Who will challenge Tour de France favourites Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic for the yellow jersey?
Forget the runaway Slovenian favourites – who are the outsiders to win the 2021 Tour de France? All talk has been about the rivalry between defending champion Tadej Pogacar and his compatriot Primoz Roglic. But Ineos Grenadiers have sent an attacking team spearheaded by Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz, while Miguel Angel Lopez leads a strong Movistar outfit.
Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz during the 2021 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya
Our opening Tour de France preview focused on the rivalry between Slovenians Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, understandably the two big favourites ahead of the Tour de France. The defending champion and last year’s runner-up have been on solid form this season and will enter the 108th edition of the Tour with expectations high for a rematch of their intriguing dual from last autumn.
But there is no shortage of talent when it comes to the outsiders targeting yellow – including three other previous Tour de France winners, and five other riders who have won either the Giro, the Vuelta, or both. So, let’s put the Slovenian superstars aside and focus on who is most likely to cause an upset over the roads of France this summer.
On top of the defending champion, three previous Tour winners will take to the start in Brittany: former Sky teammates Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) and Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), and the only rider to break up the Sky hegemony during those years of domination, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).
One thing that jumps out straight away is the advanced years of these three former champions: while Pogacar became the youngest post-War winner of the Tour last year at just 21, the others have a combined age of 107. If Nibali adds a second Tour triumph seven years after his first, he’ll become the oldest ever winner of the Tour, while should Froome or Thomas prevail, they’ll be the second oldest behind the 1922 champion, Firmin Lambot. Food for thought.
Chris Froome (vorne) und Geraint Thomas nehmen nicht an der Tour de France 2020 teil
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Froome’s poor form since his 2019 crash and subsequent departure from Ineos has been well documented – and, indeed, it’s a surprise to even see the 36-year-old among the Israel Start-Up Nation eight. As for Nibali, he rode the Giro in May to little fanfare after breaking his wrist three weeks before the start. A stage win may be a target for a fully recovered Shark, but a tilt at the yellow jersey will be far more than he can chew at this stage in his career.
That just leaves the 2018 champion, Geraint Thomas, who is one of numerous options at an intriguing Ineos Grenadiers set up.
Ineos with multiple ways of causing an upset
Billed as “a Tour de France team like no other, ready to take the initiative,” the highly experienced Ineos Grenadiers team has 46 Tours between their eight riders – compared to Jumbo-Visma’s 34 and UAE-Team Emirates’s meagre 20. Former Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart is the only debutant, with the old-hand Richie Porte – third last year for Trek, and a worthy winner of the Dauphiné earlier this month – back in the heart of the team alongside Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, the dependable Dutchman Dylan van Baarle, Spanish engine Jonathan Castroviejo, and Welsh road captain Luke Rowe.
The team’s motto is “expect the unexpected” – a not-so-oblique sign that the leader won’t (as expected) be the man who won the Tour three years ago, but the Ecuadorian livewire Richard Carapaz, winner of the Giro in 2019 while at Movistar and runner-up at last year’s Vuelta behind Roglic.
Carapaz powers to Stage 5 victory at Tour de Suisse
Carapaz has already shown his ability to ride on the same level as Roglic and enters the race after winning the Tour de Suisse. On paper, 35-year-old Thomas is still the team leader, having ridden within himself to third place in the Dauphiné, but Carapaz has the class and hunger to take the initiative and force himself into the GC reckoning. But could the same be said of old hand Porte after finally cracking the podium last year?
All in all, it’s an embarrassment of riches and a team that will keep all their rivals guessing. While Movistar have shown in the past that entering the Tour with multiple leaders can backfire, it could also – if handled with tactical acumen – be the only way to beat riders as individually strong as Roglic and Pogacar.
Movistar’s support trident
Speaking of Movistar, the Spanish team are at it again – sending a solid climbing trident of Alejandro Valverde, Enric Mas and Marc Soler, and, well, hoping for the best. But this time it’s different: we shouldn’t see the kind of internal strife that made the opening season of the Netflix series The Least Expected Day so compelling. Because perched atop this trident is one indisputable leader in new recruit Miguel Angel Lopez.
Sixth in the Dauphiné, Lopez has subsequently showed his form with victory in the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, which featured a similar double ascent of the Giant of Provence as we will see in Stage 11 this July. In what has been a pared-back first season at Movistar, Lopez also won the Vuelta a Andalucia in May and will hope to improve on the sixth place he took in his debut Tour last September.
Enric Mas y Miguel Ángel López
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Tensions could rise, however, if Lopez fails to finish things off – as was often the case with the Colombian at Astana. But with Mas a potential fallback option, and both Valverde (one of five former Vuelta winners at the Tour) and Soler capable of strong support in the mountains, whatever happens chez Movistar, we should get a gripping third season of the team’s Netflix drama…
Other former Grand Tour champions
Along with Valverde, Nibali and Roglic, the Tour startlist includes two other previous winners of the Vuelta in Simon Yates (Team Bike-Exchange) and Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic). Could either of them spring a surprise? Probably not.
Like Nibali, Quintana’s days of being a factor on GC are surely over, while the running joke is that Yates is still saving himself for the final week of the Giro to avoid a 2018-style collapse. Whether or not that means the Briton could peak for the third week of the Tour remains to be seen. But it’s worth remembering that no one has done the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998 – although Froome came third in the Tour off the back of winning the Giro in 2018, the same year Tom Dumoulin came second in both.
