Yesterday I watched an enthralling 5th stage of the Tour de France which followed the route more or less of the great classic Paris-Roubaix.
Much of the terrain is cobbled narrow tracks which in the one day classic leads to a exacting race as the cobbled stones shake up the riders and in the rain become slippery.
There was some controversy including this in the first week but I was in favour of it.
In the past the first week can be tediously dominated by the sprinters (the so-called puncheurs) like Manxman Mark Cavendish and now Tony Sagan.
The countryside of northern France is bleak and you do not have the breathtaking mountain scenery.
The Puncheurs fall away in the mountain stages and the winner is normally a strong climber (grimpeur) who can also see off any challenges in a time trial.
However the modern champion can and does succeed in all formats.
Such a champion is the current yellow jersey holder Wout van Aert and also the winner of the last two tours Tadej Pogacar.
Pogacar, like the great Eddy Merckx, is seeking to win his first three tours.
He has the advantage over Van Aert of being total master of his team – Emirates – whilst Van Aert has to defer to Primo Rozgic and the Dane Jonas Vangigaard, who finished second last year. Both are senior to Van Aert in the Jumbo Sisma team.
In the past number twos (domestiques) have toppled the Team Leader.
One thinks of Miguel Indurain superceding Greg Lemond and – more recently – Geraint Thomas doing similar to Chris Froome.
However it does not generally happen in the first week.
Yesterday’s stage was won by the 36 year old Australian Simon Clarke who in the winter did not even have a team.
Yesterday Rozgic suffered a dislocated shoulder, a not uncommon injury on the narrow cobbled terrain where falls are frequent.
In an exciting sprint finish Clarke won with a desperate last lunge.
Crucially, Pogegar reduced the 32 second lead of van Aert over him and will probably be crowned in the mountains – possibly on the greatest one of them all, Alpe d’Huez.
Never mind equalling Eddy Merckx’s record of 3 wins, the young Slovenian might well emulate both Indurain and Bernard Hinault by becoming a five-time winner.
Of course Lance Armstrong won more times but was stripped of his title.
There is no tainting of Pogacar but the Tour’s sometimes dubious past is reflected in another winner – Riis – as the Dane confessed to using EPO to win his Tour.