The Belgian national champion, Wout van Aert, played the part of the ultimate party pooper after stymieing Mark Cavendish’s attempt to surpass cycling legend Eddy Merckx’s longstanding record of 34 stage wins in the Tour de France.
In the 2021 Tour’s final stage from Chatou to the Champs Élysées, Van Aert, of the Jumbo-Visma team, already saddled with the nickname of the “new Merckx” due to his ability to win mountain stages, time trials and sprint finishes, was too cunning and too quick for Cavendish who, for once, found his sprint train derailed.
After losing the loyal Deceuninck-QuickStep lead-out man Michael Mørkøv on the exit from the final bend, Cavendish appeared blocked by those ahead of him, as Van Aert opened up his sprint. By the time there was clear road in front of him, it was too late and he was left banging his fist on the handlebars in frustration.
But the 36-year-old sprinter was compensated by four stage wins and also his first success in the Tour’s points classification since 2011. “It’s really nice after 10 years,” Cavendish said. “It seems an age ago.”
“It’s an absolute dream to be back here,” he said in Paris. “It’s an honour just to be here, no matter the result, no matter what jersey I’m wearing. But it is nice after a decade to pull on the maillot vert again.”
Ironically it is the voracious Van Aert, winner of the double ascent of Mont Ventoux, a time-trial stage to St Emilion and now the sprint on the Champs Élysées, who is drawing comparisons with his insatiable compatriot, Merckx.
“Merckx won the general classification in the Tour five times and he won basically every race in cycling. I am just a really little cyclist compared with Eddy,” Van Aert said afterwards.
Despite failing to add to his four previous wins in the French capital, Cavendish has completed a remarkable comeback. After winning for the first time since 2016 in Fougères, he then took three more stage wins in Châteauroux, Valence and Carcassonne. Cavendish then suffered through the Alps and Pyrenees to guarantee his second win in the points classification.
“I was afraid he wouldn’t make it to Paris,” his sprint lead-out man, Mørkøv, said. “I doubted that he would pass the [mountain] stages but he was really strong. He was never supposed to do the Tour, so to come here, the hardest race of the year with some of the hardest mountains, I have huge respect for him.”
Tadej Pogacar, meanwhile, celebrated back-to-back Tour victories after riding untroubled into the French capital to mark the fourth Grand Tour win by a Slovenian cyclist in three years. The 22-year-old has won the last two Tours de France, while his rival and compatriot, Primoz Roglic, won the Vuelta a España in 2019 and 2020.
The first signs that Pogacar – leader of the UAE Emirates team – would effectively sweep the board came in the stage five time trial to Laval, which the defending champion emphatically won. Three days later, on the first Alpine stage to Le Grand-Bornand, he delivered a killer blow, with a lone attack that emphasised his superiority.
“I haven’t killed the Tour,” he said, almost apologetically, although with supposed rivals like Roglic, Richard Carapaz, and Geraint Thomas, both of the Ineos Grenadiers, losing significant chunks of time, the suspense was already over.
After that exhibition of climbing, the main question was “how much would he win by?”, not “could anybody beat him?” Subsequent back-to-back stage wins in the mammoth Pyrenean stages to the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden, ended any further debate, with only two other riders, Jonas Vingegaard, Roglic’s understudy, and Thomas’s co-leader, Carapaz, inside 10 minutes of the young Slovenian.
Pogacar not only won his second Tour by more than five minutes, but he also took three stages, the King of the Mountains classification and the best young rider classification. If any rider’s performance was “a la Merckx” in this year’s race, it was his.
“It takes a lot to piece together multiple Tour wins and fair play to Pogacar, his mentality and the way he has dealt with this, has been first class,” Ineos Grenadiers team principal, Dave Brailsford said.
“Obvously he didn’t get too distracted coming into it and his first time trial laid down a marker for everyone. It was a bit like Chris Froome used to do. You put one big performance in and it stops everyone else from really believing they can beat you.”
Cavendish, meanwhile, remained cagey over his plans to return to the Tour in 2022. “Let’s see what happens,” he said. “Let’s just enjoy it.”