Here it comes. The biggest event in cycling. A little earlier this year, because of the Olympics. A little more anticipated, because last year was so bloody exciting. A little tougher this year, because of all those mountains. Even if that wasn’t true, we’d be keen. This year? Bring. It. On.
While we wait, one man’s look at who goes home with the hardware after three weeks buckling the, uh, buckle.
Nah, not yet.
There’s no secret that this is widely seen as a two-person race, and rightly so. You could, if you were so inclined, make a case that a healthy Egan Bernal can challenge the Slovenian pair of Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar. But Egan is sitting at home with his pink pyjamas on, savouring his Giro win and plotting an attempt to win in Spain, thus completing his haul of grand tours at an age when most of us are still figuring out how to do laundry before we consistently reach the “inside out underpants” stage. This is a two-way fight, make no mistake.
Does that mean that we’ll see a Slovenian one-two for the second year running? Well… probably. But this is cycling. Funny things happen with three weeks on the road. Of course we could see injuries, of course we could see dramatic loss of form, of course Covid is still a real threat. So any of the guys listed below could end up finishing second (or even first). Really, though, this is a battle for the third place on the podium, as well as a battle for the top spot.
Okay… so who finishes third?
Glad you asked! It could be one of lots of guys, and it could be pretty competitive. Let’s have a look at each team.
Not looking for a podium:
A pot pourri of team ambitions here – some sprint teams, some “happy to be here” teams and some stage hunting teams. Nobody worth considering for a podium place is riding for Qhubeka Assos, AG2R Citroen, Lotto, Intermarche-Wanty, DSM, Aplecin-Fenix, TotalEnergies or B&B Hotels.
Stealing a second spot on the podium:
There’s no rule that says you can’t get a podium spot by riding brilliantly in support of your team leader. It helps if you have a superb time-trial, which rules out most of the climbing support for Jumbo and UAE. Steven Kruijswijk and Marc Hirschi are probably the pick of the all-rounders but I would expect them both to be more in the 7th-12th range if they have good races. Sepp Kuss, Davide Formolo and the like will have top five stages but will lack the chrono skills and consistency to stay up there.
An outside chance:
A lot of teams with riders here who could get a top ten but would be surprises for the podium, in something that vaguely resembles ascending order of likelihood.
Astana – I suppose Jakob Fuglsang could manage a third place. He’s steadily improved his GC but he is 36 and (take it from the guy who drafted him 6th in the Ed’s league) not in great form this year. Would be a lifetime-best over three weeks to take this against a stellar field.
Trek-Segafredo – Vincenzo Nibali is old, and ceded leadership to Giulio Ciccone in the Giro. Hard to see him recovering for this but he always, always warrants a mention. Bauke Mollema managed 3rd in a Giro but that was back in 2011 and he’s more of a stage threat these days.
Deceuninck-Quick Step – Looks more like a threat for green, polka, and stages. Julian Alaphilippe is a superb rider but it hard to see him ever managing better than his 2019 5th. This year’s course is just too tough for him.
Cofidis – Guillaume Martin has managed 12th and 11th in the last two years. Last season he looked like a top-five threat before things crumbled on a tough stage to Puy Mary. Well, this course and this competition are if anything tougher, and I don’t see much evidence he or his team have improved.
Israel Start-up Nation – No, not Chris Froome. Probably not Dan Martin with a Giro in his legs, either. Michael Woods, meanwhile, is having a good prep for this and is a very good climber. Somehow he’s only grabbed one top ten in six completed GTs (he was 7th in the 2017 Giro) and he’s turning 34. Some good days and some bad days are likely, and he’s more realistic as a stage winner (and don’t rule him out for a medal in Tokyo) than for a Tour podium.
Bora-Hansgrohe – This Bora team are pretty exciting, and I’d expect them to be in the highlight reel most days. Peter Sagan and his merry men are always worth a look on flat and tough stages, but there’s a lot to like in the mountains, too. The problem is they are lacking a GC leader. Ide Schelling has been wildly impressive so far this year, but is a couple of years away. Patrick Konrad is looking in good form (12th in the Dauphine and won the Austrian Nats) but his GC best is 7th in the 2018 Giro. Wilco Kelderman has been great again this year but has a Giro in his legs. Manny Buchmann looked even better in Italy but he has most of a Giro in his legs and a nasty crash and concussion to reckon with. Hard to see either of them finishing the job off, and stage hunting looks more likely.
