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Autumn shadows, dead sunflowers and a race for the ages – how 2020 delivered a Tour de France like no other

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Autumn shadows, dead sunflowers… and a race for the ages – how 2020 delivered a Tour de France like no other – GETTY IMAGES / REUTERS

You know the world has turned itself upside down when the Race of the Falling Leaves takes place before the Grande Boucle. As the 176 starters in the 2020 Tour de France belatedly set out on the winding route from Nice to Paris, many of the sights seemed familiar enough: the leisurely roll-outs, the families hoisting hand-lettered signs reading ‘Vive le Tour!’, the row of cassocked seminarians with their camera phones raised on the road to Villard-de-Lans, the elaborate displays featuring farm tractors created for the benefit of the helices, and the tributes to the recently deceased Raymond Poulidor as the peloton passed through Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, the great man’s home village.

Others took on a new and different aspect. In the fields of la France profonde, the heads of the sunflowers had turned brown, and the bales of hay were from the second cut of the summer. The sun was lower, and the late-afternoon shadows cast by the riders were long enough to stretch all the way across the country roads.

Autumn sunlight made the 2020 Tour look as strange as it felt. But the colors of a mellower palette provided the back-cloth to 21 days of almost unceasingly vivid action as the hidden tensions created by a pandemic released themselves in day after day of excitement, culminating in a finish of historic proportions. And for those sitting at home around the world, many deprived by the lockdown of their annual holidays, the three-week parade around the sights of France – spectacular rock formations like the Pénitents des Mées in the mountains of Provence, a fortified village-like Taulignan in the Drôme, the gorgeous Lac de Roselend in the Savoy Alps – supplied nourishment for the soul.

In the end, though, it was the race itself that mattered. Above all, no one will forget the sight of the 21-year-old Tadej Pogacar ascending the climb to La Planche des Belles Filles on the final Saturday like a white-winged angel. In that 36km individual time trial, Pogacar went out second-last of the 146 survivors, needing to make up almost a minute to overhaul the final rider, his 30-year-old compatriot, Primoz Roglic, in the general classification. Even before the start of the last climb, he had widened the gap on the road between the two, and after both men had switched to their road bikes – Pogacar in a slick exchange, Roglic in a much scruffier handover – a stopwatch became superfluous.

Autumn

Pogacar, slender and frictionless, seemed to embody youth’s suppleness and inexhaustible energy as he soared up that final 6 km. The older man suddenly resembled any weekend warrior laboring home against a gusting wind with a nagging twinge in his back. In just under an hour – having spent three weeks looking in complete control of himself and the race, apparently an athlete at the peak of his powers – Roglic aged a decade. His yellow jersey mocked his efforts as he ground up the climactic ramp, his poorly fitting aero helmet pushed back to reveal even more of his agony.

Primoz Roglic – Autumn shadows, dead sunflowers… and a race for the ages – how 2020 delivered a Tour de France like no other – GETTY IMAGES

As last-minute collapses go, it was in a class with Devon Loch, a faller on the final straight while leading the 1956 Grand National by five lengths, and Greg Norman, who blew a six-shot lead on the last day at the 1996 US Masters. Until that moment, Roglic had done everything expected of the pre-race favorite, taking an early mountain stage with a confident sprint to a summit finish on the fourth day and then relying on his powerful Jumbo-Visma squad to protect his interests. On the outside, nothing suggested that he was not making his way serenely to the widely predicted first Tour win for a Slovenian rider.

A Slovenian did indeed win, but it was another rider from that country of just two million people who grasped the honor, making a statement on behalf of a new breed of exceptionally talented riders who seem likely to dominate Grand Tours for the next decade. Flanking Pogacar on the final podium, in a repeat of the finishing order at the top of the Grand Colombier precisely a week earlier, were Roglic and the 35-year-old Richie Porte, but it was tempting to see their presence as the last salute from an outgoing generation.

Although the emergence of young riders had been widely discussed in the build-up to the race, it was a 33-year-old who took the first yellow jersey of the 2020 Tour. Alexander Kristoff’s perfectly timed acceleration took him from seventh to first in the last 100 meters on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. But that didn’t begin to tell the story of a dramatic opening day. As France’s rate of new Covid-19 infections was said to be increasing exponentially, the riders set off not knowing whether they would be allowed to reach Paris; for a week, they raced as though they were playing a game of Pass the Jerseys, in which each evening’s standings might suddenly be made to stand as the final results.

Dead sunflowers – Autumn shadows, dead sunflowers… and a race for the ages – how 2020 delivered a Tour de France like no other – RUSS ELLIS

The race for the overall win had been set up as a contest between Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers, the rebranded team of the winners of seven of the last eight Tours in their guise as Team Sky and Team Ineos. The deselection of two of their winners, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, as a result of poor form in the Critérium du Dauphiné, left Egan Bernal as the team’s undisputed leader, defending the title he won in 2019 with a group reinforced by the late addition of Richard Carapaz, the winner of last year’s Vuelta an España, now switched from his scheduled tilt at the Giro d’Italia.