Third place behind Egan Bernal and Damiano Caruso in the Giro last month, Yates could cause something of a surprise were he to repeat that position, Dumoulin-style, in France – not least because of the quality of the field, but also the apparent lead in his legs towards the end of La Corsa Rosa. Stranger things (another popular series on Netflix) have happened, though.
‘Blow to the maglia rosa!’ – Yates keeps Giro alive with two days to go
What hope for the French?
It’s not looking good. Thibault Pinot is still tending his goats while Romain Bardet, having raced the Giro, will only return for the Vuelta. That leaves veteran Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels) and the whimsical Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic) in the hunt for stage wins, with the perpetual door-knocker Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) – now 28 – looking, philosophically, to continue his steady improvement over the past four years and stoically break into the top 10.
Taking over the poisoned Groupama-FDJ chalice from Pinot is the promising tyro David Gaudu, who will look to build on his 13th place from 2019 and last year’s eighth in the Vuelta. Still only 24, Gaudu pipped (albeit in a very generous fashion) Roglic to the line in the final stage of Itzulia in April, then topped the youth standings in the Dauphiné. This will be his first Tour as leader of a French team – something compatriot Pinot always struggled with – and so a lot will depend on the state of his head as well as his legs.
Of course, despite Gaudu’s promise – and that of Tour debutant Aurélien Paret-Peintre (Ag2R-Citroën), who came 16th in his maiden Grand Tour in last autumn's Giro – the great hope of French cycling remains Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), who had a solid Ardennes campaign but has not set the stage race scene alight this year. The 29-year-old world champion has also just become a father, so he could well arrive in Brest a sleep-deprived wreck.
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A lowly 36th last year after his breakthrough fifth place in 2019 – off the back of two weeks in yellow – Alaphilippe is still unsure whether he can be a real factor in three-week stage races. His climbing probably isn’t strong enough, even if he did win the polka dot jersey in 2018, and the make-up of his team suggests he will find himself isolated in the mountains.
A more realistic target would be a stage win at Mûr-de-Bretagne on day two, which would set up a week in yellow. Unless, of course, the late addition of Mark Cavendish to the Wolfpack is all part of a strategy to divert attention away from the French swashbuckler’s true intentions…
Whatever the case, it looks like the long wait for a French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 will enter a 37th year.
Many other potential top five riders are entering the race with – at least publicly – no designs on the yellow jersey. Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-PremierTech) missed last year’s Tour and failed to finish two of his previous three. It’s now eight years since he last cracked the top 10, so it is perhaps correct that his Astana team should caveat the announcement of their Fuglsang-led team on Twitter with the words, “Let the stage hunt begin!”.
It’s also been five years since Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange) finished on the podium in both the Giro and Vuelta, the Colombian having struggled with injuries, form and health since. Now 31, Chaves has shown signs of approaching his best this year – including a stage win in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya – and he could be a good foil for Yates in France.
Former teammate at Mitchelton-Scott, Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) was a solid fifth in the Dauphiné and the flame-haired Australian could spring a surprise alongside Wout Poels and Pello Bilbao in the absence of Mikel Landa.
It will be interesting to see how Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) performs in his first Grand Tour after almost winning the Giro last autumn in his last major race for Sunweb. Fourth in the Dauphiné was promising, but it remains to be seen how the Dutchman will ride in a team built around Peter Sagan, especially with Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann – who crashed out of the Giro’s third week – possibly eyeing a high finish.
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An impressive 20th in his debut Tour in 2017, Tiesj Benoot (Team DSM) has been on a downward GC trajectory ever since and it’s hard to see him as anything more than a stage hunter. The best Grand Tour GC placing for Ben O’Connor (Ag2R-Citroën) is also 20th although this came more recently in last year’s Giro. The Australian makes his Tour debut for his French team and has big Bardet-shaped boots to fill.
One of O’Connor’s former teammates, Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), showed some feistiness in the Dauphiné but he’s not been a GC factor since Dua Lipa topped the UK charts with New Rules in 2017 when the pint-sized South African finished 12th in the Vuelta off the back of eighth in the Tour. Don’t expect the clocks to be turned back this July.
In Chris Froome’s continued demise, Canada’s Michael Woods has been named leader of an Israel Start-Up Nation that has an advanced average age of 33. Four-time winner Froome is included as road captain for his experience, while Ireland’s Dan Martin – who came 10th in the Giro – will add support in the mountains. But the 34-year-old Woods, although late to the sport, has never finished higher than 7th in his six Grand Tours and there’s little reason to think that could change.
Finally, let’s consider the chances of Woods’s former teammate, the Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo). Runner-up in 2017 and twice the bridesmaid on the Giro, Uran has an excellent record of top 10s in Grand Tours but has not cracked the top five in four years. The 34-year-old was (once again) runner-up to Carapaz in the Tour de Suisse and so looks to be in good nick. But surely even a podium finish would be pushing the cork a bit too far for Uran now.
***** Tadej Pogacar, Primoz Roglic **** Richard Carapaz *** Geraint Thomas, Miguel Angel Lopez ** Richie Porte, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Guillaume Martin, Jack Haig, Enric Mas, Wilco Kelderman, Rigoberto Uran, Michael Woods, David Gaudu * Steven Kruijswijk, Jonas Vinegaard, Sepp Kuss, Jakob Fuglsang, Vincenzo Nibali, Pello Bilbao, Alejandro Valverde, Marc Soler, Julian Alaphilippe, Nairo Quintana, Dan Martin, Emanuel Buchmann