Bahrain-Victorious – Jack Haig moved from Mitchelton-Scott, as was, to get leadership chances, and he has them here. Perhaps in unison with Pello “don’t call me the new Zubeldia” Bilbao, who is unlikely to sniff the podium but is very unlikely to crack and disappear from the top 20. Haig, meanwhile, is cranking his season up and 5th in the Dauphine is a best result so far this year. Climbs well but will be looking to simply limit the damage when he’s racing against the clock. One of many solid but unspectacular riders.
BikeExchange – On his day, GT-winner Simon Yates would be top of the list of likely podium winners. The issue is, he’s ridden the Giro, and his day was therefore probably in May. I don’t know how often we have to see riders fail to back up a Giro run at the Tour before we give up, but it is nice to see that Matt White isn’t expecting a repeat performance. Yates, Chaves and Matthews give an impressive group of stage-hunters but the GC hopes lie with Lucas Hamilton. Hamilton is developing gradually and impressively, is a calm and capable climber and I think has a very good chance at a top ten. I don’t think he’s good enough at either climbing or time trialling to get a podium, however.
Arkea Samsic – As befits a team stepping up from UCI-Pro level to the big table, there’s not as much depth to the Arkea squad as you might want. Still, what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. Warren Barguil climbed and attacked and gritted his way to 10th in 2019 and a repeat isn’t impossible. Of greater interest is Nairo Quintana, perhaps the forgotten GT winner in the field. Still only 31, he’s been on the podium in Paris twice, and has been a stage winner plenty of times since. Whilst last year was disappointing he should be able to match his 2019 performance (8th) on a course where many will lose minutes on the high passes – something that rarely happens to Nairo. Form is a huge question after a poor Dauphine but if he’s riding well he’ll be with the bigs most days.
Groupama-FDJ – That sound you can hear is the French hype train getting up a full head of steam before it leaves the station on Saturday, bound for Gauduville. David Gaudu has been consistently strong this year but is probably a season away from really competing with the best. His team support is lacking and he’s yet to manage a top five in a GT. His third in Liege this spring is the closest he’s come to climbing with the absolute elite but doing it repeatedly on the biggest climbs is a different task. Not for me, yet.
EF Education-Nippo – A tale of two Colombians here, at opposite ends of their careers. Rigoberto Uran is a top ten machine (eight of them) in GTs, and was 2nd in the Tour in 2017. He’s on the downslope of his storied career now and three consistent weeks with the best of these would be a minor shock. That said, his best recent form came in finishing second in Switzerland recently and he knows how to peak for the big events. Sergio Higuita, meanwhile, has had an ordinary start to 2021, to match the ordinary end to 2020. He was looking great before Covid changed everything, with a win in Colombia and a podium in Paris-Nice, but he’s done little in the sixteen months since. Few can climb better when he’s on his day, but he might be more of a Vuelta threat this year.
In with a real chance:
Ineos – Strange to be talking about a stage race without an Ineos favourite. They do, however, bring three recent GT winners in Richard Carapaz, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Geraint Thomas, to say nothing of Richie Porte, who might be in the best form of the quartet. If the road is going to decide, Carapaz and Porte won the traditional tune-up races in Switzerland and at the Dauphine, and there weren’t many holes in either performance.
Porte has, if I may summarise thirteen pro seasons in a sentence, a history of misfortune and underperformance in the grand tours. However, he put it all together last year to grab third in the Tour and with a stronger team he could repeat that this year. Against that, he’s 36, may be losing some of his climbing abilities, and is facing a very mountainous course.
Mountainous enough to suit coming-into-his-prime-at-28 Richard Carapaz? Yes, I think so. The Ecuadorian rode nicely last year in his first season at Sky, backing up his 2019 Giro win with a second in the Vuelta. His time trial is a notch below his rivals (including his Ineos team mates) but is far from disastrous and if the road really will decide, I suspect he’s Ineos’ top climber.
Worth pointing out that Geraint Thomas has been awfully consistent this year, with third in Catalunya, first in Romandie and 3rd in the Dauphine. Still, those last two results show a reversal against Porte and his GT history is just as chequered. I can’t see him being Ineos’ chosen one. Hart, meanwhile, has looked below the form that saw him win a (bizarre, and weak-field) Giro last year and is probably here as a domestique.
