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Tour de France Preview

A look at the favourites, and the first nine stages

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Welcome to the first of three Tour de France mini-previews, looking at the overall state of the race – which, this time, means a quick look at the favourites before a pedal is turned in anger – and the stages to be faced before the first rest day. Be ready for the next of these when the rest day comes, when we can re-rank the GC race and look at the next batch of stages.

We have a scintillating nine-stage block of racing before the first rest day. By my reckoning, there are five stages which could have a big impact on the eventual GC, with stage 2 and stage 8 in particular looking like they’ll be selective. There are also days which will reward sprinters, and days for the breaks. It is a much more varied week than the Tour normally begins with, and I’m looking forward to it. Can we be spared the usual crashes and bad luck? It seems most unlikely, but at least we don’t have frenetic flat stage after frenetic flat stage, and nothing in the road book looks overtly dangerous, so I’m more optimistic than normal.

Ranking the Favourites

One man’s attempt to put the favourites into a pecking order. This will be revisited at the first rest day, by which time it will be very different. I’ve got eleven riders in my top ten. Sorry.

The Top Two

1. Egan Bernal. By a hair. Both of the top two have strong team support, can climb but can also fight it out on tough flat stages, and will enjoy the final time trial. With Roglic on paper the stronger chrono-man, this is a guess on respective form and the chance for him to steal a couple of minutes’ cushion before the end of the race. I think he’s good enough to do so.

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2. Primoz Roglic. Can do it all – climb, sprint uphill, time trial and grind out the flat stages. Is also a Grand Tour winner, is also brilliantly supported, and, pre-crash, was on the best form of any of these guys. There’s a tiny query over the injury, and a tiny query over whether he’s peaked too soon, and those things just pushed him into second place, but this could easily swap. I mean, I’ve written at length about how hard this is to call.

The Next Two

3. Thibault Pinot. If the form of the front two doesn’t stand up, maybe we’ll see a French winner at last? T-Bo is looking awfully good this season and there are very few better climbers in the field. He’s experienced and has decent support. A history of bad luck, a bad stomach bug for key lieutenant Gaudu, and a query over his time trialling keep him out of the true elite group.

4. Tadej Pogacar. There’s an experience question here, and there’s a support question (both on the road and in the backroom), but there’s no question over Pog’s talent. Climbs brilliantly, and can time trial. If he’s in form, he’ll be difficult to drop. He was either tuning up in the Dauphine (good) or not quite at his best (bad). Time will tell.

Team Leaders Who Can Star

5. Mikel Landa. Could be the forgotten man of this Tour. Dauphine form is a concern but he looked good in Burgos and is well supported (Poels, Bilbao, Mohoric). I suspect I’m more bullish on his chaces than most.

6. Nairo Quintana. Leads the Arkea squad and has looked close to his imperious best at times since he left Movistar. Again, wasn’t quite right at the Dauphine but could turn it around here.

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7. Daniel Martinez. Again, I’m probably higher on him than everyone else is. I mean, I said he’d be on the podium back in March. He will be as pleased with the race design as anyone else, and he’ll enjoy the uphill TT. There’s a question over his ability to maintain his form for three weeks, and arguably a question over leadership, with Rigoberto URran also lurking, but you have to have the Dauphine winner on your shortlist, surely?

If They Get a Chance

8. Tom Dumoulin. Is another racing for a return to form but started to look awfully good in the Dauphine and clearly has the talent to perform. Will start off in support of Roglic but is a nice second banana. His time trialling means if he’s close at the end, he’s dangerous.

9. Richard Carapaz. As with Dumoulin, but with his relative lack of TT brilliance dinging him slightly.

They Can Really Climb, But…

10. Miguel Angel Lopez. Looked below his best to date this year but was climbing nicely towards the end of the Dauphine. He’s certainly good enough to be involved but I can’t see him winning. The TT is a huge obstacle for him.

11. Romain Bardet. Again, massive questions over his time trialling ability, to say nothing of questions over his form. However, I can’t leave him off my list because he just climbs so well when he’s at his best. Should be in the mix for a few stages, at least.

Also Lurking

Guillaume Martin is a rider I’ve long admired, and if I had more confidence in my ability to pick against previous results I’d move him above Bardet. He’s certainly good enough for a first top ten and might be better than that.

Sorry, Gui. Should have made it a top twelve...
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The Movistar trident of Mas, Valverde and Soler is hardly sparkling, but there’s quality there. Rigoberto Uran and, if healthy, Sergio Higuita, mean that EF have a stronger trident than Movistar. Julian Alaphilippe astonished on the long mountain passes last year and shouldn’t be ignored, but the expectation is that at least one day will be too tough for him. Adam Yates has been there and done it before and could be in the mix. Bora come with a team that looks good on paper but with serious injury concerns aplenty. Anyone still in the mix after the first week will rocket up the list (Manny Buchmann in particular). The same applies to Dan Martin.

Covid Corner

What do we know at this stage? Well, not too much. Testing is coming, and will be extensive. Riders will be sent home if they test positive. The hope, it seems, is that racing will be able to continue if someone in the peloton is infected. That strikes me as fairly unlikely, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. Also noteworthy is that the corner of France hosting the first three stages (that is, the Alpes-Maritimes and the area around Nice) are experiencing a significant spike and are the subject of much angst from France’s public health officials. Watch this space. I hope there won’t be a Covid Corner in next week’s update, but I can’t imagine that will be the case.

