Ten Takeaways: What Suisse & Slovenia Told Us About the Tour de France
Breaking down the key GC performances from the last weekend of racing before the Tour de France
The pre-Tour de France run-up finished this past weekend with the conclusion of the Tour de Suisse, Tour of Slovenia, Baloise Belgium Tour, and La Route d'Occitanie. In regards to the upcoming Tour, the headline results were Geraint Thomas handily winning the Tour de Suisse and Tadej Pogačar once again showing flawless form on his way to winning the Tour of Slovenia. While Thomas’ win was impressive, it was somewhat dampened by the race’s GC favorite, Aleksandr Vlasov, leaving the race due to COVID, along with a shocking 51% of the startlist, including the entire teams of Jumbo-Visma and UAE. This development has thrown a massive wrench in multiple teams’ Tour squads, with Ineos’ Tour co-leader Adam Yates coming down with COVID and Jumbo leaving all of their Suisse starters except for Sepp Kuss at home due to the outbreak.
While the weekend gave us a fascinating peek behind the curtains with Tour de France contenders like Tadej Pogačar and Geraint Thomas emerging from their secluded high-altitude training camps to pin on race numbers, as a whole, the bloat in these pre-Tour races means that unlike a decade ago when everyone major rider was divided between the Dauphine and Suisse, no current buildup races have more than a handful of stars, which has diluted the competition to the point that most of these races have essentially become televised training rides.
Tour de Suisse Stage 8:
Stefan Küng comes through the intermediate time check 2-second up on Evenepoel. All looks good and he appears to be en route for a stage win.
But, when he comes over the line, we see he has given 13-seconds back to Evenepoel over the second half of the course, which tells us just how much he was struggling and just how much more Evenepoel had left in the tank (to be fair, Küng finished far higher in the GC and spent far more energy over the two mountain stages than Evenepoel).
The only rider able to remotely challenge Evenepoel’s time is Geraint Thomas, who comes through 3-second down after making up an impressive 2-seconds on Evenepoel over the second half of the course (which tells us Thomas is absolutely flying right now).
It is clear Thomas will win the overall when race leader Sergio Higuita, who had a 2-second advantage on Thomas to start the start, comes through the 1km-to-go banner on the same time as Thomas. His rocking and rolling style tell us he is working incredibly hard, but not riding efficiently and likely leaving a lot of time out on the road.
After the stage, the overall winner, Thomas, and stage winner, Evenepoel, shared incredibly close quarters, and a hug, in the podium tent. This was incredibly surprising to me since over half of the riders that started Suisse dropped out due to a rapid spread of COVID in the peloton, and a positive test for Thomas right now would ruin what is likely his final chance at winning another Tour de France.
Tour of Slovenia Stage 5:
10.3km: Heading into a 2km-long climb, Pogačar gets to the front and ramps up the pace.
9.9km: Everyone is immediately in trouble due to the increase, with only Mohorič able to stay on his wheel.
9.6km: With Mohorič still hanging tough, Pogačar’s teammate Rafał Majka bridges up from the group behind and joins the front duo after they go over the summit.
150m: With a little help from the moto, the front three hold off the chasers and head into the sprint together. Mohorič gets a massive jump on Pogačar heading into the small uphill ramp to the line.
Finish: But despite Mohorič getting a massive jump on him, Pogačar eats up an enormous amount of ground to mow down his countryman and get an impressive sprint win to go along with his overall victory.
1) Geraint Thomas showed he is back to his best and gunning for a Tour de France podium
As we saw on stage 7, and again on stage 8, Thomas was by far the stronger (remaining) rider in this race (while Vlasov seemed to be a higher plane of fitness, he was forced to leave the race with COVID and we will never know if Thomas would have bested him in the high mountains).
His climbing and time-trialing performances over the final weekend were incredible, and while he didn’t win the TT, he was the only rider able to remotely challenge Evenepoel and even covered the final half of the course faster than the stage winner.
All of this points to the 2018 Tour de France winner coming into this year’s edition in peak condition.
But, he has a problem since even on his best day, the 36-year-old Thomas will struggle to keep pace on the climbs with Pogačar and Roglič, and combined with his crash struggles as a leader (he has failed to finish 50% of grand tours he has entered since 2017), means he still has a very slim chance of even landing on the podium at the Tour.
2) Dani Martínez recovered well & positioned himself as a great second option for Ineos
The highly-touted (mostly by me, I think this guy is a superstar talent) young Colombian struggled through the opening few stages and quickly fell out of GC contention, but recovered in the latter half of the race, delivering a key piece of teamwork to set Thomas up for the overall win on stage 7.
And his 4th place in the time trial, just 38-seconds behind Evenepoel, is perhaps the best time trial performance of his career and signals he could be a legitimate option for Ineos at the Tour.
With Thomas now the main Tour talking point at Ineos, things couldn’t be any better for Martínez, who will get to fly under the radar for the majority of the Tour.
3) Martínez’s late surge could complicate things for Thomas at the Tour de France
Even though his chances of success at the Tour are slim, Thomas’ performance signals that he is likely Ineos' best option with Adam Yates leaving Suisse due to a positive COVID test.