As you’d expect from a Brailsford squad, the rest of the support (Kwiatkowski, Rowe, van Baarle and Castroviejo) is little short of superb. If they don’t grab a podium, team depth can’t be the excuse.
Movistar – I’m not going to say much about Alejandro Valverde, because at some point Swedes will again be allowed into the UK and I don’t fancy a vendetta from the only man who owns more kitchen knives than I do. I will say that he’s here, he’s in decent form, and on the road he can only be valuable to his teammates. Marc Soler and Carlos Verona are useful lieutenants, too, but this is the shallowest of the four teams that we’re examining in depth.
We should talk about Miguel Angel Lopez, a man on whom I’ve spent a great deal of time. He’s… not really improved since 2017 (his best climbing year) or 2018 (his most consistent GC year). This race has two time trials and, other than Romain Bardet, I can’t think of a podium threat in the last few years with a worse record against the clock. Yes, I know about the Swiss Tour, but that was 2016 and we all have to accept it was an aberration. He’s still riding very well (this year he won Ruta del Sol and was 6th in the Dauphine before winning the Ventoux race) but last year he fell from 3rd to 6th on the final TT and this is a harder race with more (and flatter) TT distance to cover.
Enric Mas, meanwhile, comes into this race with remarkably little hype. My guess is that everyone except Ursula thinks he’s older than he is* and that he’s struggling for form. Well, maybe his form is slightly below the 2018 Vuelta 2nd, but last year he was fifth in both the Tour and the Vuelta, which isn’t bad at all. The start to his season has been uninspiring, but Mas has a history of weak results in races he isn’t targeting.
* - He turned 26 in January.
When I look at Mas I see a teak-tough rider with an enviable blend of experience and youth, and perhaps the best powers of recovery in the peloton. There aren’t going to be many quiet days in the saddle this year, and we can expect some hot days and some tough days. I think he’s good enough to sneak ahead of Carapaz and stay there.
So, just for fun (and because this exercise wasn’t hard enough already), the eight riders rounding out your top ten.
10th - Sepp Kuss
9th – Nairo Quintana
8th – Richie Porte
7th - David Gaudu
6th – Miguel Angel Lopez
5th – Lucas Hamilton
4th – Richard Carapaz
3rd – Enric Mas
This exercise, more than anything else, brought home to me how competitive this race will be for, say, positions 3-20. No place in that list for Thomas, Kelderman, Barguil, Woods, Kruijswijk, Yates, Haig, Bilbao, Nibali, Hart, etc. Of course they all have a great chance at the top ten. The question is – which of the guys listed above doesn’t? We’re trying to fit a pint into a half glass, and it will be fun watching the chaos.
Who wins white?
Well, Tadej Pogacar, obviously. If for some peculiar reason he doesn’t, this one is between David Gaudu and Lucas Hamilton. The smart money is on Gaudu, but I’m a fan of Hamilton and think he might creep his way into the box seat for the “second best youngster in the race” award. With no pressure on him he can just climb with the best for as long as he can manage and rely on consistency.
Who wins polka?
The first question is, will it be an incidental award to one of the bigs (Pogacar won it in 2020), or will someone launch an assault for the dots that holds off the guys hoovering up the points at the finish (like Bardet in 2019)? My guess is the latter, but it is a guess. Certainly it’ll need to be an excellent climber riding well on multiple days – no stealing this with a couple of breaks and some points in the flatter stages – but I think there are enough intermediate points that someone willing to lose hours of time in a few places to sneak some early points might win it.
The bookies seem uncertain too, with Pogacar and Roglic joined among the favourites by climbers-but-not-likely-winners like Guillaume Martin and Julian Alaphilippe. I think we’ll see three weeks of Bike Exchange sending all sorts of guys up the road – many of whom could have one or two dreadful days and be otherwise super competitive. Esteban Chaves is 25/1 for the polka jersey and that sounds like a decent bet to me.
Who wins green?
If time allowed, this one would benefit from a separate post. There are so many sub-questions to answer. Can any of the pure sprinters dominate a la Sam Bennett? If so, are we really living in a world where that person might be Tim Merlier? Is Caleb Ewan going to enjoy this course enough to claim a first green jersey, through the on-paper-ideal combination of winning a few stages and coping with some tough finishes? Is Peter Sagan going to make a mockery of this whole paragraph and win by 100-plus points again? How will Holms cope if Cav wins a second green jersey this year?
