It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that ASO had a specific scenario in mind when they placed a time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles on the final weekend of the 2020 Tour de France, but bike races always take on a life of their own once they hit kilometre zero.
Thibaut Pinot’s race was compromised from the moment he crashed on the Promenade des Anglais on the opening day, and instead of fulfilling the narrative of the local favourite carrying the yellow jersey through his native Mélisey, the Groupama-FDJ rider will return home on Saturday bearing the scars of another ill-starred tilt at the Tour.
When the injured Pinot’s challenge collapsed on the first day in the Pyrenees, one wondered if he would cut short his Tour to refocus his campaign on the Giro or the Vuelta. Instead, he quietly insisted on finishing what he had started, as a mark of respect both to his teammates and the village that raised him. Or, as Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot told France Télévisions: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Pinot or anyone else, you don’t want to be sitting home when the Tour goes past your front door, you want to be on your bike.”
The Tour, like cycling itself, is about much more than just winning and losing, as Pinot’s sombre yet somehow heartening homecoming testifies, though the final weekend of the most important race is, of course, (almost) all about the yellow jersey.
The battle for the maillot jaune in Pinot’s backyard will be a local row between two Slovenians who have been head and shoulders above all others across the three weeks of the Tour. Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) wears the yellow jersey into Saturday’s 36.2km time trial, and given his prowess against the clock, the 57-second lead he holds over his compatriot Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) should be enough to ensure that he becomes the first Slovenian Tour winner when the race reaches Paris on Sunday.
Pogačar, however, has proved a spirited foe, and unlike many climbers of his tender years, the 21 year old is capable of very solid performances against the watch. He beat Roglič to the Slovenian time trial title on a hilly parcours in June, after all. However, the Jumbo-Visma man issued a sound beating of Pogačar in the Pau time trial at last year’s Vuelta a España, their only head-to-head encounter in the discipline in a Grand Tour.
In his role as an analyst on France Télévisions, Laurent Jalabert insisted that the Tour was not yet over. He reminded viewers that Laurent Fignon held a 50-second lead over Greg LeMond ahead of the final stage in 1989, but that turnaround by the American came after a breathless back-and-forth between the two protagonists in the Pyrenees and Alps. In 2020, by contrast, Roglič has worn yellow for the last two weeks and his calm command of his brief has appeared total.
From the moment the race left Nice, he has scarcely put a pedal stroke askew, always near the head of the peloton, always hitting his lines at the pivotal moments, always keeping his rivals at arm’s length. Rather like Floyd Mayweather, Roglič has seemed to be content to win this Tour on points rather than by dealing a knock-out blow.
Until Puy Mary on stage 13, for instance, his buffer over a labouring Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) was made up entirely of bonus seconds, but in the final third of the race his strength and that of his remarkable Jumbo-Visma team has begun to tell. Pogačar has, of course, put up fierce resistance, but the 15 seconds (plus bonuses) that Roglič picked up atop the Col de la Loze suggest that the momentum, as well as the jersey, is with the older man.
Flanked until now by a team whose dominance puts one in mind of Sky in their pomp, Roglič must complete the last leg of his Tour alone. He will also be without directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman, expelled from the team car for his altercation with a commissaire during a routine control of Roglič’s bike after stage 17, though there is little to indicate that the Slovenian will be ruffled by his absence.
“The team has done an amazing job, I have the jersey, but we have all worked for it,” Roglič said on Friday. “Tomorrow it’s all on me.”
This hybrid time trial is unlike any other in recent memory at the Tour, given that it combines a rolling 30km opening segment with a stiff category 1 ascent to the finish. The 1987 Tour featured a 37km time trial from Carpentras to Mont Ventoux, but on that occasion the flat preamble accounted for less than half of the distance and less than a quarter of the duration of the winning effort. By contrast, the climb of La Planche des Belles Filles occupies a sixth of the distance, but up to a third of the duration.
The terrain is relatively flat from Lure through Mélisey to the time check in Le Raddon after 14.5 kilometres, before the road starts climbing the shallow ascent towards the Col de la Chevestraye (24.5km). A short descent is followed by a false flat to the second time check at Plancher-les-Mines at 30.3km, which is right at the foot of the pivotal final climb.
