Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The main event of the cycling calendar has come and gone for another year, and it’s been an absolute barnburner of a Tour de France.
After three weeks, 21 stages and plenty of twists and turns we ended up with a surprise victory for young Slovene Tadej Pogacar.
Aside from learning the Tour de France remains an extraordinary sporting event, what are the key takeaways from 2020?
The kids are all right (at cycling)
It’s been common wisdom that a cyclist hits their peak at around 27 or 28 years old. It often takes a number of years on the professional circuit for a cyclist to develop the strength and stamina to compete well at the toughest events. However, this year has blown that wisdom out of the water and shone a spotlight on some future stars of the sport.
Pogacar is a massive talent and managed to win the Tour at his first time of entry. He is the second-youngest rider to win the tour and has only just turned 22. He also managed to pick up the white jersey for the Tour’s best young rider and the polka dot jersey for the best climber. The last cyclist to win three jerseys in one Tour was the peerless Eddy Merckx in 1968.
As impressive as Pogacar’s achievements are, he was far from the only young gun on display. Enric Mas managed to finish fifth in only his second tour. This meant there were two riders under the age of 26 who finished in the Tour’s top five. This is a rare feat and has happened only once since 2000, with Andy Schleck and Robert Gesink finishing first and fourth in the 2010 Tour.
The youth movement extended to stage wins as well, with 15 of the 21 stages won by riders who were 26 or under. All of these achievements are even more impressive when you consider that last year’s winner, and the fourth-youngest winner of the Tour de France, Egan Bernal, had to withdraw halfway through due to a back injury.
The tremendous achievements of these young riders provide great excitement for the future. Pogacar and Bernal along with the super-talented Remco Evanepoel have the potential to be a rivalry that could enliven professional cycling for the next five to ten years.
The best rider can still beat the best team
If there is one theme from the Tour de France in the 2010s, it has been the value of teamwork. For seven of the past eight years we have seen Team Sky/Team Ineos dominate the race. Sky/Ineos were the best-funded team and able to afford the best riders. Their dominance almost became boring. It was a familiar sight to see the Sky/Ineos train slowly grind the life out of opposing combatants until only their leader was left.
In the 2020 Tour Ineos was clearly not at their best. Bernal was uncomfortable and their team was weakened by choosing not to bring Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome. But the hopes of a more open tour were seemingly dashed. We instead saw Team Jumbo-Visma do their best Ineos impression and completely take control of the tour. On every difficult stage they dominated the peloton and provided great support to their team leader, Primoz Roglic.
It seemed a certainty that Roglic would ride to victory with the best team behind him. But that’s not what happened. The sheer skill and talent of Pogacar ultimately won out. Pogacar came to this tour with nowhere near the level of team support as was available to Roglic. His best lieutenant, Fabio Aru, withdrew on Stage 9. To indicate how far apart the teams were, Jumbo-Visma had four riders finish in the Tour’s top 20. Pogacar’s next-best teammate finished 41st.
It’s still a lot easier to win the Tour de France with the best team around you. Having a strong team protects a leader on their bad days and elevates their performance on the good days. What was amazing and enjoyable about the 2020 Tour was the reminder that true talent can still overcome the challenges of facing the best teams.
Richie Porte reminds us of what he still is and perhaps what could have been
While Richie Porte has had a glittering career, it has been plagued by bad luck and the nagging sense that perhaps he could have done more. In the 2014 Tour he was stricken with pneumonia, in the 2015 Giro d’Italia it was a puncture and in the 2016 Tour it was another puncture. In both 2017 and 2018 he crashed while in a very strong overall position, while in 2019 he got caught out by crosswinds.
It seemed like 2020 may continue Porte’s wretched run of luck. He lost over a minute on the crosswinds on Stage 7, and on Stage 18 he punctured while on the gravel roads of the Glieres Plateau. Despite looking like lady luck was frowning on him again, Porte produced a brilliant individual time trial to take third spot and place himself on the podium for the first time in a Grand Tour.
Though Porte’s achievements in this year’s Tour were undoubtedly impressive, there is a hint of regret as well. At the age of 35, this was Porte’s last real chance to be a serious contender. He has recognised this too, which is why Porte has recently signed at Team Ineos to be a super-domestique.
I can’t also help but wonder how differently Richie’s record could have looked. He was good enough to finish on the podium near the end of his career. Could he have finished on more podiums or perhaps even won a Tour if a little more luck had gone his way? I strongly believe that Richie Porte was good enough, but his career may perhaps serve as a reminder that one needs good fortune as well as skill to win the biggest prizes.
Tactics can overcome talent
The surprise story of this year’s Tour was Team Sunweb, who claimed three stage wins. Sunweb don’t really have the resources of other teams, and even their most ardent supporter would agree that they did not have the most credentialled or talented team representing them. Instead they won each of their stages with a mix of versatility, tactical brilliance and well-placed aggression.
Their victory in Stage 19 was a classic example of a cycling team optimally using their resources. Stage 19 was one of those mixed stages that is often too hard for the sprinters but not hard enough for the real contenders. Initially Sunweb supplied the pace-making in the peloton to tire many of the best sprinters and shrink the field. Then, once the breakaways started occurring, they got two of their riders into the main break. Finally, one of those riders, Soren Kragh Andersen, made an incredible attack at an unusual time – 16 kilometres to go – backing that the other breakaway riders wouldn’t know how to respond. They didn’t, and Andersen rode solo to a comfortable victory.
Stage 12 was another tactical masterclass by the team. Sunweb got three riders into the breakaway group and they timed their attacks perfectly to wear out the group. Tiesj Benoot attacked with 10 kilometres to go, which necessitated a response. After he was caught, Marc Hirschi attacked and further wore down the main contenders. With three kilometres to go Andersen attacked at a key moment and used his strength to stay away.
What Sunweb’s success shows is the value of having a team that is adaptable in difficult situations and the tactical nous to take advantage of the changing environment of a race. They also gave hope that even smaller teams can still make a big splash at the Tour.