Tour de France 2021 – 10 burning questions ahead of the grand depart
The riders have gathered in Brittany. The team presentation has happened. The yellow jersey is ready and waiting for its first wearer. But before the peloton rolls out of Brest, Felix Lowe asks 10 burning questions ahead of the 108th edition of the Tour de France. You can follow and watch every moment of the iconic event with Eurosport.
The wait is over. Not the usual 11 months and one week; a combination of Covid-19 and the upcoming Olympics means it’s only been just over nine months since Tadej Pogacar won his debut Tour de France in swashbuckling fashion – overturning compatriot Primoz Roglic’s lead with a mesmerising time trial to snare his third stage win and, with it, the fabled maillot jaune.
But here we are, about to go at it all over again. Coronavirus hasn’t gone. Many things are still up in the air. But with the European championships under way (Sorry, Scotland!), Wimbledon approaching (Go, Andy!), and the rescheduled Olympics still on the cards (even if the “Mobot” isn’t), it’s high time the Tour de France stole some of the sunlight and kick-started this splendid summer of sport.
As the 2021 edition gets under way with four days through Brittany, the hotbed of French cycling, our man Felix Lowe – who will be following most of the race with a daily live blog – completes his series of race previews by posing some important questions ahead of Stage 1.
Six lower category climbs – including the punchy ramp to the finish in Landerneau – make the opening 198km stage unlike your usual Tour de France opener. One thing is certain, the final 3km climb of the Cote de la Fosse aux Loups (which averages at 5.7%) will do away with all the pure sprinters.
It’s a finish that suits the likes of debutant Mathieu van der Poel, his long-standing rival Wout van Aert, and the home favourite Julian Alaphilippe. The world champion won the second stage of last year’s Tour to swap his rainbow stripes for the yellow jersey – and the name of the climb (Fosse aux Loups literally means “Wolf Ditch”) should be extra motivation for the leader of the so-called Wolfpack.
But so often the Tour curtain-raiser springs a surprise: look no further than Alexander Kristoff winning last year in Nice, or Mike Teunissen the year before in Brussels. With this in mind, there’s every chance that the first man in yellow might well be someone like Michael Matthews (who hasn’t won since joining Team BikeExchange) or the new Italian champion Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) or even the Basque livewire Alex Aranburu of Astana.
Kristoff in yellow after brilliant late burst on Stage 1
Heck, if he’s feeling greedy, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for Primoz Roglic to get off to a running start – although you’d think he’d be more in favour of letting his Jumbo-Visma teammate Van Aert take the early glory to feed his personal ambitions before he switches focus to being a super domestique.
How many different riders will wear yellow between now and Paris?
Good question. Time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds at each finish (except time trials) should keep things interesting and could see the jersey trade hands on numerous occasions during the first week. There are also additional bonuses of 8-5-2 seconds at special extra intermediate sprints, although these come at six points over the course of the entire race and so may not be as big a factor.
But another punchy finish in Stage 2 – at the infamous Mûr-de-Bretagne – could ensure an early trade of jerseys, while the time trial in Stage 5 will surely usher in another leader, ditto the first mountain stage on Saturday 3rd July and perhaps even the next day with the summit finish at Tignes. That means five different leaders before Stage 10 by which point the hierarchy should have formed.
The double ascent of Mont Ventoux ahead of five tough stages in the Pyrenees could shake things up further still – although only two of those are on summit finishes (the last two on the Col du Portet and at Luz Ardiden). So, let’s say seven different wearers of yellow – and then a final change with the Stage 20 time trial to Saint-Emilion. That makes eight different yellow jerseys: final answer.
Can Cavendish actually win a stage?
The romantics will note that this year’s route reads like a veritable greatest hits of Mark Cavendish’s previous sprint successes, with stages visiting Fougères, Châteauroux, Nîmes and, of course, Paris – all places where the Manx Missile has won before.
Should he roll back time and triumph at all these locations and then that would see Cav level Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 Tour stage wins. But is it all wishful thinking? In a word: yes.
