The world’s top 23 teams, each with eight riders, will line up for the 108th Tour de France “grand depart” in Brest, Brittany on Saturday. This year’s race covers 3,414km over 21 stages before reaching the finish in Paris on July 18.
Last year it was 21-year old Slovenian Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates who stole the show with an 11th hour victory in the penultimate day’s individual uphill time trial, overturning a seemingly impossible time gap to upstage his friend, compatriot and race leader Primoz Roglic of Team Visma.
This year the Slovenian duo will again be the riders to beat, with Pogacar having just won the Tour of Slovenia and Roglic choosing to prepare at altitude, and without racing in recent weeks, both are on top form.
Despite his youth, Pogacar demonstrated great tactical wisdom in 2020, and this year he has a stronger team around him. However, they will not have the depth of Team Visma when it comes to the mountains, something that could be a key factor in the final outcome.
Their main rivals will be Ineos-Grenadiers, who field a sublime climbing team. Their leadership is likely to fall to Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, a former Giro d’Italia winner who also just scored victory in the Tour de Suisse. Running Carapaz a close second for leadership is Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner from Wales, and the two individual time trial stages could well play in his favour if things run close.
Their support riders include Richie Porte, who just won the Critirium Dauphine and who was third in the 2020 Tour, and Tao Geoghegan Hart, the 2020 Giro d’Italia winner. Both riders are potential contenders in their own right.
Outside the big four of Pogacar, Roglic, Carapaz and Thomas (and their illustrious henchmen) are a handful of other potential podium finishers, and any one of them could steal the show given a lucky break.
Colombian climbers Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar) are all in top form. Also in the long mix are Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange/UK), Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation/Canada) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe/Germany), while returning to form following injury is 2013 Tour winner Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), a wily veteran who should never be over-looked.
Two wild cards that can be guaranteed to stir things up are world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step/France) and Tour debutant Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix/NL); both are versatile and aggressive riders. They may not match the best in the high mountains, but they will definitely fire up the hilly stages – and you never know if they will go the full Tour distance.
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The key stages
With two hilly opening stages and the first yellow jersey up for grabs, the race will be aggressive from the start. Both van der Poel and Alaphilippe will be looking for stage wins and to steal time over the overall contenders here, which should translate to exciting viewing.
Stage 5 is the first of the two individual time trails. At just 27km long and being early in the Tour it should have no major impact on the overall race, but it will be seen as a form guide for the favourites.
The real battle for yellow commences on Stage 8, when the race briefly dips into the Alps for a stage finish in Le Grand Bornand. Being the first mountain stage, expect to see the race favourites playing coy and saving their powder for the following day, although there will always be an outlier hoping to take advantage.
Stage 9 climbs the cruelly steep 1,910-meter Mont Ventoux (Provence) twice – once in either direction. Riders then descend to finish in Malaucene, so anticipate some epic racing here, both up and downhill.
Next on the hit list come the Pyrenees, Stage 15 climbs through the mountains and then drops down to finish in Andorra, and by now the general classification race will be taking shape. With a rest day ahead, expect some hard racing on this stage, with a lot of pressure being applied by the stronger teams attempting to whittle things down.
In all probability the Pyrenean summit finish stages of 17 and 18 will be where this year’s race will be finally decided. This will surely be bike racing at its finest and these two stages are guaranteed prime time viewing.
Stage 17 climbs the first category Col’s du Peyresourde & de Val Louron-Azet in quick succession before grinding to a halt at the summit of the Hors Category (HC – the toughest) Co du Portet, a killer stage on heavy mountain roads. This will test the field and leave many dreams shattered at the roadside.
The final mountain stage (18) clambers over the HC Col du Tourmalet en-route to a summit finish at Luz Ardiden (1,715m HC). For those who have anything left to give this is the last chance, and it will be a battle of attrition; no mercy will be shown.
The race should all but be done and dusted by now – although, as seen last year it doesn’t always play out that way.
Stage 20 is a 30.8km flat individual time trail through vineyards to Saint-‘Emilion. A strong time trialist like Thomas could take a minute from a pure climber here, which means we could have another nail biter of a finale if the time gaps are short.