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Let battle commence: Richard Moore's 2021 Tour de France preview

25 Jun 2021

Will Primož Roglič make the same mistakes? Can UAE carry Tadej Pogačar to a second win? Do Ineos have too many leaders? Let's find out

There was a hint of what was to come at the Jumbo-Visma training camp in Alicante in January. It was there that Primož Roglič’s coach, looking ahead to the 2021 season and thinking about how to avenge Roglič’s traumatic defeat at last year’s Tour de France, suggested that professional cycling might be changing from a ‘racing sport’ to a ‘training sport’.

Several weeks later, when Roglič’s race programme building up to this year’s Tour was confirmed, the idea was put into practice. Following Liège-Bastogne-Liège in late April the Slovenian would not race again before Stage 1 of the Tour in Brittany in late June.

For Roglič it meant a full two months of not pinning on a number and racing for a finish line – something that seems to come as naturally to him as breathing. With 2020 Tour winner Tadej Pogačar also sitting out May before returning to competition at a relatively low-key race, his home Tour of Slovenia in June, it appeared to confirm a trend – at least as far as the top riders are concerned.

But for Roglič, the extended period out of racing could only be explained by what happened last year – and specifically what happened at the Tour.

Bitter memories

It was not a typical season, of course. The global pandemic saw racing halted in early 2020, and when it restarted in August Roglič picked up where he left off by winning the Tour de l’Ain. Significantly, or so it seemed at the time, he and his team outmuscled Ineos in a showdown that appeared to augur well for Roglič and Jumbo-Visma at the Tour de France.

On they went to the Critérium du Dauphiné, where Roglič, Tom Dumoulin, Wout van Aert and co looked even more impressive. Then a crash on the penultimate day saw Roglič fail to start the final stage. This was only a precaution, his team insisted.

The effects of the crash were played down in the build-up to the Tour. When the race got underway, Roglič, in winning the first mountain top finish on Stage 3, seemed fully restored.

It was only when a documentary was released some months later, telling the inside story of Jumbo-Visma’s Tour de France, that we learned the full extent of Roglič’s daily battle with the injuries suffered in that crash at the Dauphiné.

Did that partly explain his team’s defensive approach over the three weeks? Each day they rode at the front but were either unable or unwilling to kill off Roglič’s opponents, notably Pogačar.

They appeared to want to defend, confident perhaps that their team leader could not be beaten in the penultimate day’s time-trial to La Planche des Belles Filles. We all know how that played out.

Going into this year’s Tour, the intrigue now surrounds how Roglič and Jumbo-Visma ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

No repeats

One precaution is his absence from racing. While racing might sharpen speed and hone skills, it also comes with risks. Mainly there’s the risk of crashing, but it is also a less controlled environment than training.

It was Merijn Zeeman, the Jumbo-Visma sports director, who suggested that cycling might be changing, with the top riders – like the top track and field athletes – spending more time training and less racing.

Training, in particular altitude training, is now deemed more essential than racing for honing fitness. If this wasn’t known before last year, the extended break from racing in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic only confirmed it. When the riders returned to racing they were in better condition than ever.

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Assuming he starts the Tour fully fit, the main question for Roglič and Jumbo-Visma is a strategic one. How do they ride differently to avoid history repeating itself?

But there’s an equally interesting question for Pogačar and his team, UAE Team Emirates: how do they approach it, given there is simply no way he will be allowed to ride in the way he did last year?

Having lost time in the crosswinds of Stage 7, Pogačar was at the very least underestimated but perhaps even written off. All he had to do was follow the Jumbo-Visma train as they set a pace for their leader, Roglič, in the mountain stages.

He was described as a ‘stone in the shoe’ for Jumbo-Visma, although we assumed a smooth pebble rather than a jagged rock – an irritation rather than a serious threat.

Then came La Planche des Belles Filles, where he trounced everybody, winning the time-trial by over a minute, and beating Roglič by nearly two, to overturn a 57-second deficit.

When it was said that Pogačar had managed to win the Tour without a team, some quipped that this wasn’t quite accurate. ‘He did have a team – Jumbo-Visma.’

Will the 2021 Tour be all about round two of Roglič vs Pogačar, with a side order of Wout van Aert and the debutant, Mathieu van der Poel? Even 12 months ago it would have seemed unthinkable to preview the Tour de France without focussing heavily on the team formerly known as Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers.

Underdogs hunt in packs

Tour winners every year between 2012 and 2019 bar one, the British team returns this season in an unusual position, with a strong triumvirate rather than one clear leader.

Geraint Thomas, the 2018 winner, looks to be marginally ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart, last year’s Giro winner, and Richard Carapaz, the 2019 Giro winner, but the Ineos strategy will have to be different to the Chris Froome years. For the first time since 2011 they will start the Tour as strong outsiders rather than out-and-out favourites.

This is despite Ineos’s Giro d’Italia success, as recently crowned champion Egan Bernal has confirmed he will miss the Tour. A convincing return to form maybe, but the Colombian’s ongoing back issues will see him skip France in favour of the Vuelta later this year.

But another source of intrigue ahead of the Tour is how seldom the favourites will have faced each other. Thomas will travel to Brittany having not raced Roglič at all this year, and Pogačar only once, at Tirreno-Adriatico.

