Toughest Tour de France in years? How Pogačar, Vingegaard made the race hard for everyone

Inside the numbers and narratives behind a race that never slowed down: 'This Tour was defined by constant pressure on the pedals.'

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

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Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar weren’t only making it hard for each other at this year’s Tour de France.

The numbers and narratives behind this year’s Tour point to how generational talents like Vingegaard, Pogačar and Wout van Aert put pressure across the entire peloton.

“When you look at the loads – training loads and physical loads — those numbers were very high every day, for all our riders. You could see that in the power data, but also in the speed,” Jumbo-Visma trainer Mathieu Heijboer told VeloNews.

“And those power numbers were high all day, not just the final climb of a stage. It was different from other races.”

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This year’s Tour saw longer battles for the break, fewer snoozey sprint stages, and more aggressive racing than ever before.

Speeds in the opening first hour of the day frequently soared north of 50kph, while power output at the opposite end of a stage saw more than 6.5w/kg a staple on computer screens.

The phenom effect

Van Aert, Pogačar, Vingegaard hatching new ways to make the race hard. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

A stage victory at the Tour de France can make a rider’s career and open doors to lucrative future deals. The hunt for a palmarès topping trip to the Tour podium is fierce, no matter what year.

But three dominating forces – Pogačar, Vingegard and Van Aert – made it even fiercer this summer. The three of them scored eight of the 21 stages available, with another four going to bunch sprinters.

That left precious few pickings for the rest of the peloton.

“We would be 60-70km through a stage and there’s still no break,” Joe Dombrowski told VeloNews.

“And then it was so clear probably Tadej or Jonas was going to win a stage. They seemed the two guys that would win a mountaintop finish from the bunch. So making the break was even harder.”

All-day attrition didn’t mean there weren’t stratospheric performances.

Vingegaard piled 6.6w/kg through the pedals for 12 minutes on the way to winning on top of the Hautacam. Top climbers were hitting a full Alpine or Pyrenean pass with more than 6.0w/kg for far more than 20 minutes.

“For me, the hardness of this Tour was defined by the constant pressure on the pedals for three weeks. But there were very big bumps and P.B’s also,” Heijboer said.

“The stage where Wout won in yellow jersey [stage 4 – ed] , the two-minute effort he did on the final Côte du Cap Blanc-Nez was very, very high. And the climbing was so fast, every day. Jonas did some of his powers on the Granon and Hautacam climbs.”

A parcours that punished

Mountain stages were short, severe and dictated by Pogačar and Vingegaard.

The suffering wasn’t all Vingegaard and Pogačar’s fault.

A parcours riddled with traps and “sprint” stages scattered with banana skins meant the traditional Tour template was torn up.

“Every day has been full gas. There’s not been a single day where a small break has gone clear and the peloton has just rolled along,” DSM director Matt Winston said.

Three mountain stages shorter than 150km and two just a fraction longer meant the accelerator was on all day long in some of the Tour’s most decisive stages.

“It’s been a really hard Tour. I think some guys are really struggling,” Winston said in the Tour’s third week.

Hard at the front, hard at the back

Jakobsen couldn’t keep upright after he survived stage 17. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The racing wasn’t only hard at the front of this year’s race.

Searing speeds set by GC teams looking to attack each other at any opportunity reduced cut-off times and caused suffering for those at the back.

Sprint star Fabio Jakobsen was just 16 seconds from being hors delai on stage 17.

Just two stages earlier, Jakobsen’s headline leadout man and veteran of 15 grand tours Michael Mørkøv exited the race after sizzling sun and searing speed bumped him off the back in the first hour of racing in the 15th stage toward Carcasonne.

Mørkøv was one of the Tour’s 41 non-finishers.

While COVID claimed more than a dozen victims, temperatures hitting almost 40 degrees through the French south served time on several riders already struggling to hold the wheel.

“Racing seems to be very hard at the Tour this year. It’s been hard racing every day. The hard mountain stages and the heat don’t make it any easier,” Mørkøv told VeloNews just hours before he left the race.

Fast-developing bike tech, recovery tracking, and nutritional hacks give the most progressive teams the ability to turn the pace a tad higher every season. Increasing sponsor demands and media attention ripple all through an increasingly pressured peloton. And temperatures will continue to inch upward in a perilously crunched climate.

The Tour won’t get easier any time soon.

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