Cavendish’s last stage win on the Tour came five years ago and he hasn’t been preparing to ride the Tour – or any Grand Tour, for that matter – this season. It was only when Sam Bennett was ruled out with a knee injury that the door opened to the 36-year-old, who has nevertheless impressed with four wins on the Tour of Turkey and a victory in the Baloise Belgium Tour.
Baloise Belgium Tour - Cavendish explains emotional sprint win, plays down new Tour de France links
But the Tour is not Turkey. Or even Belgium, for that matter. While Caleb Ewan, Nacer Bouhanni and Tim Merlier were all racing when Cav last struck gold, in France he will also have to face the likes of Arnaud Demare, Peter Sagan, Sonny Colbrelli and old foe Andre Greipel – not to forget superstars Van Aert and Van der Poel. Just winning a single stage will be a huge ask for the British veteran – but with experienced lead-out duo Dries Devenyns and Michael Morkov, Cavendish should be in with a genuine shout to add to his 30 wins.
Just not on the Champs-Elysées: it would be almost inconceivable to think of Cavendish – in his condition and at his age – making it over both the Alps and Pyrenees and all the way to Paris.
With Welshman Geraint Thomas spearheading the challenge with support from last year’s Giro winner, Tao Geoghegan Hart, the British team have an embarrassment of riches – or should that be Richies? – when it comes to potential GC animators.
Throw into the mix last year’s third-place finisher, the Australian Richie Porte, and the 2019 Giro d’Italia winner, Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, and Ineos are by far the strongest team. The 26-year-old Tour debutant Geoghegan Hart admitted as much on Friday morning in an interview with BBC Radio 2.
We come here, first and foremost, with a really strong team. We won, as a squad, the two main warm-up events in Switzerland and in the South of France in the week’s preceding the Tour. So we’ve really got great momentum and we also have a gluttony of options within the team, which is a privileged position to be in.
With Porte winning a career-first Dauphiné and Carapaz triumphing in the Tour de Suisse, Welshman Thomas, the 2018 Tour champion, will be feeling the pressure from within to prove himself a worthy leader. But the route does play into the 35-year-old’s hands, with only three summit finishes that suit a stronger climber like Carapaz, plus over 50km of time trials where the Ecuadorian will ship time.
As for Porte, looking back at his career it’s been very rare for him to put in three consecutive weeks without suffering some kind of catastrophe. Last year, while at Trek-Segafredo, he did manage to avoid all slip ups – and was rewarded with a career-high third place, his first ever podium finish in a Grand Tour. But the 36-year-old is now back at Ineos where he knows his role will be one of team player – and only circumstance (such as Thomas crashing out) would change that. Besides, he admitted that he just doesn’t want the pressure of leading a team in the Tour anymore.
Thomas still enters as the Ineos Plan A. But, as Geoghegan Hart can attest, things can change in a flash. Plus we all saw what happened at Movistar during the 2019 Giro, where Carapaz emerged from leader Mikel Landa’s shadow… The biggest challenge for Ineos may not be beating their rivals, but staying united. And the question remains whether their collective strength will be enough to outdo the individual brilliance of last year’s two best riders.
It’s impossible to tell, with Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic having seemingly gone to extreme lengths to avoid each other this season. Their only convergence of calendars came in the Itzulia Basque Tour where they took a stage apiece before Pogacar slipped into a support role for teammate Brandon McNulty, only for his compatriot to pull the overall win out of the hat on the final day.
The duo was meant to face each other in the Flèche Wallonne but a positive test within the UAE Team Emirates camp forced Pogacar to skip the race before returning to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Roglic’s absence. Indeed, the elder Slovenian hasn’t turned a competitive pedal since being pipped by Alaphilippe on the Mur de Huy, Roglic preferring to train at altitude in Tignes rather than race.
Highlights: Stage 3 of Itzulia Basque Country as Pogacar and Roglic do battle
Given how hectic Roglic’s schedule was in the lead up to last year’s Tour – and after, with his Vuelta victory – it’s no surprise to see Jumbo-Visma go about things differently. So often criticised for tailing off towards the end of three-week races, Roglic will be keen to avoid the kind of nosedive he experienced on that deciding time trial up La Planche des Belles Filles last September.
