For much of this year it looked about as likely as a Frenchman winning the Tour that we’d see either Chris Froome or Mark Cavendish take to the start of the Grande Boucle again. But then Cav picked up four wins in Turkey, Sam Bennett hurt his knee in training, tongues started wagging – and here we are… The Manxman is in line to make his 13th appearance on the world’s biggest bike race in search of a 31st stage win that will edge him ever closer to Eddy Merckx’s all-time record.
As for the four-time Tour winner Froome – it looked decreasingly probable that we’d see him ride competitively again let alone make his first Tour appearance in three years. Since his horrific crash in 2019, Froome has spent more time off the back of the peloton than Steve Cummings in his heyday; unlike Steve, he hasn’t picked his moments to zip clear and gobble up key stage wins in the process. In fact, Froome’s average position in the general classification of stage races has been 70th while he hasn’t cracked the top 10 of any race since Stage 4 of the Tour of the Alps in April 2019.
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Chris Froome in Les Gets

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So, it was perhaps a surprise when the 36-year-old was named as part of Israel Start-Up Nation’s squad for the Tour – then again, the team has to justify his huge salary somehow, and this could be a vital step in his long road to recovery. That said, any faint hopes of a record-equalling fifth yellow jersey have been replaced by a more realistic position as road captain and support rider to the Canadian Michael Woods.
Froome’s former Sky teammate Geraint Thomas leads a strong Ineos Grenadiers team – albeit alongside the Ecuadorian livewire Richard Carapaz, whom many view as a more likely candidate for yellow (despite a route which features two flat time trials and only three summit finishes). Joining Thomas at Ineos will be fellow Welshman Luke Rowe, the team’s erstwhile road captain, and last year’s Giro champion, Tao Geoghegan Hart, who makes his long-awaited Tour debut.
The Hackney Condor is not the only British rider taking a bow for the first time in France: Fred Wright, the youngest rider in the race, makes the cut at Bahrain-Victorious, while fellow 22-year-old Mark Donovan features for Team DSM. Meanwhile, there are two British riders on the French Arkéa-Samsic squad: Daniel McLay, who will support Nacer Bouhanni in the sprints, and Connor Swift, who will protect Nairo Quintana in the valleys.

Simon Yates sul traguardo di Alpe di Mera - Giro d'Italia 2021

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That leaves the final piece of the British jigsaw – Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange). The 2018 Vuelta champion comes to the Tour off the back of finishing third behind Egan Bernal and Damiano Caruso in a Giro in which he never really hit top gear (a stage win on Alpe di Mera aside). Perhaps in his fear not to blow up like he did in the 2018 race, he will now hope to hit the peak which always eluded him, only one month later and in the Pyrenees?
It remains to be seen how Yates rides with a demanding Giro already in the legs, but it’s worth noting that when he followed the same programme in 2019 he struggled to 49th place in the Tour after coming eighth in Italy. He did win two memorable stages, mind, and that is likely to be what the 28-year-old is targeting this time round: stage scalps as opposed to a high GC finish.

Best case scenario: Thomas wins, Cav ends drought

Even the most imaginative of us can’t sincerely entertain the idea that Chris Froome’s square-pedalling for the past two years has been part of cycling’s greatest and most elaborate bluff ever. If the best-case scenario for Froome would be to get through to Paris having shown enough to convince him – and his paymasters – that he can come back and compete for that fifth win in 2022, then the 36-year-old would probably chalk that down as a huge success. And so he might.
Froome becoming the oldest winner since Firmin Lambot in 1922 may be too much, but Geraint Thomas winning a second Tour is not beyond the realms of plausibility. His crash in Paris-Nice (plus that TT implosion last year) showed that Primoz Roglic is not invincible, while Tadej Pogacar, in his short and illustrious career to date, has not yet had to deal with any severe setbacks. Things happen in Grand Tours – and should both Slovenian favourites find themselves derailed or in a ditch, then Thomas can capitalise.