Two Favourites I’m Watching

Peter Sagan will ride the Tour, so although Arnaud Demare isn’t turning up there is a strong favourite to win green. However, one rider I’m watching is Caleb Ewan, who has looked in decent form since the restart and has an “if not now, when” vibe about him. With strong team support he needs to make a powerful start to the race if he’s got even the remotest chance of wearing green in Paris. It could happen. Wout van Aert, Sam Bennett, and the newly-crowned Italian and European Champion Giacomo Nizzolo are also in the mix, but I see Caleb as Peter’s biggest threat.

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In the battle for yellow, meanwhile, it is Primoz Roglic who’ll get the most attention from me. If he comes into this race on the best of form, he could put himself in a very strong position to dominate the race, especially with the (partly uphill) time trial looming as the penultimate stage. If, however, he really is injured, look for other contenders to work hard to eliminate him. There are questions over all the favourites, but the range of outcomes for the Vuelta champ seem the biggest of all.

The First Nine Stages

1. Looks like a sprinter’s stage, this is an 88km loop from Nice, featuring an uncategorised climb and a cat 3 (5.8km at 5.1%), the whole thing taken twice. There’s a flat 30km after the final descent to get organised.

2. Another out-and-back loop from Nice, but this one will be much harder work and is unlikely to go to a sprinter. Two cat ones dominate the day, the Colmaine (16.3km at 6.3%) and the Turini (14.9km at 7.1%) before the fabled Col d’Eze (cat 2, 7.8km at 6.1%). The riders will then reach Nice after 141km, at which point I’d let them stop, but the assassins in charge are sending them out on two more loops, both of which feature plenty of ups and downs. This is a tough old stage and will be the first of the “you can’t win the Tour today but you can lose it clichés” though the winner is more likely to be a breakaway puncheur than a GC contender, I’d expect. Should be excellent.

3. A third stage beginning in Nice, this one is a bumpy trip to Sisteron, with four categorised climbs but I think the field will be back together at the end and I’d expect to see a second sprint of the Tour.

4. We have us a mountaintop finish! After a fairly uneventful (on paper at least) ride from Sisteron, featuring four small but categorised climbs, the field will take the climb to Orcieres-Merlette. This is 7.1km and 6.7%. In truth, I suspect this won’t be decisive, though no GC rider will want to have a bad day. Unless the bigs really decide to go for it I think we’ll be seeing a breakaway winner.

5. A flat 183km ride from Gap to Privas, and the two late climbs are unlikely to bother anyone. The biggest obstacle of the day is likely to be the uphill finish (they rise 77m in the last 5km) which isn’t enough to really ruin anyone’s legs but might make the sprint a little more selective than previously.

6. A second mountaintop finish, though this one is a bit of an oddity. It is a long day in the saddle, with 191km to cover. As with stage four, it is mostly flat before the final climb but that climb is really in two parts. The first, and toughest, is the 11.7km, 7.3% ascent to the Col de la Lusette, before the field descend slightly and move onto a slightly uphill drag across the plateau to Mont Aigoual. This is 8.3km but averages just 4%. Again, I’m repeating my views from stage four but I think this is a breakaway day unless someone decides to really light the blue touch paper.

7. Another sprinty day (we seem to be alternating, which is a pleasant change from the usual approach). The three climbs come early in the 168km run to Lavaur, which is dead flat for the last 40km plus. This stage is a classic transition and gets us close to the Pyrennes.

8. Now we’re talking! The second weekend begins with a first HC climb, the Port de Bales (11.7km, 7.7%), sandwiched between the cat 1 Col de Mente and the cat 1 Col de Peyresourde (9.7km at 7.8%). The mostly downhill 12km after the final climb won’t be enough for a significant regrouping. This is just 141km long but will be packed with excitement. My suspicion is that we’ll see the bigs finish in a group, as I’m not convinced this is hugely selective. However, the makeup of that group of bigs will doubtless be informative, and history tells us at least a couple of favourites will miss out.

9. I might be a little picky in saying I expected more of this stage, but I did. 153km, from Pau to Laruns, with some climbs (the middle of the stage is dominated by the cat one Hourcere) after which there is a lot of up and down, and the final “up” is the Col de Marie Blanque (7.7km, 8.6%), with a summit 18km before the end. My guess is this won’t be a hugely selective day, but like much of the race before the first rest day, it has the potential to be tough if the riders want it to be.

Two Outsiders I’m Watching

I keep talking about breakaways, and I think there’ll be at least a couple of stages in the first nine that go to semi-unlikely names. I can think of lots of riders who I could see popping up for a stage (de Marchi, Schachmann, Mas, etc, etc, etc) but let me pull a couple of names from my metaphorical… hat. I could the in-form Esteban Chaves grabbing a win if he gets into the right early break on one of the tougher stages (six, maybe) and in doing so, completing the “stage wins in the three tours” bonus round. Mitchelton-Scott have a team leader, but I’d expect leeway to be given for Frosty and Esteban to do their freelance thing as well as looking after Adam Yates.

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Another team who are likely to be active in the breaks are CCC, and wouldn’t it be lovely if Mr Reliable, Michael Schar, could pick up a moment in the sun? He’s the sort of rider for whom a Tour stage win is a career highlight, and he’s in decent form. I wouldn’t be totally surprised.

If I Only Watch One Stage, It’ll Be…

Stage Two. I mean, seriously, look at this profile.

With a fresh peloton this is likely to be hotly contested from the day’s breakaway, late attacks, and the GC contenders. Any of the three groups could provide a winner. There will undoubtedly be some serious time gaps and we’ll have a much better idea of what the field is looking like by the end of the first weekend, which is rare indeed for the Tour.

I can’t hardly wait.