Will he lack sharpness and race fitness? Only time will tell. While he prepared behind closed doors, Pogacar won the Tour of Slovenia in his sleep and then went through the motions in both Slovenian national championships races. The 22-year-old doesn’t boast as strong a team as his compatriot’s slick Jumbo-Visma outfit, but he’s a consummate stage racer who has never won fewer than three stages on a Grand Tour.
It’s a match made in heaven and one which, this year, with the flatter time trials, Roglic may just edge – provided his decision to avoid racing for a two-month block doesn’t come back to haunt him.
Why are so many GC riders merely ‘going for stage wins’?
It’s been something of a formality for many top name riders and teams to take a step back and wilfully check themselves out of the GC hunt before the race has even begun. Just look at Astana-PremierTech’s announcement of their team on social media, which was caveated with the message, “Let the stage hunt begin”.
With two extremely strong favourites in Roglic and Pogacar, plus the fantastic force that is Ineos, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see such psychological tactics come into play. Why make a meal about how much you want to win the yellow jersey, only to suffer the media and fan backlash once you fall at the first hurdle?
If teams like Astana and Movistar and Bahrain-Victorious and Bora-Hansgrohe and BikeExchange – who have all sent exciting squads full of attacking options – want to downplay their GC chances in favour of bigging up their stage-hunting hopes, it’s because they only have one stab at yellow but 21 chances of daily glory.
But you can certainly expect a change of outlook should Jakob Fuglsang, Miguel Angel Lopez, Jack Haig, Wilco Kelderman or Lucas Hamilton find themselves in a solid position on GC following the double ascent of Mont Ventoux in Stage 11.
What can we realistically expect from Chris Froome?
Given his average finishing position in the general classification of stage races since his crash in 2019 is 72nd, then the short answer is: not a lot. For many, it’s simply a surprise he made the Israel Start-Up Nation at all, let alone with the #31 bib on his back. The ‘1’ is usually given to team leader, but both Froome and his management have publicly stated that he will ride in support of the Canadian Michael Woods – and not the other way round.
Could the 36-year-old’s ongoing struggles this season all be part of an elaborate hoax that will see a leaner, hungry four-time winner arrive at the start without any expectation from the media and his peers that he will be targeting the yellow jersey? Again, it’s unlikely. No one is capable of such a protracted bluff – and riding off the back of the peloton in such an uncompetitive manner is hardly ideal preparation. You might as well be at altitude on your own up at Tignes – that way, you may at least get a glimpse at what Roglic has been up to.
Froome: This moment has been my motivation
The fight back to fitness has clearly been a longer and harder battle than Froome and his new team imagined, but the message coming from both rider and team is that they are committed to turning things round and confident of doing so. If Froome can do a job for Woods and get through this Tour, then that will be a key stepping-stone for him in his quest to join the illustrious group of five-time winners.
It’s a quest which looks faintly ridiculous right now – and a quest which could well seem ultimately unreachable to Froome himself over the course of the next three weeks. But he’ll only know if he’ll ever be capable of returning to his best form by suffering and accepting the inevitable flak that he’ll receive this July.
Will season three of the Movistar documentary be any good?
It has all the hallmarks of being a belter – especially seeing that the Spanish team now finds itself being led by the rider whose disparaging slurs towards them and their figurehead proved the stand-out moment of the final episode of the opening series of The Least Expected Day.
After years of failing with a leadership trident, Movistar have instead decided to put a three-pronged support team of Enric Mas, Marc Soler and Alejandro Valverde behind their leader Miguel Angel Lopez. Eyebrows were raised when the Colombian joined from Astana – not least after Lopez attacked Movistar following their decision to up the tempo during a key stage in the 2019 Vuelta following a crash that brought down the red jersey, Roglic.