The ascent of La Planche des Belles Filles (5.9km at 8.5 per cent) is familiar, having been featured four times since 2012. Mercifully, the additional section of the ‘Super Planche’ dirt road used in 2019 has not been proposed again here. The steep opening kilometre averages over 9 per cent with pitches of 11 per cent. Though it eases off slightly in the second kilometre, the gradient ratchets up again thereafter, with sustained double-digit ramps most of the way. There is the briefest respite inside the final kilometre, but then, cruelly, the road kicks up to 20 per cent just before the finish line. More than in any other time trial, perhaps, every metre counts.
Gauging one’s effort across the 36.2 kilometres will not be straightforward, while there will be a stark transition from pushing big gears in the early section to grinding up those steep ramps at the foot of La Planche. It seems likely that riders will change bikes at the base of the climb – as Jean-François Bernard did en route to a dominant Ventoux victory in 1987 – though Roglič declined to divulge his strategy on Friday evening. “We’ve talked about changing the bike, but we’ll look at the conditions and decide tomorrow,” Roglic told Eurosport.
Bike changes were a feature of the Roglič-Pogačar duel in the Slovenian championships, though on that occasion, the main climb came early on. Roglič opted for a time trial bike throughout, while Pogačar started on his road bike and then swapped to a low-profile machine and prevailed by 9 seconds. Roglič, incidentally, had successfully executed a bike change at the 2017 World Championships, where he proved the quickest up Mount Fløyen, though he had to settle for silver behind Tom Dumoulin.
It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that Pogačar has raced just five individual time trials in his professional career to date, and that small sample size makes it difficult to track his progress in the discipline. His triumph ahead of Roglič in June suggests that the 21-year-old has made significant strides in his sophomore year. Like his countryman, Pogačar was guarded about his strategy on Friday.
“I did the recon. If I have a good day, it suits me well. It’s a time trial, I will go from the start to the finish full gas like I do every time. I’ll just do my best,” said Pogačar, who seemed unconcerned about Roglič benefitting from his times at the intermediate checks. “Everyone is alone. Everyone fights with himself in a time trial. It doesn’t matter in which order we start.”
López, Porte and Carapaz
While Roglič and Pogačar grapple over the honour of becoming Slovenia’s first Tour winner, Miguel Ángel López (Astana Pro Team) will roll down the start ramp in Lure aiming to defend third place and emulate fellow countrymen Fabio Parra, Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Egan Bernal by finishing on the podium in Paris. The Colombian begins the day 1:27 behind Roglič and 1:39 ahead of fourth-placed Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo).
Porte’s pedigree in the discipline means that he has more than a fighting chance of recouping the 99 seconds to earn his first trip to a Grand Tour podium, though gaps in the third week – when freshness trumps all – tend to be smaller. López will take heart, too, from the category 1 haul to the finish, but nothing is certain. “Tomorrow I want to give my all for the best possible result possible,” said López.
Elsewhere in the top 10, Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) will endeavour to defend his fifth place overall, while Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) and Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), currently eighth and ninth, respectively, have a chance to move up the standings. Indeed, Dumoulin is one of three potential stage winners in the Jumbo-Visma ranks, together with Roglič and the seemingly indefatigable Wout van Aert, who has already claimed two sprint wins on this Tour. The Belgian also has an eye to next week’s World Championships. “The biggest mistake you can make is wanting everything,” he said.
Pogačar, meanwhile, has also given the impression that he wants everything on this Tour. On Saturday, he will wear the white jersey and target the yellow, but he might end his race wearing polka dots. He trails Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) by just two points in the king of the mountain classification and the competition will be decided by which of them records the quickest on the final 5.9km haul up La Planche des Belles Filles, rather than by where they finish on the stage. The Ecuadorian will surely look to spare himself as best he can for the climb itself, whereas Pogačar has no such luxury.
Carapaz was a late addition to Ineos’ Tour team, thus sacrificing the planned defence of his Giro d’Italia title. He worked diligently in the service of Bernal for the first two weeks, then re-purposed himself as an attacker in the Alps in a bid to salvage something for his team from a disappointing Tour.
For three successive days, Carapaz went on the offensive early, placing second at Villard-de-Lans, going close on the Col de la Loze and then yielding the win to his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski when they rode to the finish together on stage 18. Perhaps that gesture was more significant than any victory, but Carapaz will still want some tangible reward from a fine debut Tour. Although he only took the jersey at La Roche-sur-Foron on Thursday, it would be cruel if he were to be denied the honour at the last. But, as the denizens of Mélisey could tell him, the Tour is often cruel.