Placing This Tour de France in Perspective
This Tour de France has been a bit light on sexy narratives, thanks in part to a couple crashes early on that defanged the race for yellow, which was also the battle for white. This Slovenian kid, he might be something. Mark Cavendish rose from the career graveyard and went all zombie apocalypse on the points field and maybe the all-time stage wins record. And of course stages happened and gave us some great short-term thrills, plus the sexy-ish van der Poel/Van Aert narratives, where for once everybody won. Sexy enough for you? Maybe not. [And before you ask, raiding Bahrain’s hotel room and Mohoric winning the next day, that’s not a sexy narrative.] But here are a few fun takeaways, separated out by competition category.
You already know that Tadej Pogačar is about to win the Tour de France. You know his margin is comfortable and his second victory is quickly moving him up the ladder of all time champions, even while he celebrates his late adolescence. He’s incredible, although he’s also the beneficiary of a race that saw some potential challengers taken out by crashes, and the future is uncertain, so let’s not put him in the Five Win Club just yet.
You’ve probably also seen the “youngest ever winner” stats, where Pogs lies second to the 1904 winner, Henri Cornet, who set the unbreakable mark of 19+ years. That Tour has more asterisks next to it than it had riders, so if you want to call Pogačar the all-time standard-bearer, I’m cool with that.
But did you know…! that we are in the midst of one of the youngest-ever total podiums? As of today, the podium consists of Pogs, Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz. Their combined ages of 22, 24 and 28 is a total of 74 years (using rounded numbers — don’t make me tabulate days). Is this the youngest combined podium ever? No, but it’s close. Let’s take a look.
- In 1984, Laurent Fignon (then 23) won ahead of Bernard Hinault (29) and Greg LeMond (23), for a total of 75 years.
- In 1965, the podium consisted of 22-year old Felice Gimondi, 29-yearold Raymond Poulidor, and 22-year-old Gianni Motta… grand total of 73 years!
- And then there’s 1909, won by Francois Faber (22), followed by Gustave Garrigou (24) and Jean Alavoine (21). 67 years total. Pretty great, although I will note that all three of them were older than the Tour de France (6) so are we sure this counts? The 1910 Tour podium (Lapize, Faber, Garrigou) added up 69 years to their name. There may be other examples from pre-WWII that I missed, but whatever, those were drastically different times.
I think those are the contenders, all interesting in their own way. But the fact that three of the youngest winners took place over the last three years (two riders) hints that the kids are taking over, and with the youth craze spreading to the entire podium now, it can no longer be ignored. To refresh your memory, the four lesser podium spots in ‘19 and ‘20 all went to 30+ guys. And before that, the winners were almost all in their so-called prime (roughly 27-32), except for 25-year-olds Andy Schleck (‘10) and Alberto Contador (‘07) and 24-year-old Jan Ullrich (‘97).
On another note, this year’s Tour included four of the five active former Tour winners, a pretty good number but well short of the record of seven set in 1914, when even being a Tour winner was a thing that was still just taking shape. That race also included four more riders who hadn’t won yet but would do so in the future. It’s a great list: Trousselier, Petit-Breton, Faber, Lapize, Garrigou, Defraye, Thys, Lambeau, Scieur, Pelissier and Buysse.
Will we look back at 2021 and feel any similar sentiments? In addition to the four winners, we have Roglic the near winner, we have the youthful Vingegaard, Carapaz, Tao Hart, Mas, Higuita and probably a few other guys we shouldn’t hang the “future Tour winner” tag on just yet. This year’s race looks pretty packed with champions, but not quite loaded.
There are a few things to unpack, such as the stage wins record. Odd that the Tour stage wins record is just now being seized by a sprinter. Cavendish is tied with Eddy Merckx (as of this sentence being written) at 34 wins, well ahead of Bernard Hinault at 28, then André Leducq at 25 — another former maillot jaune (x2). Only at fifth place, in the person of Andre Darrigade, with 22 wins, do you encounter another sprinter. Whereas at the Giro d’Italia, the stage wins record was recently taken by Mario Cipollini (42) from Alfredo Binda (41), with Learco Guerra next at 31 — all fairly considered sprinters. The Vuelta stage wins record is even more thoroughly dominated by sprinters, starting with Delio Rodriguez (39 wins), then Alessandro Petacchi (20), Laurent Jalabert blah blah blah Sean Kelly is he a sprinter etc. until you get to who else, Alejandro Valverde, tied for seventh with 13 stage wins.
Why have sprinters failed to dominate the Tour de France to the same extent? It’s not the terrain; Le Tour typically has an abundance of flat stages (albeit less so lately) while the Giro often struggles to include more than a small handful. The Vuelta is a bit all over the map here but they tend to involve the climbers a lot. And yet the Tour climbers have set this bar where Tour sprinters can’t reach it, until now? My guess is that the Tour just isn’t very friendly to lone, dominant sprinters; to the extent it favors sprinters, it tends to draw all of them, and they share the spoils more? Or maybe these records are just so reflective of particular individuals that you can’t draw any broader conclusions beyond “that Cipollini sure was fast.”
Anyway, if you had misgivings about Cav taking the title away, you shouldn’t. Stages are for fastmen, and Cav is correcting an historical oddity in taking the mark from the all-round Merckx.
