As Tadej Pogacar climbed on to the top step of the Tour de France podium on the Champs-Elysees, there were still some people doing double takes.
When the Tour set out from Nice three weeks ago, few were certain the race would ever reach Paris as France battled with rising cases of coronavirus. Far fewer would have predicted that a Tour debutant who turns 22 on Monday would emerge as the winner.
This strangest of seasons was always likely to throw up some unexpected results, but the drama of Saturday’s time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles was one for the ages – the most stunning climax since Greg LeMond stole yellow from Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989.
The Tour’s designers have removed more and more time trialling kilometres from the race in recent years, trying to keep the fight for yellow as open as possible, but if anyone doubted the discipline’s place in a Grand Tour, Saturday should be their answer.
The ‘race of truth’ exposed the cracks in Primoz Roglic with exacting cruelty – the Slovenian forced to wrestle his bike up the 24 per cent gradient to the line already knowing his dream was over.
Instead glory went to Pogacar, a young man riding only his second Grand Tour and an afterthought when the contenders were assessed in the build-up.
He will leave the race with not only the yellow jersey but also the King of the Mountains’ polka dots and the best young rider’s white. Monday’s birthday should be some party.
After Bernal’s success at the age of 22 last year, it is confirmation that a new generation has arrived to challenge perceptions that a rider must spend several years maturing before they can tackle cycling’s biggest races.
Meanwhile the inquest will begin for Roglic and Jumbo-Visma. Everything seemed to have gone according to the script for the pre-race favourite, who took yellow from Adam Yates on stage nine and looked bulletproof as his team-mates controlled the race like Team Sky of old.
Roglic had at his disposal domestiques who would be team leaders anywhere else – with 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin, second in the 2018 Tour, among those to sacrifice his own ambitions in service of the leader.
Wout Van Aert was sensational, winning two sprints, coming fourth in the time trial, and yet also there in the finales of the mountain stages, setting an imposing pace that would break the ambitions of so many others.
One of the striking images of Saturday’s drama was the sight of Van Aert and Dumoulin watching in stony silence as Roglic fell at the final hurdle.
But if Roglic ultimately proved fragile, the Tour itself proved remarkably robust in these most testing of times.
There were alarm bells ringing on the eve of the race when Lotto-Soudal sent home four members of staff due to two positive tests within their camp – an incident which could have seen them kicked off the Tour had it happened at any other time as protocols were twice revised.
The most stark reminder of the tightrope the Tour was walking came on the first rest day when its own race director Christian Prudhomme returned a positive test – 48 hours after he had shared a car with French prime minister Jean Castex.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) September 20, 2020
Yet somehow it always seemed like this great race would find its way to Paris.
Only the two world wars have stood in its way in its 117-year history, and there was a determination from organisers and the French government that it should go ahead as a symbol of hope and of resilience – even if the behaviour of a minority of fans brought the wisdom of that into question at times.
No one will be more grateful that it was seen through than Pogacar.
This was a Tour that will always stand out for the unusual images – the riders signing on in face masks, socially-distanced VIP areas and closed mountains in the worst-affected areas.
But it should be the stunning finale that secures the 2020 Tour’s place in history.