July 23, 1989. I’ve finished my time trial – 24.5 kilometres from Versailles to the Champs-Elysées in Paris. I know the road down from the start to the Seine from my amateur days at ACBB, and the rest from previous Tours de France: mostly downhill, a decent surface and a few underpasses to slow you, ever so slightly. The hardest part is the climb to the turn on the Champs-Elysées, which we’re doing in the opposite direction.
I’m trying to keep my place over Sean Kelly on the GC, so I put a 54 outer ring on the lo-pro bike and do a proper warm-up. After setting off, I don’t feel great, but I seem to be going fast on the descents and on the flat parts alongside the river. The only time I change gear is to climb out of the underpasses, but I never go lower than the 15 sprocket, so I’m deluded into thinking I might not do too badly.
When I cross the line, Thierry Marie has the best time and I’ve lost a couple of minutes, which, given my capacities, I’m not that disappointed with. As the French would say, j’étais à ma place… I was in the expected spot.
A few guys ahead of me come and go as I’m hanging around at the finish, waiting to see Laurent Fignon come down the famous cobbles from the Arc de Triomphe and be crowned the winner. It’s a strange thing to end a three-week Tour with an individual effort and not be surrounded by your fellow travellers, so I’m soaking up the atmosphere as best I can, despite having limbs that hurt.
Then rumours of Greg LeMond start to circulate: he’s flying, crouched in his triathlon position, and going like a train. Fignon, by contrast, is fighting with his bike.
A muted hush comes over the space beyond the finish line. LeMond blasts down the hill and Daniel Mangeas announces meilleur temps for the American, and at a record-breaking speed. Three minutes and a bit faster than I went seems ridiculous, but even more astonishing is that Fignon looks like he’s on the verge of losing the victory as he sprints with everything he’s got.
There’s a countdown as he approaches, and then a roar from the collection of hangers-on, partners, soigneurs, journalists and race officials that make up the crowd amassed after the finish. I realise I’ve got goosebumps. Greg wins, Laurent loses and there’s turmoil in the heads of everyone present.
September 20, 2020. The task for Tadej Pogačar looks insurmountable; taking near enough a minute from race leader Primož Roglič is the stuff of dreams. It’s more likely that he’ll lose that much, given the way the older Slovenian has been controlling the race and answering the 21-year-old’s attacks. If they were racehorses, then Roglič definitely has the superior form, and you won’t be getting great odds at the bookies for another Jumbo-Visma stage win.
Predictably, Wout van Aert sets the fastest time, then Tom Dumoulin beats it, and the Yellow Perils seem to have everything in hand. Again.
Pogačar starts, and I can hear the first line of The Who’s Baba O’Riley playing… Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals. It always reminds me of Flanders, for some reason.
The white best-young-rider jersey of the UAE Team Emirates rider is barely different from his team kit, and he looks powerful as he rides at 60kph on the flatter part of the course. Two minutes behind on the road, Roglič is pedalling a smaller gear, going barely slower, but slower all the same, and there might be a race on after all. This wasn’t in the Jumbo plan, that’s for sure.
Murmurs start in the press room; this might be close. This might be Fignon and LeMond – seconds instead of minutes. Someone mentions stage bonuses could be the deciding factor. All eventualities are suddenly back on the table as Roglič tries to stabilise the gap, but it’s growing, and Pogačar isn’t slowing down. The theory of the fast start to scare his rival looks to be just that – a theory. Maybe the race leader since stage 9 is saving himself for the final 6km haul up to La Planche des Belles Filles. Maybe that’s just as stupid a theory as spooking him into going too hard.
The last proper climb of the 2020 Tour begins, and UAE do a relatively average bike change for Pogačar, time-wise – not the fastest, but not the slowest. The mountains classification is at stake between Ineos Grenadiers’ Richard Carapaz and Pogačar, so the lighter, more familiar road machine will make a difference, even though there’s an awkward few moments adjusting to different handling characteristics.
Three minutes later, Roglič also has a bike change, slightly further up the mountain, and it’s a much more rushed affair, which takes longer. Panic has set in. The 30-second loss to Pogačar becomes 40, instantly, and he’s still powering away, whilst Roglič is spinning a gear ratio that’s tiny in comparison. One of them is going forward and one looks like he’s standing still.
Moments later, the virtual GC flashes up on the screen, and the 57-second lead that Roglič had has been eaten up by his only rival, and everyone watching knows history is being made here.
Up by the finish, Dumoulin and Van Aert’s mouths have fallen open – not from oxygen debt this time, but by the realisation that Primož Roglič’s bad day has come on the stage when they expected it the least. All those kilometres in the wind, in control, staying safe, focused, committed, in command, and they’ve been ambushed by a kid.
Pogačar takes the stage win, the polka-dot jersey, the white jersey and the overall Tour de France title. UAE have done the unthinkable and taken four stage wins and three jersey classifications – and all that from a team that was neither a GC squad nor a sprinters’ haven.
As their sports director Allan Peiper mentioned a few days earlier, they’re aware that they need to strengthen the squad to support Pogačar in the coming years, so hopefully it’ll soon be another super team to fight with Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers.
There aren’t many guys who have won a Tour de France on their first visit – and even fewer who have won multiple jerseys, too. Eddy Merckx springs to mind, but these are different times, with more information and a more calculated approach, which is exactly why the goosebumps associated with watching Tadel Pogačar are all-the-more exciting.