Obviously Pogačar is setting a new standard for kids eligible for the white jersey also vying for the yellow jersey. The Young Rider competition has only been formally recognized at the Tour by the white jersey since 1975, and Pogačar’s achievement marks only the sixth athlete to win both the white and yellow jerseys simultaneously. Laurent Fignon, in 1983, was the very first, followed by Jan Ullrich in 1997, Alberto Contador in 2007, Andy Schleck in 2010 (awarded retroactively), and finally Egan Bernal two years ago. There were come close calls — LeMond missed by two years and only if you’re sure Andy Hampsten was a separate person — and had the jersey come along earlier then some of the youngest-ever winners you can find on a list of the Tour’s youngest winners, they would have all been in white too. One last thing on yellow — there haven’t even been many podium finishers in white. Apart from the winners, you have Pantani third in 1994, Ullrich second twice while in white, Schleck one other second place, and Nairo Quintana second twice before aging out.
Is there something to glean from these numbers? It’s easy to say that there’s a huge glut of young talent emerging now, something I’ve said many times, but we are talking about the Young Rider winner taking three straight Tours and a few recent second places — cool numbers but not what you would call a statistically significant trend I don’t think. So what does it mean? That older riders just suck now? Maybe — guys in their thirties came up during an era that was still pretty awash in doping, and a lot of the top athletes from that era got sent away. Or just went to play soccer. I don’t know.
Another thing I want to throw out there is the possibility that this reflects a management change. Were riders “back in the day” allowed to ride for a high GC result even though they were low on the seniority list? Or did you let your dazzling young climber off the leash occasionally but otherwise told him to go fetch bottles? I’m searching for an explanation for a trend — the rise in young riders on the podium — and it’s possible that neither the explanation nor even the trend itself exist. But it can’t hurt to ask.
Oh, and one more factoid for you… when the best Young Rider has won another jersey, it’s been far more likely to be yellow than anything else. First, no white jersey winner has ever won the green, either in the same year or in any year ever. This is not a total shock, given that the Tour’s points competition promotes sprinters far more consistently than the Giro or Vuelta, though even those races have never seen a young rider/points overlap. The closest you get is Francesco Moser winning best young rider at the Tour in 1975 (the first ever winner of the maillot blanc), and then going all Sheriff on the points competition multiple times at the Giro. Sprinters and GC generally don’t mix, and especially at the Tour.
But young riders and kings of the mountains don’t tend to coincide either. Nairo Quintana was actually the first ever rider to win both, which makes Pogačar now suddenly locking down both (and yellow) in consecutive years all the more remarkable. Occasionally a Tour winner will half-stumble into polka dots despite not so deliberately chasing KOM points for three weeks, and let me just use this as an excuse to point out that Eddy Merckx won all of the competitions available in 1968… but young rider wasn’t one of them. Still, young riders not getting KOM… why exactly? Again, my suspicion is management — if your guy is such hot shit, you just don’t tell him to get in breakaways and chase minor KOM points the way you do with guys who can climb but don’t really have anything else to do. It’s only when a rider is so dominant in the climbs that he can be high on GC — second for Quintana, victory for Pogs — that he can back his way into spots too. I think in Quintana’s case there was some management interest, given his status as a Colombian following the legacy of Lucho Herrera. His spots win/2nd place was HUGE NEWS back home. But otherwise, there isn’t likely to be management interest in chasing white and spots. One or the other.
FSA DS Point scoring
Pogačar currently sits on 790 points in this Tour, with another 720 virtually assured as a result of winning three of the four jerseys in Paris — yellow, white and spots — plus whatever he earns in Saturday’s time trial. Oh, and 80 points from holding the three jerseys after Friday’s and Saturday’s stages. That’s a minimum of one thousand million points, if my math checks out. Or 1590 anyway.
That is a record in the FSA DS Scoring Era for the Tour de France… but not as incredible a record as you might think. There have been three other Tour performances in the 1200-1300 point range, two by Chris Froome and one by Pogs last year. But it’s just 85 points clear of Vincenzo Nibali’s score in 2014, a whopping 1505, accomplished in a fairly distinct way. Here, Pogacar’s capture of three jerseys is the headliner, plus a few stage wins and daily jersey points.
Then, Nibali was too old to qualify for the white, and he was runner-up in the KOM competition, holding the jersey for all of one day. But he held yellow for 19 of the 21 stages, breaking away on stage 2 over a small climb in Sheffield, U.K., and making it to the line with the stage and yellow in hand. He gave the jersey away to the breakaway folks on stage 9, only to seize it back the next day with a stage win on Le Planche Des Belles Filles, by which time Froome had retired after several crashes and the rest of the challengers had fallen back. It was the Shark’s to keep from there, and he drove the point home with two more stage wins in the mountains, two more mountain stage placements (2nd and 3rd), and fourth on the ITT. Oddly, Nibali also owns the lowest score for a grand tour winner, his 760-point campaign at the 2016 Giro d’Italia, when he won a single stage and took the overall win away from Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves with the help of a snowbank and some other race wackiness.
With a not-entirely-unlikely stage win in Saturday’s time trial, Pogačar can get to 1690 points, just ten shy of Chris Froome’s record of 1700 set at the 2017 Vuelta a España when he won the race in a fashion not unlike Nibali’s 2014 Tour with 19 days in Roja and a couple stage wins. But Froome also won two other jerseys — the 2017 Vuelta had like 20 jerseys — seizing the points lead on stage 15 and the combined classification on stage 3, while also finishing third in the KOM comp. Oh, and Pogs will need that stage win just to get into second place all time, ahead of the 2020 Vuelta campaign of Primož Roglič, who racked up 1680 points by taking the overall, holding the lead for 13 of the 18 stages, scoring four stage wins, and racking up a wire-to-wire stranglehold on the points comp.
Got any other fun narratives to ponder, as we await the inevitable? Drop them in comments. Thanks!