Cycling’s rescheduled Tour de France made a proud entry into Paris Sunday with its boyish champion Tadej Pogacar the figurehead of a storied 21-day extravaganza crowned by a twist in the tail.
Many predicted the Covid-19 pandemic would prevent the race making it the 3,400 kilometres from the Mediterranean city of Nice to the French capital.
And that ever constant tension provided the drumbeat for the series of cautionary tales and the modern day David slaying Goliath re-enactment that unfolded before a stunned global audience.
Saturday’s gut-wrenching penultimate stage time trial saw the 21-year-old Pogacar rip the yellow jersey from his 30-year-old Slovenian compatriot Primoz Roglic on the slopes of the Planche des Belles Filles climb.
Dressed from head to toe in black, Roglic looked a broken man as the dust settled.
“I cried, I’ll cry again,” said the leader of Dutch team Jumbo-Visma. “I just seemed to have no power,” he explained.
But the stark warning was written large in the Tour de France official programme.
“Anybody with little left in the tank could lose two or three minutes here,” the race designer himself, Thierry Gouvenou, predicted.
Pogacar won three stages but was racing with a depleted team on his first Tour de France.
So just how did the team that had appeared to dominate a Tour, destroying the hopes of the home nation and ending the reign of Dave Brailsford’s British outfit Ineos, let victory slip from their grasp?
All-time great Eddy Merckx didn’t mince his words.
“They were asking for it riding defensively like that. Imagine letting yourself get taken like that,” said the five-time Tour de France winner.
Jumbo failed to twist the knife with Pogacar trailing behind at the end of the first week, on a stage their powerhouse roller Wout Van Aert won a bunch sprint.
A stage win that unwittingly undid their best laid plans.
The Jumbo horror story provides Brailsford with convenient cover but his Ineos team can point to a number of mitigating circumstances.
The 2019 champion, Colombia’s Egan Bernal, came into the race nursing a bad back, and was robbed of his two key mountain sherpas when a deluge in Nice saw Pavel Sivakov and Richard Carapaz fall heavily.
It must also be said the team were mourning the loss of one of their own, after the untimely passing of sports director Nicolas Portal in March.
Brailsford opened up about this loss in Pau on stage nine, and the impression was of a man whose heart might not have been fully on the task at hand.
Bernal’s collapse on a mountainside with Jumbo skipping towards a summit was agony to watch.
Brailsford withdrew his leader and refocused the team that earned some scant recompense on the final Alpine stage with a stage win and the polka dot jersey.
The French cycling community were lulled into believing their beloved but emotional climber Thibaut Pinot was about to finally deliver.
He too fell in the deluge at Nice where a fellow rider hit him square in the back.
He struggled on into the Pyrenees but soon fell off the pace.
Pogacar’s crushing of Roglic on the Planche des Belles Filles is not only one of the sports stories of the year, it also marks a generational shift to the ascendency of younger riders, following as it does the now dated story of Bernal’s success a year ago at 22.
“I’m just a kid from Slovenia,” the Tour’s youngest post-World War II winner said on Saturday, unaware of the extent to which his life is likely to change.
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