Plotting the 2021 Tour de France

The 108th edition of the Tour de France started in late June this year. The start date was shifted back slightly to avoid overlapping with the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics, but the race was otherwise unaffected by the ongoing COVID pandemic which had forced the postponement of last year’s race. In this post, just like last year’s, I plot how the race unfolded.

The code that generated the plots can be found here (rendered on Github). The data is here.

The Race for Yellow

The top award in the Tour is the yellow jersey, which is awarded to the rider with the lowest combined time across the 21 stages of the race. Tadej Pogačar, the incredibly young1 and surprisingly dominant winner of last year’s race, was the clear favorite this year.

Primož Roglič was a favorite again after taking second place in last year’s Tour. Since then he had defended his title in one of the two other grand tours, the Vuelta a España, winning for a second year in a row.

Ineos Grenadiers teammates Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, and Richard Carapaz were also in the running. Porte had won the Critérium du Dauphiné—considered a warm-up race for the Tour used to test a rider’s form—and Thomas had placed third in the Critérium and was the 2018 Tour winner. Carapaz had just won the Tour de Suisse, the other Tour warm-up race, and had won the Giro d’Italia in 2019.

Unfortunately, the race for yellow turned out to be far less exciting than last year, indicated by the large time gap between Pogačar and the rest of the field that formed early in the race:

A line plot showing how far behind the leader each top-finishing rider was after each stage of the 2021 Tour de France.

Pogačar only faltered on stage 7 as the race entered the Alps. He dropped to four minutes behind current race leader Mathieu van der Poel and three and half minutes behind second place Wout van Aert.2 But Pogačar stormed back on stage 8 to take the lead, which he maintained for the rest of the race.

Ben O’Connor attempted to contest Pogačar’s lead on stage 9 with a solo break away win but fell two minutes short. O’Connor’s effort put him in second place, but he wasn’t able to hold his form and eventually placed forth after losing time in the Pyrenees. By the end of stage 10, Pogačar had an unassailable lead of almost 6 minutes.

The Green Jersey

Although the race for yellow uneventful, the race for the green jersey was incredibly exciting. The green jersey is awarded to the rider with the most points, which are earned by winning intermediate sprints and stages.

Mark Cavendish—considered by some to be the greatest sprinter ever3—entered the race having won 30 stages of the Tour, just four behind all-time great Eddy Merckx. But Cavendish had not won a Tour sprint since 2016 or any stage of any race since 2018. His performance had fallen so far that he had considered retiring before the 2021 season. But in early 2021, he showed a return to his winning form with four dominate sprint wins in the Tour of Turkey, which raised the possibility of him beating Merckx’s record.

Here is how the sprint race turned out, with sprint stages shaded in grey:

A line plot showing how far behind the points leader the top five sprint sprinters were.

Cavendish took the lead in the points competition with a win on stage 4. He extended his lead on stage 6 with another win which brought him up to 32 all-time, just 2 behind Merckx. Cavendish had to survive the Alps in stages 7 and 8 if he wanted another shot at sprint wins. He managed to avoid the time cuts with the help of his team and went on to win twice more on stages 10 and 13, where second place Michael Matthews falls to his lowest point before clawing his way back over the next few stages.

Cavendish’s win on stage 13 tied Merckx’s record of 34 tour wins and set him up to beat the record during the final sprint of the tour on the Champs-Élysées. Unfortunately it was not to be, Cavendish came in third on the final sprint behind Wout van Aert and Jasper Philipsen. Cavendish may have another chance to beat the record in 2022, but as he is at the tail-end of his career it is not certain he will make the race.

The Rest of the Race

184 riders started the race and 141 finished. Here is how each rider fared:

A line plot showing how far behind the leader every rider was for each stage.

Cavendish paced himself in the mountains, finishing with the slowest rider to save his energy. Cavendish’s teammate, Tim Declercq, time is almost identical to Cavendish’s for the first 12 stages, as he stayed with the sprinter to ensure that Cavendish made it in under the time cut. Declercq was involved in a major crash in stage 13, where he lost almost 15 minutes. But he held on as other, slower riders dropped out, allowing him take the lanterne rougue awarded to the last place rider.

Finally, how did the other riders who held the yellow jersey during the race, Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel, do? Van der Poel dropped out when they hit the mountains to prepare for the Olympics. Despite his strength, he is not the type of rider who could have won this tour, being to heavy to climb quickly. Alaphilippe, although not a climber specialist, can compete in the mountains as we saw in the 2019 Tour, but he too started to lose time in the Alps. He held on and finished in Paris, but far down the leaderboard.

Although this year’s competition for the yellow jersey lacked the excitement of last year’s Tour, Mark Cavendish’s amazing return to form provided some rare sprinting tension. Hopefully Cavendish will return next year to attempt to break Merckx’s record!

  1. Pogačar is the second youngest winner of the Tour at 21. Henri Cornet is the youngest winner at just 10 days shy of 20 when he won the 1904 edition. 

  2. Van der Poel and van Aert are an exciting pair to watch! They got their start dominating cyclo-cross, where their only real competition was each other. Van der Poel has won four of the last seven Cyclo-cross World Championships, and van Aert has won the other three. Both have continued their domination—and rivalry—on the road in the last few years. 

  3. Mark Cavendish, or just “Cav” to the fans, is a rider to whom I feel a strong connection. He was the sprinter to beat when I first started watching cycling and was one of the few riders I was able to recognize and watch for in the race. I learned the tactics and tricks of sprinting from watching Cav and his leadout train.

    The end of his dominance came at roughly the same time that my interest in cycling started to wane. Most of the riders I had come into the sport with were leaving the peloton, the teams had all be renamed and many had broken up, and my life was becoming busier making following the sport hard.

    But with Cav returning to his old dominance of the sprint this year, I felt like I was back in 2013 watching cycling for the first time. It gave me a sense of nostalgia and excitement for the sport I hadn’t felt for a while. I hope the feeling lasts.