Bernal came into the race carrying a slight back injury and, in the teeming rain on the first stage, two of his lieutenants, Pavel Sivakov and Andrey Amador, took painful tumbles. But the Colombian’s record of riding into form in the third week encouraged thoughts that his modest early showings – eighth in select groups on stages 3 and 5, fourth on stage 9 – were nothing more than precautionary. As he went into the second weekend behind only Roglc in the GC, the ground seemed to have been prepared for a duel between the defending champion and the form favorite.

Roglic had taken himself into the top three with the win at Orcières-Merlette on stage 4 and lifted the yellow jersey from Adam Yates’s shoulders five days later when finishing second in another summit finish at Laruns. The winner that day was Pogacar, who had comfortably made up the 1 minute 20 seconds lost on stage 7 when he was caught out as the peloton was hit by crosswinds after a big right turn into Castres, 45km from the finish in Lavaur. But going into the first rest day, Roglic and Bernal were poised at the top of the overall standings. A week later, having lost 7 minutes to the leaders on the Grand Colombier, the Ineos leader withdrew before the start of stage 17. His back injury, he said, had been getting worse.

If Bernal’s sudden departure marked the end of a decade of domination by Dave Brailsford’s team, two of Ineos’s riders were determined to use the opportunity to show themselves. Carapaz, thrust into the race ahead of his training schedule, launched attack after attack in the last week’s mountain stages, finishing second in Villard-de-Lans and accompanying Michal Kwiatkowski on a breakaway to La Roche-Sur-Foron on stage 18.

As they disappeared into the dust of an unpaved section near the end of a day featuring 4,600m of vertical ascent, Carapaz was offering his Polish teammate the win in recognition of his efforts over the years in helping other men to claim the big rewards. In recompense, the Ecuadorian took the King of the Mountains jersey, only to surrender it two days later in the face of Pogacar’s brilliance.

The decisive role played by the scheduling of the 2020 route’s only time trial at the climax of the race evoked the memory of 1989, when Greg LeMond overhauled Laurent Fignon in a contre-la-montre in Paris to win the overall title by 8 seconds, the smallest margin in the Tour’s history. However, there were four individual time trials that year, including a short prologue and one team time trial.

This year’s route had 20 road stages, the majority of them designed to favor the climbers, opening with two hilly locations beginning and ending in Nice. After Julian Alaphilippe’s animated display in 2019, the hope had been that this might suit one of France’s climbers: if not Alaphilippe himself, then Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet, Guillaume Martin, or Pierre Rolland.

Hélas, it was not to be. Alaphilippe flamboyantly captured the second stage in Nice by timing his sprint better than the young Swiss rider Marc Hirschi; he took the yellow jersey, only to give it up to Adam Yates three days later when he was penalized 20 seconds for accepting a bottle from his cousin and coach within the last 20km of the stage from Gap to Privacy. After that, he played the role of gadfly while his team pursued other priorities.

The unheralded Nans Peters, a 26-year-old Grenoblois, carried the Ag2r-La Mondiale team’s colors to victory in the demanding stage to Peyresourde. Still, Pinot, on whom so many French fans pinned their hopes, had crashed heavily in a pile-up on the Promenade des Anglais 100m from the finish of stage 1; for him, every one of the remaining 3,314km to Paris would be very visibly filled with pain. Poor Bardet hit the deck in a crash in the middle of stage 13, took a bang on the head, and retired at the end of the day, his decision to remount having raised serious questions about the race’s concussion procedures.

Martin attacked the climbs vivaciously enough to get himself up to third overall by the middle of the second week, but no sooner had the philosophy graduate’s book, Socrate à Vélo (Socrates on a Bike), appeared on this writer’s Kindle than he slipped out of contention, eventually finishing eleventh in Paris. He had been caught out on stage 13, a hideously daunting affair including seven categorized climbs and culminating in the Pas de Peyrol on the Puy Mary; that was where Rolland briefly shone, finishing fifth. But, for a sight of their proper position, the French had only to look at the top six on GC that evening: two Slovenians followed by four Colombians – and by Adam Yates.

As is his way, the man from Bury rode mainly in the margins of the GC group, without much obvious help from his Mitchelton-Scott colleagues, and survived four days in the yellow jersey before surrendering it at the end of first week. Roglic, who took it from him in Laruns, benefited from a super-team constructed how Brailsford once assembled squads around Wiggins or Froome.

This year’s Jumbo-Visma line-up was a constant presence on the nose of the peloton, dictating the tempo: Tony Martin for the long pulls, Tom Dumoulin, Robert Gesink, and Wout van Aert ready to take over, Sepp Kuss riding shotgun behind the Slovenian. It worked everywhere except on the time trial, where Roglic could call on no protection. In the end, they will cherish only the memory of two early-stage wins, in Privacy and Lavaur, for the phenomenally versatile Van Aert.

