Tour de France: Ineos Grenadier pull out the big guns in bid to stop UAE Team Emirates 'benchmark' Tadej Pogacar

British team have named four elite riders in their lineup with the aim of stopping the Slovenian defending champion

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As the Tour de France prepares to get under way at the Grand Depart in Brest on Saturday, Ineos Grenadier have assembled a team of intimidating depth but one of their riders admits reigning champion Tadej Pogacar remains "the benchmark".

British team Ineos are gunning for an eighth Tour de France title in 10 years, and have unfurled a quartet of riders they hope can submerge 22-year-old sensation Pogacar by force of numbers.

"He can't follow all four of us, but he is the benchmark," Ineos climber Richie Porte said.

Porte and his teammates, 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and the Giro d'Italia winners Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart, will have to work together to equal the ever-improving UAE Team Emirates leader.

UAE Team Emirates CEO Mauro Gianetti has said that the champion he unearthed and recruited was ready to defend his title.

"Ineos is going to be the favourite as they always are and they have a very strong team again this year," he said. "But we won it last year and we are going to try and win it again."

Four-time winner Chris Froome, now with Israel Start-up Nation, mentioned Pogacar first when asked to name the leading contenders: "Tadej isn't getting any slower is he?"

Pogacar himself struck an ominous warning to his rivals on Thursday when discussing his confidence ahead of his title defence.

“I feel really good, relaxed. I feel prepared and confident, particularly after the Tour of Slovenia,” he said. “I have had a very good year so far and I’m really looking forward to starting this Tour with good preparation and good condition. I am confident in myself and my team, we can’t wait for the challenge.”

epa09298405 Australian rider Richie Porte (L) of the Ineos Grenadiers team attends a training session two days ahead of the 108th edition of the Tour de France cycling race in Brest, France, 24 June 2021. The 108th edition of the Tour de France will start in Brest, western France on 26 June 2021.  EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo

A heavy atmosphere shrouded the French Riviera resort city Nice at the start of 2020's delayed Tour de France, but the feeling in 2021 is as fresh as the wind blowing in from the Atlantic.

The race was originally slated to start in Copenhagen but will begin on the French west coast instead.

"The Tour will be forever grateful to Brittany for stepping in to host the first three stages, we were so happy we gave them a fourth, one for each department," race director Christian Prudhomme said.

One breath of invigorating air might be Dutch rookie Mathieu van der Poel, who will be cheered around every kilometre of the race.

A hero already in the mountain biking and cross disciplines for his gung-ho, all-in, attitude, he is also the grandson of France's most beloved cyclist Raymond Poulidor.

Poulidor finished regularly in the Tour top three but never won it or even wore the leader's yellow jersey.

Team Alpecin Fenix' Mathieu van der Poel of Netherlands (L) and his teammates attend a training session a day ahead of the first stage of the 108th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, near Brest on June 25, 2021. / AFP / Philippe LOPEZ

Van der Poel appears intent on righting this historical blight and his entire team are wearing a jersey in homage to Poulidor. All the signs are he will produce a Herculean effort and will be hailed whether he wins or not, just as his grandfather was.

British fans will be especially interested to see 'VDP' in action as he will be the chief obstacle to Tom Pidcock taking the Tokyo mountain bike crown shortly after the Tour. Pidcock, another Ineos man, is not racing in the Tour.

The four Brittany stages will be followed by a 26km individual time-trial and then a very short stage and a very long stage as the race heads through the Chateau-littered Loire Valley.

The race crosses the breadth of France into the Alps, where the knives will likely come out for Pogacar.

"The one thing we can't do is let him within sight of the finish with a lead," Porte said, signalling Ineos may try and finish Pogacar off before the Pyrenees.

A great place to do that and against a spectacular backdrop, would be on the so-called Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux, with its treeless lunar upper reaches. The peloton must climb it not once but twice on stage 11.

The race then sweeps down to the Pyrenees before a transfer back to Paris and the final day sprint along the cobbles of the Champs Elysees where the champion will pull on the fabled winner's yellow jersey.