Five who bossed the Tour de France — and five who flopped

From breakaway darlings like Marc Hirschi to the fading force of Peter Sagan

Five players who bossed the Tour de France — and five who flopped
Marc Hirschi (left) became a hero for his brave breakaways while the era of Peter Sagan appears to be drawing to a close 

The riders who soared

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)

Though tipped by many to make the podium, few  predicted the nature in which the young Slovenian stole a march over his vastly more experienced rivals.

Having lost two team-mates — Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo — with 10 stages remaining Pogacar was faced with the unenviable task of going wheel-to-wheel with the might of Jumbo-Visma as the team in black and yellow buzzed around Primoz Roglic in the mountains. No slave to the dogma of the peloton though, Pogacar followed in the wheels and attacked at will. The ease with which he picked off his rivals was terrifying.

Calm under pressure, and confident in his ability, Pogacar arrived at the start line in the penultimate stage 57sec in arrears to Roglic. What happened next will go down in the history books. Having overhauled his compatriot on the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles, Pogacar joined a select group of riders — including Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon — who won the race in their first appearance.

After taking home three jerseys — yellow as overall winner, polka dot as king of the mountains and white as the best young rider — the comparisons with the great Merckx, though inevitable, were perhaps a little premature. 

Marc Hirschi (Sunweb)

Hirschi arrived at the Tour de France relatively unknown outside the cycling cognoscenti, but wasted little time in announcing himself, on his grand-tour debut. Though he may not have won the second stage in Nice after putting himself in the firing line alongside Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates, the way in which the 22-year-old stood his ground against vastly more experienced riders was telling. Here was a young man filled with brio; a fighter.

Eight days later, the irrepressible Hirschi produced a breakaway ride for the ages — of Fausto Coppi or Eros Poli proportions. Alas it was not to be and the Swiss was neutralised in the final straight, finishing third behind Tadej and  Roglic. In his post-race interview Hirschi dismissed any notion of bravery, instead lamenting, "It's all ended up being for nothing".

Three stages later, the man Yates had described as the "little fella" back in Nice, stood tall on the stage winners' podium having claimed the first win of his professional career, with another solo effort. Over three unforgettable stages, the protégé of Fabian Cancellara showed he had it all: he is a strong rouleur, can climb and descends like a demon.

Nobody really knows exactly what sort of rider he is just yet, but they know one thing: when Hirschi has the bit between his teeth, anything can happen. 

Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma)

Kuss (left) was rarely seen away from the GC group when the race turned uphill Credit: REUTERS

Still only 26, Kuss has quietly become one of the strongest mountain domestiques in world cycling. While Wout van Aert may have taken the headlines, along with two stage wins,  before Pogacar stole the show at the last, it was the unfussy, unflustered Kuss who was there beside Roglic when his team leader required him most.

Watching him closely over three weeks, Kuss, born at high altitude in Durango, Colorado, rarely turned a poor pedal stroke. Darting around Roglic with ease when the air was thin and the slopes vertiginous, climbing in the high mountains is meat and drink to the young American. It is difficult to recall another support rider in recent years that looked so confident, so assured. 

During the climb to the summit of the col de la Loze where Kuss, briefly, rode off ahead of Roglic, the mind was cast back to the Vuelta a España in 2011 when the apprentice Chris Froome showed the first signs that he, too, may one day challenge in a grand tour. So, could the former stage winner at the Vuelta a España and Critérium du Dauphiné become the first American to win the Tour since Greg LeMond back in 1990? Don’t bet against it.

Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick Step)

Having added two Tour de France stage wins to his palmarès — including the blue riband stage on the Champs-Élysées — to complete the set of victories in all three grand tours, Sam Bennett propelled himself into a group with some of the best sprinters in the world.

Pitched against the seven-time winner Peter Sagan and his well-drilled Bora-Hansgrohe team, Bennett succeeded where so many others have failed: beating the Slovakian in the race for green. The manner in which the man from Carrick-on-Suir passed each examination and avoided each trap in his quest for the jersey was impressive.

Not once was Bennett beaten in an intermediate sprint by Sagan; not once did he give an inch in a bunch finish. Sagan may now be a fading force, but he remains a giant of the sport. A giant that was felled by the amiable Irishman who rode with guts, guile and grace.

Following in a long line of sprinters at Patrick Lefevere’s squad — Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani — the pressure will have been on Bennett to deliver, but deliver he did. In becoming the first Irishman since 1989 to win a jersey at the Tour, Bennett joined a very select group of riders alongside Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly. Nobody. Even the greenest of fans could not have imagined that three weeks ago.