Leaving Alaphilippe to his own devices, Deceuninck-Quick Step concentrated on Sam Bennett’s tilt at the points classification, with the line-backer’s shoulders of Tim Declerq often prominent at the front of the bunch. The Irishman’s first stage win on the Île de Ré showed his strength as he surged ahead of Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan.

Ewan would win two sprints on the way to Paris, but Bennett’s majestic surge to the line on the Champs-Élysées ensured that Sagan would be denied an eighth green jersey. Remarkably, Bennett’s success gave the County Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir – population 5,571 – a fifth green jersey to go with the four won in the 1980s by the great Sean Kelly.

That was the only jersey Pogacar failed to mop up, although Benoît Cosnefroy wore the polka dots without much exuberance for 16 days in a row. Movistar’s success in the team classification would undoubtedly have been a mystery to armchair viewers: their leader, the 40-year-old Alejandro Valverde, was just one of the senior figures who looked to be having their last hurrah. The same might have been saying of Richie Porte until his Tour ended very differently.

Having arrived with the blessing of his wife, Gemma, who gave birth to their second child during the first week of the race, the 35-year-old Tasmanian appeared to have fallen victim to the bad luck that has so often ruined his chances, becoming the only one of the leading contenders to suffer a puncture on the gravel section of the Plateau des Glières near the end of stage 18, with no team car immediately available. But he made up the deficit, vaulting over Miguel Ángel López in the GC by riding brilliantly to finish second – equal with Dumoulin – in the time trial and mounted the podium a contented man.

Otherwise, it was mostly new faces who provided significant animation. Marc Hirschi, a 22-year-old Swiss with Sunweb, shook off the disappointment of defeat in the stage 2 sprint with an 80km solo break on stage 9 that featured descents from the Souder and the Marie-Blanque so breathtakingly audacious as to be strongly reminiscent of Fabian Cancellara, who happens to be his agent.

Caught in the final grind by Pogacar and Roglic, he got his reward on stage 12, this time hurtling down the Suc au May to build a gap to his pursuers and record the first win of his pro career. However, six days later, he was in a five-man breakaway descending at speed from the Col des Saisies when he misjudged a left-hander and slid into a ditch. As he got up and rode more gently to the finish, many were already looking forward to seeing him decorate future Tours.

His Danish teammate Søren Kragh Andersen seized the initiative with solo breaks to win stages 14 and 19, throwing the spotlight on Sunweb’s 33-year-old British DS, Matt Winston, a Lancastrian who spent eight years coaching British Cycling’s junior squads. Bora-Hansgrohe’s efforts to lead out Sagan usually featured Lennard Kämna, a 24-year-old German who attacked an elite group off the top of the final climb on stage 16 and soloed to victory, one of ten first-time stage winners on this Tour. Neilson Powless of EF Pro Cycling, making his Tour debut, could not quite manage to make it 11, but many days were enlivened by his active presence in a break.

He is the first Native American to ride the Tour. He would have finished on the day’s podium on Mont Aigoual at the end of stage 6 had Greg Van Avermaet not nicked third place from him on the final bend as they came in behind Alexey Lutsenko and Jesús Herrada. Perhaps no one had told the veteran Belgian it was the newcomer’s 24th birthday, but Powless will have learned that there are few gifts on the Tour.

There were other signs of difference. The race director, Christian Prudhomme, disappeared into self-isolation for a week after testing positive for Covid-19 and returned after being cleared. And while local politicians usually glory in the passage of the race through their towns, the Mayor of Lyon, where one stage ended and another began, took the unusual step of condemning the Tour for the environmental damage it causes and for the organizers’ failure to promote women’s cycling with sufficient enthusiasm.

At the start of the final day, there was a token acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement, headed by Kévin Reza, the sole rider of color in this year’s entry, with support from others, including Van Aert and Ewan, two double stage winners, and Matteo Trentin. ‘Everything has to start somewhere,’ Reza said.

A blast from the past came with post-race reports that Pogacar’s UAE Emirates team management contained figures with historical links to illegal performance enhancement, and with the news that the hotel rooms of Nairo Quintana’s Arkéa-Samsic team in Meribel had been raided during the Tour’s final week by the French police, who took away items ‘that could be qualified as doping’ and placed a team doctor and a soigneur in primary custody. A cynic would say, ‘What did you expect?’ An optimist would suggest that these are signs of continuing official vigilance.

A realist would keep an open mind, knowing that all things are possible in the Tour de France. The defining miracle of the 2020 Tour was not so much the staggering victory by a 21-year-old first-timer from a tiny country as the fact that it took place at all – and that, having got underway on the Côte d’Azur, it made it all the way to the Paris, past reduced numbers of mostly masked spectators in the mountains and villages and finally up and down the deserted boulevards of the capital. As France braced itself for a sterner lockdown, the most excellent free show in sport sent a message of hope. The sunflowers were dead. The Tour was alive.

© The Road Book Ltd 2020