Tour de France 2018 winner Great Britain's Geraint Thomas (L), wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, shakes hands with third-placed Great Britain's Christopher Froome on the podium after the 21st and last stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de Fr

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With Geoghegan Hart (a surprise stage winner at Mûr-de-Bretagne to set up a day in yellow?) and Rowe in support, Thomas can extinguish the internal threat from Carapaz on the first time trial in Stage 5 and then use the second time trial in Stage 20 to consolidate his lead after Ineos defend the yellow jersey admirably in the Alps and Pyrenees. Rowe, meanwhile, could even ride to a rare win – perhaps, say, in Nîmes, after crosswinds split the pack in Stage 12.
No one really expects Mark Cavendish to level Merckx’s record by adding another four stage wins this time round. But with a superb lead-out duo in Dries Devenyns and Michael Morkov, he should get into some good positions at the business end of the flat stages. Where better to take a victory than where it all began – at Châteauroux, in Stage 6 – where Cav won his first ever Tour stage in 2008, and then again three years later?
Then, on the final day in Paris, with Cav having battled through both the Alps and Pyrenees, the 36-year-old could roll back the years to take his first win on the Champs-Elysées since 2012.

'What a fantastic sprint' - Cavendish ecstatic after Stage 5 win

For Simon Yates, victory in Malaucène after the double ascent of Mont Ventoux would add another huge scalp to his palmares – and if not here, then why not Stage 15 at his home in Andorra, or at Tignes, where he could have secured his hat-trick in 2019 were Stage 19 not cancelled because of those hail-induced landslides? A lot will depend on how BikeExchange’s man for the GC, Lucas Hamilton, goes – but should Yates get his chance, he has the class to finish off the job. Two wins – a repeat of his 2019 haul – are not beyond him.
Some top fives himself plus a victory for teammate Bouhanni would represent a successful Tour for Dan McLay, while debutants Fred Wright and Mark Donovan will be pleased to feature in some breakaways, ditto Connor Swift when he’s not carrying water or shielding Quintana and Warren Barguil from the wind.

Worst case scenario: Thomas & Cav crash out, Froome DNFs

After coming home alongside Cavendish in the gruppetto in both the opening Alpine stages, Froome is forced once again to walk up Mont Ventoux – but this time because, simply, he cannot ride up it. Finishing beyond the time limit in Malaucène, the four-time champion is forced out of the race after just 11 stages.
Cavendish, who at this point has just one top 10 finish (on a day Andre Greipel wins in Fougères), crashes badly in the finale at Carcassonne on Stage 13 and is forced to withdraw the next day in the Pyrenees, clearly lacking the sharpness to ride a Grand Tour. He never rides one again.

Geraint Thomas suffers ‘inexplicable’ crash

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Rowe is kicked out of the race for resuming his handbag-slugging with Tony Martin from two years ago, by which point Geoghegan Hart is the Ineos designated leader after Thomas inexplicably crashes out during the opening stint in blustery Brittany. Yates, meanwhile, finds out that he’s bitten off more than he can chew: unable to build on his career best seventh place finish on the Tour, he struggles to get into any breaks and comes home in Paris in lowly 47th position (while missing out on the polka dot jersey to Nans Peters of Ag2R-Citroën).
Swift crashes out alongside teammate Quintana after a musette-related accident in the feedzone on Stage 8 to Le Grand-Bornand. After Bouhanni is booted off the Tour for deviating his sprint too many times, McLay struggles to be a factor in any bunch gallops, his best position being ninth place in the wheel of Greipel. Wright and Donovan don’t make it beyond the second week.

Likely scenario: Thomas top five, Cav takes single win

Come on – Cav’s going to win a stage, surely! And if he doesn’t, he’ll at least come close on one or two occasions – keeping the British fans on the edge of their seats and putting a smile on the face of the romantics. But he won’t complete the Tour, his age and lack or preparation catching up with him in the third week.
There will be no maillot jaune for Thomas but he’ll finish in the top five, perhaps even take a stage, while Geoghegan Hart will take a solid top 15 on his debut after starring in a mountain breakaway alongside Yates (both losing out to a rider from Astana or Movistar at the finish). Rowe will do his job as he always does, burying himself on a daily basis, wreaking havoc in crosswinds, and contributing a few funny pieces of content for the Ineos social media team in the process.

Chris Froome (L), Michael Woods (R) - Israel Start-Up Nation

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Froome will help Woods to eighth place on GC and will feature in a couple of breakaways on his way to reaching Paris in 71st place on GC. Donovan will twice get into breaks with teammates Soren Kragh Andersen and Tiesj Benoot, with the Belgian taking a stage win as a result. Wright will do a solid domestique job as teammates Jack Haig and Pello Bilbao both make the top 10. Swift will guide Quintana to 15th place on GC while McLay will help pilot Bouhanni to a couple of top five finishes.
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