Team: Sunweb

UAE Team Emirates may have taken home the big prize, but it was Sunweb that left with the unofficial title of the Tour's most entertaining team. Not bad considering they arrived with no outright leader and left the in-form Michael Matthews at home.

Stage winners Soren Kragh Andersen and Hirschi may have taken most of the headlines, but Matt Winston, the team's race coach, deserves a huge amount of credit.

Each day during the Tour it was fascinating to see how Sunweb went out with a clear plan, masterminded by the Briton. Placing numbers in the breakaways and timing their attacks to perfection, Sunweb’s Tour was a tactical masterclass. 


The men who were spat out the back 

Sir Dave Brailsford (Ineos Grenadiers)

When your team has won seven of the past eight Tours de France, anything less than an eighth yellow jersey is always going to be considered a poor result.

After leaving former winner Geraint Thomas at home, some observers claimed the Welshman's experience would have helped defending champion Egan Bernal who eventually limped out of the back door in the final week of the race. But Thomas had shown no sign of form in the warm-up races. The question is why not?

Some say Thomas had over-trained during lockdown, while similar claims have been levelled at Bernal, who looked a shadow of the rider who dominated in the high mountains last year. On Sunday Sir Dave Brailsford did not deny these claims. From a team that takes great pride in its preparation, it is remiss to have allowed a rider to over-train in the countdown to the biggest race of the season. If true, then Thomas, 34, should also shoulder some of the blame.

"I get a lot of credit when things go well and I get a lot of questions when things don’t. It goes with the territory." Brailsford told Telegraph Sport on Sunday. And Brailsford is right, questions will continue to be asked surrounding the training schedules of key riders.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)

Pinot has failed to take advantages of courses that were tailor-made for him Credit: VELO

Once again the popular Frenchman arrived with the hopes of a nation on his fragile shoulders only to crumble in a sorry heap following a crash during a chaotic opening stage.

Although Thibaut Pinot cannot be blamed for crashing, the setback for the rider was just the latest in a long line of disappointments. Pinot has failed to complete four of the eight Tours de France he has started including the three prior to this year’s race. 

In the past two years race organisers have presented Pinot with the ideal route and on both occasions he has failed to deliver. France's 35-year wait for a French winner goes on. Dress it up however you like, Pinot had a poor Tour and questions remain over his ability to challenge over three weeks.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

No stage wins and beaten in each intermediate sprint he contested before losing his green jersey to Sam Bennett. Although the bar he has set throughout his career was exceptionally high, it is difficult to deny that Sagan is a fading force.

However, despite losing some of the vigour that helped him win a record seven green jerseys between 2012 and 2019, he has lost none of the fight. Along with his Bora-Hansgrohe team-mates he put up a strong challenge to Bennett, making the contest for the green jersey one of the fascinating storylines of this year’s race.

Though he remains a giant of the sport, Sagan no longer instills fear into younger rivals. Will be fascinating to see how he copes on his Giro d’Italia debut a little under two weeks from now.

Elia Viviani (Cofidis, Solutions Crédits)

Having vacated the sprinters’ hotseat at Deceuninck-Quick Step last year to make way for Sam Bennett, big things were expected of Elia Viviani from his new employer Cofidis.

However, he arrived at the Tour without a single win in 35 days of racing in 2020 — and has extended that winless run to 56 days.

Throughout three weeks of racing the Italian was sadly anonymous; other than pre-race interviews he was barely seen. At least not until Sunday’s final stage when he finally made his presence known on the Champs Élysées. Unfortunately for Cofidis, who had hoped Viviani could end a barren run at the Tour that dates back to 2008, Viviani could only muster fifth.

In his defence, Viviani is most likely struggling post-lockdown, having not been able to train outside for long periods, rather than having been struck with the post-Quick Step curse — it is not unusual for sprinters to flounder once they leave Patrick Lefevere’s squad.

Team: Groupama-FDJ

Going into the race without in-form sprinter Arnaud Démare always appeared risky, especially when leadership duties were left resting on the shoulders of Pinot. It is no understatement to say it was a risk that backfired.

While Pinot and the likes of David Gaudu, who arrived following a period of sickness and abandoned the race during stage 16, were shadows of the riders that 12 months ago made France believe they were future Tour champions, Démare was winning for fun at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes and Tour de Luxembourg.

Only four teams took home less prize money — Israel Start-Up Nation, NTT, Total Direct Energie and Arkéa-Samsic. However, having promised so much, Groupama-FDJ’s spectacular failure not only let down its fans, but one of its marquee riders — Démare — too.