A look at the contenders and pretenders for Tour de France.
Route recap: seven mountain stages with three summit finishes, two time trials totalling 58km. Recent editions have given pure climbers a shot, now it suits all-rounders. There are fewer riders in this bracket which explains why many announced they’re stage hunting instead which will have its own effect on the race with the hilly stages likely to be more intense at the start. There can be daily traps, the hectic opening weekend, the danger of crosswinds down south and so on and there are time bonuses at the finish line of 10-6-4 seconds, and 8-5-2 seconds at six special bonus points along the route.
Let’s start where we left off with Tadej Pogačar. He’s got everything right since winning last year, an early season win in the UAE Tour to satisfy his sponsors and a win this month in the Tour of Slovenia for to please locals. The only loss this year was the Tour of the Basque Country and where he was helping Brandon McNulty, although he got smashed by Roglič in the TT stage and last week he was leading in the Slovenian TT championships at the first checkpoint and faded to finish third on a flat course which doesn’t reassure for the time trials either. His UAE team is strong but rivals stronger, as good as David de la Cruz and Brandon McNulty might be, taking Marc Hirschi suggests they want other stage wins too and they look prone to being caught out on the flat. We’ll get to Ineos’s hydra-headed squad in a moment. He’s going to be heavily marked this time but said to have big recovery powers so the longer the race goes on the better he gets, relative to others. He also seems unflappable, he seems to have fun racing and appears oblivious to pressure and the interests riding on him.
Primož Roglič is dependable and mysterious, it all depends on your time frame. Take a longer view from 2018 on and he’s as reliable as an atomic clock, the most consistent stage racer in the peloton. But the third week of a grand tour is where he starts to decay, exemplified by last year’s Tour where got sacked on the Planche des Belles Filles, and this fade has happened other times too, just not with as much drama. Take a shorter time frame and the mystery comes from his preparation this year, in a bid to avoid fatigue and crash injuries he’s not raced this summer so the form is unknown and his summer sabbatical means he’s going to find the hectic start on the narrow Breton roads a test of his reflexes which aren’t the best, see the last stage of Paris-Nice. The course suits with two flattish time trials but the big Pyrenean stages late into the third week are the concern again. Also there are questions for Jumbo-Visma: out-muscling Ineos on the plains and in the mountains last year, this summer they’ve looked much less potent. Being able to control the race matters to Roglič as his jump at the end of a mountain stage nets him time bonuses but so many teams coming for stage wins the early breakaway is going to be packed with power, likely to stay away and leave Roglič sans bonification. Steven Kruijswijk has been a GC contender for the team too but his 2019 podium a high point and he’s here to help, he can finish high again on GC all while Roglič gets to draft behind those “coat hanger” shoulders.
Who is the leader at Ineos? The rider who is leading, just look to 2019 when Egan Bernal took the initiative on the Galibier and suddenly became the number one. Neither Geraint Thomas nor Richard Carapaz look superior to Pogačar or Roglič but that’s on paper, tarmac is another and they’re not far off. Thomas has a consistent record in the Tour and is the steady pick of the pair while Carapaz looked at ease in the Tour de Suisse, following the attacks of Alaphilippe and van der Poel and making moves in the mountains if he can get a gap he’ll be hard to get back. Ineos have numerical superiority and nothing sophisticated is needed to exploit this, they can try to catch rivals out if they’re not at the front, or use the old 1-2 attack win the mountains where they take turns to attack will forces rival teams to decide whether to follow or not, if they do give chase then the other Ineos rider can hope for a tow across and then launch their move. But there’s a touch of palace intrigue as Thomas and Carapaz will want the other to make the sacrificial move while knowing that the one who takes the initiative stands to gain.
Ineos can try the 1-2-3-4 attack too. Rhird last year, Richie Porte is here to help Thomas and Carapaz, he doesn’t want the pressure and stress of it all. But he’ll be most helpful if he can roleplay as a GC contender rather than a mountain sherpa. Avoid accidents, do a good time trial and he can be deployed in the mountains to scare Roglič and Pogačar with his incisive attacks that will force the Slovenians to react and if they don’t, well this is exactly how he won the Dauphiné earlier this month. Tao Geoghegan Hart is a fourth contender, the Giro winner after all, but is likely to lose more time in the time trials and is here for the experience of riding his first Tour but can again make longer range moves that are riskier but will worry rivals. Talk of 1-2 attacks presupposes an easy logic of “if X, then Y” but as Mike Tyson paraphrased Carl von Clausewitz so well, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” and for all the scheming we’ll see what the road brings. The team is talking about a more lively style of racing because they have to be inventive to take the yellow jersey but if they do, expect the fortress tactics to make a comeback.