Inferring that someone is not fit to wear the rainbow bands is hardly the best backdrop to joining up with that same rider one season on – although Lopez was quick to apologise to Valverde for his words, made in the heat of the moment.
It remains to be seen if the 27-year-old copes better in the leadership role at Movistar than his predecessors Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana – and given Mas finished fifth, one place ahead of Lopez, in last year’s Tour, the ingredients are there for some simmering tension (which is usually the case when a hot-heat like Soler and an immovable icon like Valverde are present).
Is an eighth green jersey for Peter Sagan a formality?
With defending champion Sam Bennett ruled out, we should see a new – or a new, old – rider in green in Paris. On paper, you’d think that Van der Poel or Van Aert would have a far better chance of winning the points classification than Sagan, a rider who seems to have been eclipsed by the younger generation of punchy finishers and sprinters.
But with debutant Van der Poel unlikely to reach Paris because of his Olympic commitments, and Van Aert confined to yellow jersey duties for teammate Roglic, the door is open for a consistent finisher like Sagan to take an eighth green jersey.
Standing in his way are the pure sprinters in the mould of Caleb Ewan and Arnaud Demare. While the first two stages have punchy uphill finales, there are ample opportunities for the fast men – including Stage 19 as well as the final stage in Paris (a big incentive as any for sprinters to go the distance).
But the Australian has not disguised the fact that he intends to ride the Vuelta to complete a trio of Grand Tours this year, while Demare may struggle in the mountains. That could mean an all-rounder like Sonny Colbrelli emerges as the main threat to Sagan – or the rider like Michael Matthews, who won in 2017 when the Slovakian was booted out of the Tour for that barge on Mark Cavendish (who surely won’t be targeting the green jersey).
But even if he fails to win a stage again, Sagan could still add green to the Giro’s maglia ciclamino he won in May.
All talk has been about Cavendish at Deceuninck-QuickStep but should the Manxman falter, then the Italian sprinter Davide Ballerini could step up. The 26-year-old debutant was on fantastic form earlier in the year and is a fast finisher who pass under the radar and benefit from the experience of his 36-year-old teammate.
Denmark’s Mads Pedersen experience quite a surreal year in the rainbow stripes given the disruption of the pandemic, but he came close to winning his first ever Tour stage in Nice – denied only by veteran Alexander Kristoff. Nine months on, the 25-year-old enters his second Tour after failing to finish the Dauphiné. He’s not on the tips of everyone’s tongues but he could revel in the wet and blustery conditions set to hit Brittany during the opening phase of the race.
Sagan, of course, takes all the attention at Bora-Hansgrohe, but there’s a strong GC team behind Dutchman Wilco Kelderman, who will have Emanuel Buchmann and Patrick Konrad in support. With fewer summit finishes, it’s a route that should suit the former Sunweb all-rounder, who came so close to winning the Giro last autumn.
While French hopes reside very much with Julian Alaphilippe and David Gaudu – taking over as Groupama-FDJ’s main man in the continued absence of Thibaut Pinot – Ag2R-Citroën duo Aurelien Paret-Peintre and Nans Peters could have a few tricks up their sleeves. Neither will be targeting the top 10, but they could feature in the breakaways or polka dot jersey competition (where Gaudu, should his GC bid falter) could come into his own.
Primoz Roglic hands stage win to David Gaudu as he takes overall victory
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) has quietly gone about his business this season and will benefit from not being among anyone’s list of favourites. It’s easy to forget that the Colombian was riding a very solid Tour last year before a crash in the Massif Central sent him off track. Still only 31, Quintana could ghost his way back into the top five for the first time since 2016.
Australians Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) and Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange) are not exactly household names for those fans who only tune in once a year to watch the world’s biggest bike race – but that could change soon if they build on their steady progression and use the weaponry possessed by their respective teams.
And should Primoz Roglic suffer the same kind of fate that befell him in on the final day of Paris-Nice, the Danish debutant Jonas Vingegaard, who finished behind his teammate on the final podium of Itzulia, could take a huge step up – although you’d think the dependable Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk has a better pedigree when it comes to a top 10 finish.