Tadej Pogacar is surely heading for a place in cycling’s pantheon after successfully defending his Tour de France title with one of the most assured and one-sided demolitions of a world-class peloton seen in many a long year.
The silky Slovenian turned the 2021 Tour into an absolute procession, grinding down his rivals one by one to become one of just two riders this century to cross the line down the Champs Elysees with more than a five-minute advantage over the field.
There were sub-plots galore, none more glorious – and surprising – than Mark Cavendish’s record-equalling return to form. But this year’s Tour was Pogacar’s from start to finish and the worry for the rest is that the 22-year-old has got a lot more in the tank and could conceivably dominate this most special of races for many years to come.
Pogacar 5/2 for Olympic gold
This year’s Tour was partly defined by what happened on Stage Three, in what should have been a routine roll into the Breton town of Pontivy but turned into nothing of the sort. From the start it was a stage studded with crashes and big names went tumbling, among them GC contenders Geraint Thomas and Roglic. Caleb Ewan, seen as the favourite for the sprinters’ green jersey before the start, also hit the tarmac, broke his collarbone and was forced to abandon.
Thomas, the 2018 winner, suffered a dislocated shoulder, while Roglic at least did not break anything but hit the floor twice losing critical time to the leaders. Five stages later, however, and after a wretched first day in the Alps, Roglic called it quits, preferring to save his batteries for some decent preparation for the upcoming Olympics.
With two of his big rivals gone and the all-powerful Ineos team – fronted by the likes of Thomas, Richie Porte and Richard Carapaz – showing little, UAE Team Emirates’ star Pogacar had the race at his mercy and did not let up.
He won the first time trial – stage five – and had yellow on his shoulders three days later. By the end of Stage 11, he had a massive advantage of five minutes and 18 seconds over a dispirited chasing pack and it was an edge he would not relinquish all the way to the line in Paris.
Cav and Vingegaard Take Tour Plaudits
Pogacar would eventually be joined on the podium in the French capital by Jonas Vingegaard and Carapaz, who both enjoyed memorable Tours.
Carapaz was the strongest of a strangely subdued cast of stars at Ineos, while Vingegaard, originally in as a domestique for Roglic at Jumbo-Visma, took advantage of the Slovene’s misfortunes to finish second. His heroics on Mont Ventoux, when he managed to drop Pogacar, was the one moment of real discomfort suffered by the champion and hinted at a big future for the 24-year-old Dane.
As for Cavendish, his return to Le Tour was the stuff of dreams. A last-minute replacement for Sam Bennett, written off by everyone (including himself), the Manx Missile showed all his speed and class to rack up four stage wins to tie Eddy Merckx all-time record of 34.
Bitterly frustrated at failing to break that record on the final run into Paris, he was very definitely the other star of the 2021 Tour de France.
And who would bet against Cavendish coming back next year, at the grand age of 37, to finally secure his place in the history books?
*All odds correct at time of writing