It’s hard to see past the Triglav tandem and Ineos but there are other contenders. The archetypal rider for this year’s course would be a rider who is excels in time trials and can climb with the best… only Tom Dumoulin (version 2018.7) isn’t here. So alas the rest of the preview vibes “here’s why they won’t win” but it’d be great to utterly wrong…
Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) is in the Dumoulin mould, a lanky Dutch time trialler who is very steady in the mountains but he’s never shone as brightly. Third in the Giro last year, fourth in the recent Dauphiné he can be top-5 if his luck holds up but it’s hard to imagine him in the lead and resisting attacks in the mountains, or placing spectacular attacks either. Team mate Emanuel Buchmann has had a rough year, a podium contender a year ago now starting the Tour after crashing out of the Giro, he’s likely stage hunting but one to watch.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quickstep) can put in a good time trial and can climb well but his limits are in the high mountains. He had a good Tour de Suisse but the route was altered because of snow and then he left during the final weekend to witness the birth of his son, we never saw him trade attacks in the high mountains. His problem is riding two horses, to be punchy enough in the opening week to outfox Mathieu van der Poel et al – something he couldn’t do in Switzerland – and then trying to take on the big GC contenders later on from the Alps on. But, and this is only a small impression, he’s looking more diesel-like which means he could be better in the mountains than in Brittany and he’s been dropping subtle hints in interviews about the GC. A podium is a big ask, especially as he rides as a showman more than a spreadsheet.
Don’t call it a trident. Movistar’s hire Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar) is their mountain spearheadwho can climb with the best but “Superman” Lopez reverts to Clark Kent when for time trials. Enric Mas was fifth overall in the Tour and Vuelta last year because of consistency rather than flair, another steady confirmation would suit. 41 year old Alejandro Valverde got a Dauphiné stage win recently but his win rate has fallen a lot in recent seasons. Marc Soler is volatile, a Paris-Nice winner capable of turning tables one day, then being turned himself the next.
Simon Yates (Bike Exchange) can drop the entire field to win a summit finish solo, and by some margin. Only with the Giro in his legs he’s not an obvious pick for GC, he might prefer to hang back and take stage wins, just as he did in 2019, plus he’s got a focus on the Olympics. Team mate Lucas Hamilton can do the opposite, ride consistently for a promising top-10.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) starts with an invisible rucksack, one loaded with the weight of French expectation. Nobody expects an overall win, even his Groupama-FDJ team comes with a TGV of a sprint train so he’ll be fending for himself. But this is sort of the point, he’s been team leader several times this year and is growing into the role, there’s more pressure on Arnaud Démare to get a sprint win while Gaudu can do his best without too many assets committed to him. As a pure climber the route isn’t for him but he limited his losses in the recent Dauphiné so any success along the way is a bonus and he’s got a good kick.
Astana-PremierTech had a behind-the-scenes battle for control over the team that’s just gone public and you wonder if riders will be thinking about taking off… for a new team rather than launching on a mountain pass but what better way to shine on the jobs market than to thrive in the Tour? Jakob Fuglsang has ridden 15 grand tours and never finished better than 6th overall and given his record in one day races is better his thoughts may drift to Tokyo? Ion Izaguirre is time trialling well but won’t be outclimbing everyone. Alexey Lutsenko will find the third week too gruelling, besides he’s a strong contender for the Olympics and so may back off anyway.
The Bahrain team has been on fire for the last few weeks but the Tour is a bigger crucible. The team is another openly chasing stage wins rather than the GC and has left out Mark Padun despite his Dauphiné dominance. Wout Poels will be on the back foot after the time trial although the two TT stages needn’t be ruinous for him. While Jack Haig gets a big test but there’s no pressure, can he make the top-10, look for him alongside fellow Aussie Hamilton.
Rigoberto Uràn (EF Education-Nippo) had a great time trial in the Tour de Suisse but extrapolating to the Tour for three weeks and the heightened competition is a big ask but play it right and he can make the top-5 if he can time trial as well on the flat. Sergio Higuita is better in time trials than his gadfly build suggests but more likely to score stage wins.
There are other grand tour winners in the field. This year’s course isn’t for Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) plus he’s looking increasingly stale, the talk is aiming for stage wins and the mountains jersey and his team would sign with both hands for either. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) is doubling up from the Giro and has an eye on the Olympics and selection too, he’ll need to do something to catch the Italian selector’s eye but we’re talking breakaways than GC and could also leave early. Chris Froome is the Israel team’s road captain, an explicit but indirect way of saying he’s not aiming for GC any more.
|Primož Roglič, Tadej Pogačar
|Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas
|Porte, Kelderman, Alaphilippe, Lopez, Mas, TGH, Uràn