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The drama of a race like the Tour de France is what keeps us entertained and coming back year after year for more. One of the key factors for this is that over three weeks strange things can happen. No matter how well organised a team plan is, no matter how researched or prepared they are, or the amounts of marginal gains they’ve accrued on paper when the rubber hits the road the whole thing can grind to a halt in moments.
A cross-wind, a well-timed counter-attack, a wet descent, the alliance among your competitors, a crash, puncture, or mechanical happen and any and all of these, separately or in combination, can pull the loose thread on a team’s plan and unravel it so fast that they’re left exposed and rudderless.
Then there is another factor. The underdog. The rider nobody had on their ‘risk radars’ when the race kicked off. It might be that the rider is young, or old, with no palmares, or just a reputation for blowing hot and cold.
The underdog throws a spanner in the well-oiled works of the plans and strategies laid by the race favourites. Remember Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, with his iconic jutting chin and swaying climbing style? He stepped up from being a strong second-stringer to being a multi-stage winning, yellow jersey-wearing hero. He found his mojo from nowhere and a ‘just won’t quit’ ability to suffer and attack over and over again in the 2017 edition.
Sometimes whole teams are underdogs. Take the have-a-go heroes of the smaller budget teams like Androni Geocattoli-Sidermec and CSF-Bardiani – each packed with up-and-coming talent and always hungry to disrupt the peloton’s status quo, to make a break that might just stick, or launch a kamikaze attack against all the odds. We love these little guys because they keep the big teams – with their clever, scientific plans and megastar riders, on their mettle.
Then we have a new breed of underdog – and we’re talking about Mathieu Van Der Poel (Alpecin Fenix). Surely, he’s not an underdog, being about the most talented rider ever to pedal bike in the history of the sport? Well, we think he is. See, Mathieu’s team is good, strong even those Italian outfits we’ve mentioned, but without throwing shade on the rest of the Alpecin-Fenix squad, he’s head and shoulders better than they are.
Consequently, MVDP often has to ‘freelance’ his way through the peloton, finding his own shelter from the wind, stealing fast wheels to move up the road and generally relying upon his own race-craft to put himself in prime position to cause maximum havoc. But does that really make him an underdog? Well, MVDP also has another habit.
He likes to occasionally throw a grenade and just launch an attack that makes no sense to the outside world. He’s previously said of these sudden attacks that they were not planned and done on a whim. Asked what prompted the spur-of-the-moment decision he’s said ‘I was getting cold waiting for something to happen’, or famously, ‘I got bored..’. When you’re a prodigiously physically talented as he is, you can burn precious watts, literally, for fun.
It’s MVDP’s exact refusal to be normal, but to roll the dice and do something completely unexpected that makes him an underdog. Decisions like launching a sprint at 400m, instead of 75 like tradition and convention dictates, or to believe he can pull back a multi-rider break that’s minutes up the road with single-digit kilometers remaining to go – all on his own, and make it against all odds to take the win. That’s also what being an underdog, albeit one that lives in plain sight, in white shorts, is all about.
One thing’s for sure, you can’t afford to take your eyes off of the Tour de France, not for a second, because somebody is always trying something to upset the odds. And it’s usually an underdog and we’re down with that!