A look at the overall contenders for the Tour de France. Unsurprisingly it’s Tadej Pogačar vs. Jumbo-Visma vs. the field but the route and misfortune could also have their say, the long first week promises to high wire act.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE) seems to play at cycling, making it all look so easy. He won the last two Tours, first by surprise, then by domination. He’s taken eight of his last nine stage races – the missing one was when he decided to play helper in the Basque Country – so if the past is any guide, he looks like the present and the future. That crushing win last year? It came after rivals crashed out. He’s got all the skills for a third win, while Roglič ably rode the GP de Denain to test the cobbles, Pogačar almost won the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He’s arguably the best in the mountains, sprints well for time bonuses and last year won the Laval time trial. Where’s the weakness? Heat perhaps and the long range forecast says it’ll be roasting in France but his rivals can’t rely on the sun gods. His UAE team used to look weak but they’ve gone on a shopping spree, hiring George Bennett and Marc Soler for the mountain stages. However they’ve lost Matteo Trentin to Covid and this is a big problem as Pogačar needs bodyguards for the opening, northern stages. It’d be flippant to say only Covid could stop him but we should address this risk: the virus can infect any rider, any time and GC contenders are just as prone so any preview comes with added risk.
Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) also has a fabulous record in stage races… except for those in France. He’s had a tendency to fade in a grand tour but this has come when he’s been winning races galore in the build-up. He faded in the 2019 Giro but only after bagging the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie; he faded on the Planche des Belles Filles in 2020 after taking the delayed national championships, the Tour de l’Ain and crashing out of the Dauphiné in the lead so you could see why he was tiring. To remedy this last year his team didn’t race him for months before the Tour to keep him fresh, only for a crash to take him out. Now they hope for a “goldilocks” approach, coming in fresh but still with reflexes sharpened by recent races. He’s even remedied his bad luck in France so far with wins in Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné this year and if you’re superstitious, well the French say jamais deux sans trois, a version of good things come in threes. Excellent in the time trials, equipped with a searing sprint for summit finishes and time bonuses, he’s also got the strongest team in the race…
…where team mate Jonas Vingegaard is a leading contender. In the recent Dauphiné there was a moment when the Dane looked stronger. It was fascinating because it was so brief and uncertain rather than defining, the story was really how the pair were so far ahead of the rest of the field. Anyway Roglič had fared better in the time trial and was stronger on the Vaujany summit finish the previous day which was why he was in yellow. Presumably bored by repeated leadership questions, their mantra is the racing will decide. Perhaps Roglič takes time on Stage 1 but any incident de course can happen. Vingegaard is still an unknown quantity and can still surprise on the upside. He didn’t fare too well on the pavé back in March but maybe he was short of form rather than skills. Having two riders leaders is insurance against a crash or illness but how to use this on the positive side, to play their tactical cards? The “old 1-2” isn’t that helpful, attacking on a climb and forcing Pogačar to respond just risks being counter-attacked by the UAE rider, instead any tactical move would have to be more risky, think attacking on a valley road into a headwind, such that Pogačar really doesn’t want to respond and is instead forced to stew as one of them builds up a lead. Gambling’s not Jumbo-Visma’s style but if Pogačar proves to be the strongest, it’s on them to invent something.
Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-hansgrohe) has been looking better and better all season and looked on track to win the Tour de Suisse… until he left with Covid. Covid’s now left him, but in what state? The form is unknown you don’t need to be a virologist to diagnose the clues, if he’s starting the Tour it’s not for experience and the team have picked some solid support riders while leaving sprinter Sam Bennett behind. It’s hard to see the Cyborg from Vyborg riding away on a climb or beating the names above in a time trial, let alone both scenarios which he’d probably need on his way to winning overall. But if it’s hard, it’s not quite impossible to imagine it, while all the names about to be cited below surely need a plot twist rather than a forceful pedal stroke to help get them onto the podium, let alone win outright. Vlasov’s got a strong team with plenty of bodyguards and mountain support with Lennard Kämna ready to help like he did with Hindley.
Without the direct challenge of Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz, Ineos still come with three leaders in Adam Yates, Dani Martinez and Geraint Thomas, who gets a promotion from road captain to GC contender following his Tour de Suisse win. Yates has been hit by Covid which raises questions about form but even in peak shape the amount of time trials doesn’t suit, he’ll need to make a surprise move along the way. Martinez instead is very consistent and the Tour of the Basque Country winner might be unproven as a grand tour leader but he’s been fifth in the Giro while pacing Bernal, he’s reliable across three weeks. His recent Tour de Suisse ride came after flying in from Colombia so he should be stronger now and could finish high but how to win? 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas, a podium in 2019 too,has seen his stock fall because of freak crashes but if he stays lucky he’ll be interesting to watch because he has plenty of experience and race craft, likes the cobbles and is useful in time trials but the mountains are his challenge, he doesn’t seem to have the climbing speed of his best years. The riders are openly acknowledging they’ve not got a Tour challenge in the conventional sense, it’s up to them to win stages and create opportunities to ambush rivals if they want the maillot jaune. The course doesn’t make ambushes easy, each mountains stage tends to resemble the next with few valley sections where Ineos could try and make surprise moves but it’ll be interesting to see whether they can abandon the mountain train way of racing and go rogue. Tom Pidcock might lead the way, he’s stage-hunting and that’s novel for the team.
Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën) was fourth overall last year. Yes he lost time and was “allowed” to go in the breakaway to Tignes where a stage win and time back but he kept on climbing with the best after that. He looks to have improved since, he’s been very dependable in World Tour level stage races this year. Ag2r Citroën know this and want to back him for another high GC finish but matching last year’s result is a tall order and there’s a nervous feel to it, like watching a tightrope walker but he’s a fearless rider who’ll attack rather than defend.
Enric Mas (Movistar) had the allure of a punchy, dynamic rider when he finished second in the 2018 Vuelta but seems more of a steady diesel these days. It’s because he knows his limits, he could attack the cast of 2018 but taking on Pogačar and Roglič in the Tour is quite another thing, as he said only this morning: “It’s easy on your sofa to ask me to attack… ….If I haven’t attacked it’s because I couldn’t“. Sixth place is the Tour last year was strong, would he sign up for the same result again now? Arguably his team would seize this with both hands as Movistar are one of the teams that need UCI points to stave off relegation and a high GC finish brings beaucoup points. Mas has finished few races so the team may well want to wrap him in cotton wool and adopt a safety-first tactic.
Close your eyes for a second and can you picture Rigoberto Uran (EF Education) winning? Probably not but an aide memoire: a year ago he was sitting second overall at the start of Stage 17, having done the Alps, Mont Ventoux and three of the five stages in Pyrenees last year, only to fall ill and slip to 10th overall by Paris. That came after a stellar Tour de Suisse last year, he’s not looked sparkling this time around so the form might not be as good but he knows how to ride steady. Neilson Powless is in good form and Ruben Guerreiro is climbing well but less consistent, especially for the time trial.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) is the sole team leader – with Thibaut Pinot’s likely to ride the way he did in the Tour de Suisse, shedding time on flat stages so he can attack in the mountains, reculer pour mieux sauter. The “Little Prince of Brittany” is a darting climber who has worked to improve in the time trials – a rare GC contender who has increased their bodyweight – so even if this year’s route doesn’t suit because of the two time trials, he can hope to improve on his 11th place from last year but how far into the top-10? He can be an exciting rider, mentally tough, capable of winning a sharp uphill finish one day but also prone to a melt down the next, and is all the more exciting for this so trying to grind out a high GC result might sap the spirit.
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) still has GC ambitions but as his contract is up, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But remember he was fifth in Paris-Nice and fourth in Catalonia this year and he remains a classy rider with a long palmarès seemingly as ease in a crosswind as on a long climb but how to get a big result? His team would love a stage and a go at the mountains jersey. His form in the Route d’Occitanie was steady rather than spectacular although a crash mid-race took some of the shine off.
Team DSM say all their riders, including Romain Bardet are going for stage wins. But until he loses time he’s a GC contender and he tells L’Equipe this morning “I don’t want to hang around at the back of the class in the first week“, implying he’ll fight for position rather than dawdle around, but also says in the interview his form is unknown after his Giro exit and some holidays. Still as a preview for who wins, even if he’s got his Giro form or better, this year’s time trials just don’t suit and a repeat of his 2016 and 2017 podium finishes looks unlikely.
Israel-PremierTech’s best GC rider is Jakob Fuglsang, a consistent and experienced rider who seems a fixture of the Tour every summer but for all the trying, has only one top-10 on GC to his name in 11 starts and aged 37 would make the oldest Tour winner ever. Still he’s back and in form after a podium finish in the Tour de Suisse and will be aiming high, it helps his team get precious UCI points. Michael Woods is going for stages and we should see Chris Froome riding steady but even if he finishes, say, 20th he’ll gain UCI 50 points but this won’t make him one of Israel’s ten best scorers so either he delivers a giant GC result for pride and points alike… or he rides in support for Fuglsang and Woods.
Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) rode to a top-10 last year but without enthralling many crowds outside of Kazakhstan, he’s handy for stage wins too like in 2020 and the team really need a result after a near-invisible season.
Perhaps more keenly watched by Europol than fans right now Bahrain tandem Damiano Caruso was second in the Giro last year, and Jack Haig third in the Vuelta and both will look to ride steady for a high GC finish but as good as Haig’s ride was, he was seven minutes down on GC. The pair are on form with solid rides in the Dauphiné, they have the same style of nudging the top-10 each day and if they stay consistent they can place well into the top-10.
|Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič
|Thomas, O’Connor, Yates, Uran
Comment: it was tempting to give nobody five chainrings because of the risks ahead. There’s always the glorious uncertainty of sport to start with. Plenty of yellow dreams were slaughtered in the opening week of last year’s Tour and that was just on the humdrum roads of Brittany, here first week is an obstacle course and could become a graveyard of ambitions. Some of the Danish roads are tiny and exposed to the wind, there’s the pavé to come and more so it’ll be a miracle if all the names cited above make it Morzine’s rest day intact. And that’s before we’re forced to confront Covid.