night or make trips to doctors or hospitals.
Bike racing is tough.
The stage was won, in typically flamboyant style by sports effervescent current world Champion Julian Alaphilippe for Deceuninck–Quick-Step.
Another day, a new hope
Stage 2 dawned with unforgiving Breton roads. The route culminated with a long climb, the Mur de Bretagne which the peloton would ride twice as part of a finishing loop. Coming into the climb with 18kms to go, Mathieu Van Der Poel, now in his regular blue Alpecin-Fenix kit moved up the lead group to shadow the leaders. Then with his characteristic application of immense power he surged off the front. Many, we included, thought this was his bid to strike out alone for the finish. At this distance, it would be suicidal for a rider to do this, but MVDP isn’t any rider…
Mathieu crossed the KOM line in the lead and picked up an 8 second bonus. Everyone expected him to press on for the finish line. Quickly though, he was checking behind, not a normal tactic for him, something was up. Maybe Mathieu’s fitness was off, did he want a companion?
The peloton absorbed MVDP, and for the next ten kilometers, he sat in the wheels, near the front, but never with his nose in the wind. The entire cast of team leaders was at the front as the race began the ascent of the Mur de Bretagne for the second time. About halfway up the long straight climb, MVDP crept up the left side of the road, stalking the lead wheels, quietly assessing and judging where the real energy and intent was in the legs of his competitors.
Then, almost casually, he drifted inside, nearer the center of the road, just as the brow came into sight, sensing a momentary second of indecision among the other riders, he lit the burners. The sheer power and acceleration of Mathieu Van Der Poel is, frankly, astonishing. It’s like two riders inside the body of one. It’s an F1 car against sports cars. He was gone. Up-The-Road.
That first climb look back by MVDP was a calculated move! He was mopping up time and figuring out if it was the right spot to ‘go large’ on the second ascent. Clearly, he thought it was!
Julian Alaphilippe tried to lead the charge to close, but they never got near enough to read the sponsor’s name on the back of MVDP’s jersey. He crossed the line, pointing at the sky, to honour his grandfather, a day later than his plan, and claim his first Tour stage win. Because of the time gap he’d created over the chasers and the ten-second time bonus on the line, added to the eight seconds for his KOM, the coveted yellow jersey was his, the first of his career – a feat his grandad Pou-pou Poulidor never managed.
Collapsing, over the line, physically spent, the emotion of the moment was clear for all to see and the peloton, led by the stage 1 yellow Jersey Alaphilippe, paused to congratulate this incredible champion elect to the newest part of his career – Tour Stage winner and yellow jersey holder. He cried during his press interview and we’re not ashamed to say that we cried with him.
Bike racing is beautiful.
Can MVDP retain the jersey? We think he will hold it until the race reached the first mountains later in the week – we will see though. The Tour is never straightforward, but it is always compelling.