You know what? It could be any of those guys. Well, not Cav. But any of the others. That’s before you mention Arnaud Demare (which would make my FSA-DS team look better), Wout van Aert (who would be amazing here, but will presumably be pulled too far into the post-op super-dom world to compete with all of his powers), or perennial hardmen-sprinters like Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Matthews and Mattieu van der Poel.
I think Caleb Ewan does just enough to hold off Peter Sagan. What’s more, I wouldn’t rule out him holding this jersey all the way from winning the first stage until we reach Paris. The points competition has often been entertaining, but it hasn’t been close on the last day since 2010 (Petacchi over Cav by 11 points). I think that might change here.
Seriously now… who wins? Tadej Pogacar or Primoz Roglic? Pick one!
There isn’t much between the big two, so let’s get into the details.
Form: Roglic has disappeared into the mountains, training far more and racing far less than in previous years, and preparing himself for a three week block in France and then the small matter of two Olympic races shortly afterwards. His form before that was decent, winning in the Basque Country and grabbing second in Fleche Wallone. We’re taking it on faith that he’ll turn up fit and ready, but he basically always does. Pogacar, meanwhile, has raced far more, winning in the UAE, Tirenno-Adriatico, Liege-Bastogne-Liege (his first monument) and Slovenia. In the Basque Country he lost to Rogz, and he was beaten in the two national champ races last week, btu those are the only knocks on him. If his form holds up, he’s ready to roll.
Edge: Pogacar. Narrowly.
Course: The problem here is, you have to say who is suited to any given course. Until the morning of 19th July 2020 that was easy – Pogacar for the mountains, Roglic for the TTs. But then Pog ripped up the script by winning the whole flipping thing by overturning a deficit on a TT. Normal service was resumed in the Basque Country on a hilly TT course this year, and the two longish TTs (58km in total) are both flat, so I’d be happy to say those days favour Roglic.
However, the bunch days are bloody mountainous this year. Perhaps even more in Pog’s favour, there are lots of individually tough days, increasing the chances of Primoz having a bad day. Any Roglic fans will be breathing a huge sigh of relief once stage 11 is over, with a double ascent and descent of Mont Ventoux on what will probably be a blisteringly hot day. On mountainous days, Roglic’s uphill sprint can grab him valuable seconds on the days he keeps pace with Pogacar.
Team: Things have certainly changed at UAE in the last few years. With Allan Peiper in the car and a host of quality climbers young Tadej won’t have to do everything on his own. There’s experience in Rui Costa and Rafal Majka (both good climbers on good form), more climbing support in Davide Formolo and Marc “everything is okay now, nothing to see here” Hirschi, and big engines in Mikel Bjerg and Brandon McNulty. That’s a rock-solid crew.
Roglic’s team were superlative in last year’s Tour and it looks like he can once again rely on great help. With Wout van Aert sufficiently recovered to take the Belgian Nats, he’ll be helpful absolutely everywhere. Bobo Gesink and Tony Martin bring all the experience in the world, and the latter is joined in the engine room by Mike Teunissen, whilst Sepp Kuss, Steven Kruijswijk and Jonas Vingegaard collectively represent perhaps the best mountain train Roglic has enjoyed.
Edge: Roglic. Just.
Verdict: That didn’t really move us forward. It is just very, very hard to pick between these two. Last year’s defeat was so shattering that it is hard to believe it hasn’t had a lasting impact on Primoz Roglic. It remains to be seen whether that impact was positive or negative. In his revised racing calendar I see a man who has belatedly learned to save his ammo for the really big battles. He’s also 31 and chasing the biggest prize in cycling, as well as the chance to add to his GT haul. He can feel the youngsters coming for his prizes and that has to be motivating.
Tadej Pogacar, on the other hand, comes into this feeling unbeatable. He’s on a great run of form, is the defending champion, and knows that Father Time is on his side. He’s still only 22, he knows his body and the Tour far better than he did last year, and his support is getting stronger and stronger. He’ll be motivated to win this and confirm that there’s no fluke in anointing him the best stage race in the world.
I could go either way. But I think Primoz Roglic ekes out enough time from bonifications and TT power to just hold off the challenges in the high mountains. Either way, it’ll be a fantastic race.