The Tour 2022: a rebirth of racing

The Tour de France has evolved a lot over its 109 editions. Previously, for example, in the post-war period, racing focused heavily on mountaintop finishes to spruce up the spectacle. ‘The Tour’ has garnered adoration from fans around the world; it was a time of legends, rider against rider running by instinct. Merckx and Gimondi, Anquetil and Poulidor, Simpson and Hinault, eyes closed, climbing the Alpine passes. He was a gladiator, and only one rider could escape the lions and enter legendary cycling mythology.

Then the sport changed. Steel frames were ditched in favor of space-age composites, mid-term vino became a prescribed electrolyte, and late-night celebrations were replaced by 9 p.m. bedtimes in air-conditioned hotels. . By the time Team Sky’s “marginal gains” philosophy had permeated the highest level of sport and trickled down to the average sport rider, every inch of cycling had been quantified, modeled and optimized in this age of technology. .

As theoretically impressive as it is algorithmically optimal, this quest for the fastest and most efficient race isn’t what drives over a billion viewers to tune their TVs every July. On the contrary, many would say that this obsession tamed the wild spirit of the breed. Recent circuits have been decided in individual time trials (ITTs), where gear and strategy matter most, and riding with passion and skill will see you at a serious disadvantage – as they say, in the race for truth , the stopwatch does not lie.

But why become lyrical about the glory days when the Tour was run by monsters of nature with fire in their bellies? Because many had lost hope after years of ‘Sky-Trains’ neutralizing the mano a mano fight mountains, and entire three-week races that could have effectively been copied and pasted (except for the occasional swap of a Froome here and a Wiggins there). Cycling seemed to be a slave to numbers, a predetermined outcome accompanied by a 21-act pantomime. However, the 2022 Tour de France has firmly dispelled those fears.

Coming out of relative obscurity on the top finishes of the 2019 Vuelta, to his unforgettable Planche des Belles Filles TT which saw him take the 2020 Tour from Primož Roglič at the very last moment, Tadej Pogačar prevailed through the cycling in his remarkable flourishing career. . With his dominating display in last year’s Tour, which he effectively concluded with the first day of rest, the 2022 Tour had come across as a formality, more like a victory parade around Denmark and France for the young Slovenian. So much so that the betting markets put him three times shorter than the next runner. At the highest level of a sport where a single percentage point between runners is extremely wide, all data from the previous season pointed conclusively towards the winner.

“Based on previous data, it looked like Pogačar’s climbing numbers would be unbeatable”

However, even the best-laid mathematical models cannot comprehensively describe the many factors at play in 3,328 kilometers of cycle racing. The general classification, and therefore the overall winner of the race, is decided when the road turns up. The steeper the grade, the slower the speed and the effectiveness of another runner’s draw quickly evaporates. On this, the top riders compete almost entirely on power-to-weight ratio (or Watts per kilogram).

Professionals spend grueling winter hours, albeit in a slightly less grueling Mediterranean climate, building their form in a near arms race with their rivals. If, in July, the group of your closest competitors is riding at 6.5W/kg on a 30-minute alpine climb, and you can only muster 6.4W, you’ll soon find yourself backing off when it counts. really, and figuratively plummeting in the rankings. Simply put, it’s the model that decided the Tour de France, and any other race punctuated by its summit finishes.

Based on previous data, it looked like Pogačar’s climbing numbers would be unbeatable, and with the last two Towers to back it up, he had the stamina to claim a third. But the models fall short in three main areas: weather, team composition and racing style.

The past three weeks have coincided with perhaps the most severe heatwave Europe has ever experienced. Asking runners to perform at their best at temperatures exceeding those inside the body is unachievable. Pogačar made a name for himself as a runner with courage, winning decisive victories over his rivals in the worst weather conditions imaginable, undeterred by relentless rain that would tempt any sane runner to retire rather than bomb a winding and wet descent. On Stage 8 last year, he pulled out a three-minute gap as the rest of the race tried to climb onto the straight. But his calm, cool face in the coldest conditions stands in stark contrast to his appearance in the forty-degree heat we’ve seen this year; shirt unzipped, panting heavily and with a pained expression, Pogačar was far from himself. The jumper who had always fired the shots quickly found himself on the receiving side.

