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Could the final podium of the 2021 Tour de France be decided by a breakaway?
The general classification at a grand tour is a very fluid thing.
Each day can bring a seismic shift at the top of the standings, even those where it is unexpected, but – as gaps increase – an ascent of the GC in the latter stages of a three-week race tends to be a more gradual affair.
Riders can move up one or two places as overall contenders slide down due to a bad day or some misfortune.
But every so often, an outsider that looked set for a solid, but unspectacular, result somewhere down the general classification can fly up the standings in one fell swoop and put themselves into contention by making it into a successful breakaway.
While some can jump into top places or even yellow from a successful breakaway, most will slip down the standings when the race hits its toughest.
Sometimes, however, it’s a credible contender within the pack, and their ride has the potential to shape the remaining stages of the race.
Think Thomas De Gendt on the Stelvio at the 2012 Giro d’Italia when he climbed from a decent eighth place to a hugely impressive fourth with a shot at claiming the podium thanks to his long-range efforts.
OK, strictly speaking, De Gendt didn’t get into the day’s breakaway, but he still went from over 60 kilometers out.
At this year’s Tour de France, we’ve seen two riders storm up the GC by infiltrating an early breakaway and putting themselves forward as a podium contender.
Ben O’Connor put the yellow jersey under pressure and rose to second place with his solo win into Tignes before the first rest day. Guillaume Martin – who arrived at the Tour de France with stage wins in mind and not GC – launched himself into second overall on stage 14 into Quillan.
Despite having a rough ride on Mont Ventoux last Wednesday, O’Connor is still well within touching distance of a podium place. His big effort on Tignes could pay some real dividends.
Martin has been less fortunate and suffered during Sunday’s ride through the Andorran side of the Pyrénées, placing him back where he had started the day before. But for a jour sans, and a bit of dodgy descending, Martin was a credible contender.
The other GC contenders can’t have known that he was going to suffer so badly.
In usual circumstances, a rider such as Martin would be unlikely to get into the day’s breakaway and be ultimately allowed to stay away. There’d be too many interests behind to allow him enough space.
However, this year’s Tour de France has proved to be a bit of a headscratcher at times.
Les jours se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas. Fin d'étape difficile, après les efforts de la veille. Mais @LeTour n'est pas fini!
— Guillaume Martin (@GuilmMartin) July 11, 2021
A hands-off UAE
UAE-Team Emirates’ control of the racing has been limited. The team has taken a more hands-off approach to race leadership than we have perhaps seen in the past with Jumbo-Visma and Ineos chasing down those in front.
On stage 14, this was demonstrated to great effect as the battle for the breakaway raged on for more than half the day while Tadej Pogačar and his teammates sat back in the peloton. Rather than try to impose some semblance of calm on the stage, the team seemed happy to let the flow of bike racing take its course.
Even once it was known that Martin was up the road, there did not seem to be any major effort to keep him at overly close quarters. Indeed, with O’Connor there was a last-minute panic from the yellow jersey and his team on Tignes when it looked like the Australian might grab the race lead.
Whether it is Pogačar’s substantial advantage in the overall classification, a lack of experience in leading and controlling a race, a weakness within the squad, or just the Slovenian’s preferred way of racing, it’s not really clear.
Nevertheless, Pogačar has strongly defended his team over accusations that it was weak.
“I don’t know why everyone keeps saying the UAE team is bad and we don’t have things under control, but who is stronger than us?” Pogačar said after O’Connor came close to grabbing the yellow jersey off his shoulders.
“We are one of the strongest teams here for sure. The guys do a fantastic job every day and I’m in the leader’s jersey.”
Whatever the case may be, UAE-Team Emirates has let some strong riders up the road, and those around them seem unable or unwilling to chase the breaks.
The loss of some major GC contenders — such as Primož Roglič — and many big names falling out of contention due to big crashes in the opening stages has had an impact on who is prepared to pull on the front. Meanwhile, at this point, Ineos’ efforts seem focused on breaking Pogačar rather than worrying about who may be coming from behind.
It poses an interesting possibility coming into the final week with the gap between second and 10th spanning less than six minutes.
Particularly with the confidence that Pogačar has in his own time trial, if he and the team are happy to let the race play out in front of them then there is a big opportunity for those lower down the top 10 to roll the dice for a podium place.
Anything can happen in the final week of a grand tour – that’s what makes them so great – and there is a lot still to play for.