But, Ineos has been extremely reluctant to go all-in on a single leader since both Thomas and Chris Froome both finished on the podium in 2018. The likely thinking inside the team is that without the consensus best rider in the race, it is too risky to throw all of their eggs behind a single rider, who could be tripped up due to a crash or a single bad moment in the mountains. But, this multi-pronged strategy, after netting a double podium places in 2018 & 2019, also caused massive issues in 2021, when nearly every rider on the squad appeared to think they were the team leader, despite Richard Carapaz clearly being on a completely different level.
If both Thomas and Martínez make it through the hectic opening week, expect this dynamic to cause a few sparks, and some interesting pieces of team strategy, when we get into the mountains.
4) We still don’t know if Remco Evenepoel is a future stage racing star
Despite coming into the race as a highly touted GC contender, Evenepoel struggled in three consecutive GC stages and finished 11th place overall. This continued a trend of the superstar Belgian struggling to deliver in stage races that cover true, alpine racing.
His incredible time trial performance to win the final stage clearly signaled that his GC struggles weren’t an issue of fitness.
Instead, it was further proof that the alchemy of what makes a top stage racer is far more complicated than a simple watts-per-kilo calculation. It isn’t clear what exactly is contributing to his climbing performance dropoff between second, and first, tier races, but it could be a wide range of possibilities, like the aggregate difficulty throughout the stages due to deeper and more talented fields, positioning issues, length, difficulty and/or altitude of the climbs included in the course. Whatever the reason, these struggles will cause even more questions to hang over the young rider when he heads to contest the overall title at the Vuelta a Espana later this season.
One possibility to consider is that we are learning Evenepoel is a great one-day racer and time trialist, and will never be a bonafide high-mountain GC contender. This is fine, many riders, like Julian Alaphilippe, have built hugely successful careers out of this template. After all, as we saw in the post-race tent, while he isn’t tall and strikes a small figure on the bike, he still has a robust frame and isn’t emaciated like the sport’s top GC contenders. Perhaps this little bit of extra muscle is providing him the power for time trials, short climbs, and one-days, but acting like an anchor on lone, alpine stages.
5) Stefan Küng proved he is one of the most versatile riders in the peloton
The Swiss time machine produced a disappointing time trial, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of a TT stage win at the Tour de France, but his 5th place overall was incredibly impressive, especially when we considered he finished 3rd earlier this year at Paris-Roubaix
6) Sergio Higuita continues to progress as a stage racer
While he lost the GC lead on the final, he still finished 2nd place overall, which capped a great ride for the 24-year-old Colombian who has appeared to take a major step up since arriving at Bora from EF over the off-season.
However, his biggest weakness, the time trial, was laid bare for all to see on the final stage. This will continue to major an issue when it comes to potentially winning grand tours, but as we just saw with Jai Hindley at the recent Giro d’Italia, poor time trialists can punch out grand tour wins if the right conditions arise, and judging by his progression and performance this year, I wouldn’t rule this out in the near future.
7) COVID could be a major problem at the Tour de France
51% of the starters at Suisse dropped out of the race, mostly due to the spread of COVID. This type of attrition race over the course of a week is shocking and if it occurs at the Tour, it could easily ruin the race.
But, as we saw in the stage 8 post-race tent with Evenepoel and Thomas sharing extremely close contact, there doesn’t appear to be an urgency from the teams and riders to limit contact and in turn, the spread of COVID.
This is somewhat surprising to me since, for example, if Thomas were to contract COVID right now, it would both tank the GC chances for a massive budgeted team and potentially spread to the team’s other top riders, thus ruining their most important calendar slot of the year. If I were a team manager, I would attempt to limit any exposure of riders in this run-up, and during the Tour, inside the team, and even think about scraping time together in the time bus.
8) Tadej Pogačar can win any type of race, which leaves very little opportunity to beat him at the Tour
It could have been surprising to some that Pogačar struggled to drop Matej Mohorič on Slovenia’s final stage, but I was incredibly impressed by his performances on the shorter, more explosive climbs featured in the race.
After all, Mohorič is a budding classics star who, at least in theory, should have an advantage on a more explosive 2km-long climb, but Pogačar was still able to put the entire peloton to the sword on the shorter slopes, and after failing to drop Mohorič, confidently dusted him in the sprint.
We might be used to seeing it from him at this point, but this is not normal behavior for the sport’s top Tour de France favorite. While almost all GC contenders need long, sustained climbs and time trials to make their presence known, Pogačar can seemingly win on any type of parcours.
9) Mohorič will be on another stage win this July
He might have missed out on a stage win and found himself on the wrong side of splits earlier in the race, but Mohorič’s ability to stay with the world’s best rider on the final stage tells us that he will show us to the Tour absolutely flying and ready to add more stage wins to his palmares.
10) Fabio Jakobsen might have ended Mark Cavendish’s chance of starting the Tour de France
With a sprint win on the final day of the Baloise Belgium Tour over Sam Bennett and Jasper Philipsen, it appears more and more likely that Jakobsen will be QuickStep’s sprinter at the Tour and that Mark Cavendish will find himself watching from home.