This year’s Tour de France finished, as it does every year, along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The race covered a total of 2200 miles over the course of 23 days, completed in 21 stages, and its conclusion was one of the most unexpected upsets in cycling history.
Like many other multi-day cycling races, the Tour contains a number of competitions besides the overall race. The four competitions include the General classification, best young rider, the sprints classification and the King of the Mountains. Both the best young riders’ jersey and the general classification competitions are determined by the quickest overall time over the course of the 21 stages. The leaders of the General classification and the best young riders category wear the yellow and white jerseys respectively.
The race began in the coastal city of Nice on Aug. 29, over a month later than its traditional early-July start due to the pandemic. After about nine days of racing and three lead changes, the race leader’s yellow jersey finally settled on the shoulders of Slovenian national champion and pre-race favorite Primož Roglič of the Dutch team Jumbo Visma. Roglic and Jumbo Visma then managed to hold on to the jersey for the next 11 days, all the while fighting off attacks from competitors.
To the untrained eye, cycling may appear to be a sport of individuals, similar to track and field. However, in Grand Tour races like the Tour de France, teammates play a crucial role in ensuring victory. Throughout the Tour, Roglic’s teammates performed their duties perfectly, whether riding at the front of the race to allow Roglic a safe spot to draft in, or returning to their team car to grab a fresh water bottle. One by one, as the Tour continued, Jumbo Visma rode hard enough that Roglič’s rivals fatigued and began to slip down the standings, and his hold on the yellow jersey became even firmer. Going into the final stage, only 21-year-old Tour de France rookie Tadej Pogacar, Roglič’s countryman and close friend, remained.
Despite his age, Pogacar is no stranger to Grand tours. At last year’s Vuelta a Espana, he dominated during the race’s third week and secured a podium placement. Pogacar had a slow start in his first Tour de France. He remained close to Roglič in the overall standings through the first week, but a mechanical issue and crash had set him well behind Roglič’s pace. Unlike Roglič, Pogacar did not have a particularly strong team to support him. He spent much of his time at the front of the race riding directly behind team Jumbo Visma in an attempt to conserve energy. Pogacar’s efforts paid off, however, and by stage 21 he assumed a commanding lead, earning the best young rider’s jersey and a near-guaranteed podium position.
Roglič maintained his advantage throughout much of the third and final week of the tour. Going into the penultimate stage — an individual time trial up the notoriously difficult climb Les Planches de Belles Filles — Roglič had a solid 57-second advantage over Pogacar. Many people, including Jumbo Visma’s team director, felt very good about Roglič’s ability to maintain his lead. In addition to having almost a minute on Pogacar, Roglič is considered one of the most talented time-trialists in cycling. However, the nature of the individual time trial made it impossible for his teammates to support him: During this portion of the race, riders must depart from the start line alone and ride the course completely unassisted.
La Planches de Belles Filles makes regular appearances in the Tour de France’s rotating list of climbs, but its inclusion this year as the race’s only time trial was an interesting choice. About half of the 20-mile course was almost pan flat, while the stage finale shot directly upward, rising almost 1500 feet in under 2 miles with gradients averaging eight percent and even getting as steep as 14 percent in some sections. (For comparison, the hill leading up into Gambier and past the Kenyon sign is only 8.6 percent).
Because they began the stage in first and second place on the General classification, Roglič and Pogacar were the last two riders to depart from the stage 20 start, two minutes apart from one another. Through the first couple of time checks Roglič and Pogacar were almost even, but as the stage progressed, Roglič began to shed time. Still, even after losing 20 seconds to Pogacar, he maintained a healthy lead. All that changed as the riders began to ascend La Planches de Belles Filles. As the road turned uphill and the course became more difficult, Roglič began to visibly struggle. “I saw that he was different than usual on his bike,” Teammate Wout Van Aert explained.
The steeper the gradient the more Roglič seemed to visibly deteriorate. He spent more time out of the saddle, visibly fighting his bike, while his helmet slipped back comically. As he ascended the final few hundred feet of the climb Roglič looked out of his depth.
At the same time, two minutes ahead, Pogacar seemed to only grow stronger. He rode the final climb at a blistering pace, staying smooth even as the gradient grew steeper. By the time he crossed the finish line, he had won the stage and not only closed the gap, but also taken the race lead. Roglič crossed the line shortly after, having lost 57 seconds to Pogacar, who was now officially the leader of the general classification, and the youngest winner of the Tour de France. “We were stunned. We thought 57 seconds was enough,” Jumbo Visma team director Richard Plugge told reporters. “It was a mistake to think that, it’s clear.” After conceding the yellow jersey, Roglič made a point of congratulating his friend and countryman with a hug.
The race concluded with a procession into Paris that served as a celebration of Pogacar’s victory. It is an unwritten rule in cycling that a leader of the Tour de France cannot lose the yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées. So on Sunday, Sept. 20, Tadej Pogacar became the youngest person to ever win the Tour de France.