Undoubtedly one of the best climbers, Pogačar’s incredible long-climb performances are best characterized by his explosive attacks. When he is having a good day, he attacks, and not by gently moving away from his opponents, but by sprinting as if the finish was 200 meters away rather than a few kilometers away. Opening a gap so quickly often leaves his rivals floundering to catch his wheel, and if they are able to close it, he raises again and again until the knockout blow. It’s not a particularly well-kept secret in the cycling world. In fact, the hard-hitting style that makes him one of the most exciting runners to watch is the very attribute that would be used to top him.

This year, Pogačar’s struggles in the Heat, coupled with a relentless campaign from the Jumbo Visma team, propelled Jonas Vingaard to overall victory. Despite early setbacks with Roglič’s injuries, the team identified those weaknesses to break through Pogačar’s seemingly impenetrable armor and land successive blows in the mountains that saw Vingaard take an increasingly insurmountable lead. Jonas was able to deliver such an immense surge of power that he opened up ten bike lengths to Majka, Pogačar’s servant, who in turn closed the gap too quickly and ended up dropping his leader, who then seemed to retreat into the mad crowds.

“The real advantage of Jumbo Visma lies in the composition of his team”

More than two minutes later, Pogačar found himself in a situation that was foreign to him – on the back foot. The following day, Vingaard and teammate Roglič began to exploit his style of closing every attack himself; what some might call his overconfidence. More than a hundred kilometers from the finish, they alternated attacks, forcing Pogačar to close one by one like a hamster stuck on a wheel. His own flair would drain his energy, causing him to waste more time on the decisive final climb of the day when he had hoped to regain the lead.

But the real advantage of Jumbo Visma lay in the composition of his team; they also lost riders like UAE towards the climax of the Tour, but the ones they had were of exceptional caliber. Take Roglič, the man who lost the 2020 Tour to Pogačar on the final day, and a multiple Grand Tour winner in his own right. Rather than lick his wounds when it appeared his form was not that of Vingaard, he instead turned to avenge the man who wronged him two years ago; he single-handedly whittled the group down from around thirty to a handful, ejecting the best runners in the world as if standing still.

Still, Roglič was not the star of the show. Enter a man who could have towed Vingaard through hell and back: Wout van Aert. The Belgian army knife that has won sprint stages, time trials and the most brutal mountain stages; a level of global dominance not seen since Merckx. After securing the green points jersey relatively easily, Wout set out to liven up the race, being unanimously voted the ‘most combative rider’, while helping Vingačar put Pogačar under pressure, and ultimately dropping him on an HC climb that shouldn’t be his forte as a classic rider, cyclocrosser, and racer. There are no numbers to describe the benefits Vingaard’s team has brought him.

The fierce battle of Vingaard and Pogačar was indicative of the race as a whole. This year saw one of the most aggressive three weeks of racing ever, the fastest Tour in history, giving no rider time to catch their breath. Typically, a handful of sprint stages give competitors time to relax, letting a breakaway go on a leash before an intense final hour. But it’s been a weak year for sprinters, runners who climb mountains in an attempt to claim victory on the flattest days. Fears of crashes in recent years and high winds expected in Denmark meant nervous teams picked up the pace throughout, leading to disorganized finishes where many of the fastest men were swept away by the back of the race. Sprint stages are an important part of racing, but usually only provide ten minutes of excitement; but instead we had cobblestones and fiery tactics to glue us to our screens for entire afternoons.

Perhaps the real spectacle of the 2022 Tour was not just the fierce battle for the top step of the podium, but rather seeing how the sport has transformed its riders into fantastic role models. Even when he looked defeated, Pogačar refused to settle for second place, attacking Vingegaard at every opportunity; an enthusiasm that would eventually overtake his descent, crashing him on a technical corner after trying to outrun Vingaard. But Jonas, rather than using his rival’s error to drive a bigger time gap, waited and made sure he was unhurt. The streak of Pogačar reaching out to his biggest rival to thank him will stay with cycling for a long time.

Personally, the 2022 Tour has been a rebirth, unequivocally the greatest Grand Tour in living memory. A reimagining of the sport’s unwritten rulebook, a reinstallation of the excitement of yesteryear after a drought of unpredictability. The infamous battles that have long been heralded, where rider fought rider in pure aerobic and anaerobic combat, are no longer just black-and-white photographs, but modern, tangible color images. The beauty of bike racing brutality is back, and I hope it’s here to stay.

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