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Thoughts on LeTour 2021

By Larry Theobald

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Larry Theobald of CycleItalia gives his thoughts on the 2021 Tour de France:

UAE’s Tadej Pogacar wins again but it’s far from a surprise this time. The young Slovenian held the yellow jersey for the final two weeks of Le Grand Boucle and finished with his entire team intact, unlike 2020. Why then am I not really happy about it?

I should be happy as the “kite-men” were thwarted again, their “defend in the mountains and mow ‘em down in the chrono” philosophy didn’t work since nobody who managed to stay upright until Paris was superior in either discipline compared to the winner while the “mountain train” idea didn’t work either. Despite lots of criticism of Pogacar’s UAE team for their perceived lack of control of the race, the INEOS team’s strategy was derided as the “train to nowhere” by more than a few.

More importantly, when was the last time we saw a yellow jersey wearer smiling all the time? This kid races with tufts of hair sticking out of the vents of his helmet, looking like he’s having fun on his bike – a big contrast to the too-often grind-it-out, grit-your-teeth, stiff-upper-lip images we’ve seen from the past, especially from multiple-time winners racing not-to-lose vs racing-to-win. Pogacar and his team’s attitude seemed refreshingly different. So what’s not to like?

Tadej Pogacar

Pogacar finishing the stage five time trial. Sirotti photo

THIS: As the race entered its second week talk of a new “Cannibal” emerged. No, not Pogacar whose almost insouciant way of racing wound some pundits up to the point of what I see as an inaccurate comparison to Eddy Merckx’ insatiable desire to win, this was an internal cannibalism – from within the sport itself. It’s like the TV thriller trope: The calls are coming from inside the house!

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It was implied by various (always anonymous of course) riders and then some commentators that Pogacar was using banned substances, later adding suggestions his bikes were “doped” as well. As I type this there has been zero evidence presented to back up ANY of these claims. More curious is that nothing is being said or written about the two REAL revelations of this Tour: Jonas Vingegaard and Ben O’Connor, both making their Tour debuts this year and finishing second and fourth overall.

Jonas Vigegaard

Jonas Vingegaard climbing Mt. Ventoux in stage eleven. Sirotti photo

I won’t try to claim any of these riders are clean as there’s simply no way as I type this to know, but one has to wonder about the source of the nasty insinuations about Pogacar. So far, nobody has had the guts to be quoted on-the-record about their suspicions or accusations, it’s just rumor and innuendo. When “your guy” doesn’t win, it must be because the guy who beat him cheated, right? Donald Trump would agree.

The critics say “We’ve seen this movie before.” Really? Have we? Don’t forget the two most recent instances of “this movie” involved a guy who climbed out of a hospital bed lacking one of his testicles while the other involved a guy kicked out of the Giro for hanging onto a car and dropped from his 2nd division team before going on to win LeTour 4 times. Those two guys turning into multi-time TdF champs raised (and should have) a few eyebrows but there’s nothing like this about Pogacar so they say, “Well, his team’s management is dodgy” and lump them in with the management of USPS/Discovery - banned from cycling for life or the other team with a recent history involving “stolen” laptops, strange orders of testosterone patches, jiffy-bags and high-powered lawyers threatening the UCI/CAS over the legality of TUEs.

Is the management of the UAE team so awful that we should automatically assume their riders are doped? Is the rest of the team doped as well despite the criticism they received for a perceived lack-of-support for Pogacar in the challenging mountain stages? Can’t similar things be said about the management of the Jumbo-Visma team with origins in the old Rabobank setup? Jumbo-Visma had the amazing performance of Wout Van Aert along with first-timer Vingegaard, but nobody said anything about them being doped. Why?

Wout van Aert

Wout van Aert winning stage eleven. Sirotti photo

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Italian television even dredged up scenes (along with some of BigTex) from the infamous “Savona Affair” where Eddy Merckx was DQ’d from the Giro d’Italia in 1969. Perhaps we HAVE seen this movie before? Eddy’s run-in with anti-doping authorities is either a single, isolated incident or he managed a career-long sporting fraud BigTex could only dream about. Eddy was invited and celebrated at this Tour, mostly because of Mark Cavendish’ challenge to his Tour stage win record but he also appeared with Pogacar. Could this kid from Slovenia be a kinder, gentler version of Eddy Merckx? Why isn’t this being celebrated rather than questioned and sullied with doping allegations?

Eddy Merckx on the podium with Pogacar after stage nineteen. Sirotti photo

Instead, cycling is eating itself, its cynicism so wide-spread that rather than celebrate a smiling winner of LeTour too many cannibals are sharpening their knives and pulling chairs up to the “won’t be fooled again” table. Pogacar certainly dominated this race vs his surprise victory last year, but take a look at the results - in 2020 he beat Roglic, Porte and Landa. In 2021 he beat Vingegaard, Carapaz and O’Connor while Roglic crashed out, Porte was a non-factor and Landa a no-show.

Is this the sort of unbelievable domination that can only be explained by cheating, despite zero evidence to suggest it? The cannibals should put their knives and forks away and shut up unless they can produce some solid evidence of cheating.

The sport doesn’t need to cannibalize itself. It needs to celebrate a kinder, gentler “Cannibal”: Tadej Pogacar,

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