While Pogačar won that race, with Thomas a distant 24th, the Welshman has made solid progress since. He was third, in an Ineos one-two-three, at the Tour of Catalonia, then won the Tour de Romandie, leading home Richie Porte in an Ineos one-two.

Porte, third at the Tour last year, vowed that in returning to his old team he was stepping back into a supporting role. However, such has been his form this year that he could provide another option for Ineos at the Tour – a fourth, or even a fifth, potential leader.

Power players

Yet in all honesty, and as surprising as it might seem given the Sky/Ineos stranglehold on the race for most of the last decade, it is difficult to look beyond Pogačar and Roglič in imagining which rider will wear yellow into Paris on Sunday 18th July.

Roglič has the strongest team, even without Dumoulin, who is focussing on the Tokyo Olympics having also taken a break from racing.

Steven Kruijswijk, who missed last year’s race following a crash at the Dauphiné, should be a dependable ally in the mountains even if, at 34, his powers might be waning. Jonas Vingegaard and Sepp Kuss are strong and improving climbers, and then there is the team’s Swiss army knife, Van Aert.

It isn’t just that Van Aert can do everything, it’s that he can do everything as well as, if not better than, everybody else. He can win TTs, bunch sprints and cobbled Classics, and he can climb almost as well as the GC contenders.

Tirreno-Adriatico was Van Aert’s first go at leading his team in a stage race. He finished second to Pogačar, beating seasoned GC riders such as Mikel Landa and Bernal. Van Aert is still improving, and may one day lead his team at a Grand Tour, but for the moment there is no question that Roglič is the team’s undisputed leader.

The point remains, though: Roglič’s team cannot ride in the way that they did last year. Nor can Pogačar’s.

UAE added strong riders over the winter, including Marc Hirschi, Matteo Trentin and Rafał Majka. The young American Brandon McNulty is a rising star. Davide Formolo, who crashed out last year, is due to go to the Tour from the Giro and he, too, should be able to help Pogačar.

Speaking at the Giro, Formolo accepted that the pressure and responsibility on his team this year is very different to 2020.

‘The team has made a big improvement with Rafał and also Jan [Polanc] has a lot more confidence, so we have a good team for the mountains but we have guys for the flat too,’ said the Italian rider. ‘Defending the yellow jersey will be different but I think we are ready for it.

‘There is pressure, yes, but this is a good thing for us – it is because we have won the Tour de France.’

It helps enormously, Formolo added, that in Pogačar they have a leader who is so self-assured and consistent. In his five races this year – one-day and stage races – the young Slovenian’s worst result is seventh at Strade Bianche, and that followed a fantastic performance. When Pogačar won Liège-Bastogne-Liège at the end of April, Formolo played a key role and looked overcome with emotion when he embraced his leader at the finish.

‘It’s always a big emotion for me to work for him,’ said Formolo. ‘When I am working for him I see him as my son.’ Formolo is 28, Pogačar 22.

‘I want to do whatever I can for him, work for him at the front or get him a rain jacket if he needs one – I will do anything. He is the man. I am at the Giro for me, but I will go to the Tour for him.’

Illustration: Matthew Brazier

May the best man win

In both teams, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates, there are similar levels of belief and trust in their leaders, which is why Roglič and Pogačar are such overwhelming favourites.

But if Pogačar appears to have the edge after the way he snatched the win last year, Roglič can take heart from what played out at the Tour of the Basque Country in April, their only meeting in a stage race prior to the Tour de France.

Pogačar went there with his A-team, Roglič with his B-team – and yet it was Roglič who, after a thrilling final day’s racing, prevailed. His joy at that seemed almost exaggerated, but that was perhaps because he had not only outridden but outsmarted Pogačar and UAE, who had McNulty in the leader’s jersey going into the final stage.

When McNulty was distanced, Pogačar tried to nurse him back. It was the wrong strategy, but by the time he and his team realised that, it was too late – Roglič had flown. Pogačar, who eventually left McNulty to give chase, was hampered by having Vingegaard sitting on his wheel – a stone in the shoe, if you like.

Vingegaard would eventually finish second, giving Jumbo-Visma a deeply satisfying one-two on general classification.

But that was the Basque Country, and the Tour – as we are fond of saying – is the Tour. Can anyone upset the Slovenians? Perhaps Bernal, if he rides, or another Grenadier: Thomas, Geoghegan Hart or Carapaz, who said in the final week of last year’s Tour, his first, that he had ‘figured it out’ and thought he could come back one day and win it.

Maybe Julian Alaphilippe will rediscover his climbing legs of 2019, or possibly Miguel Ángel López, now at Movistar, will put his injuries behind him to deliver the performance he’s always looked capable of.

As difficult as it is to look beyond another Pog-Rog show, there are of course no guarantees. The Stage 5 time-trial could establish an early hierarchy, but danger lurks on every stage. Cycling might be changing into a training sport for the top riders, but that only gets you to the start line in good shape. Then, many will argue, comes the hard part.

Going for green

The contest for the points jersey could be the hardest-fought in many a year

Mathieu van der Poel is set to make his Tour debut, and if nothing else that should liven up the battle for the green jersey.

It was Sam Bennett, a pure sprinter, who prevailed last year, although Wout van Aert was almost his equal in the sprints. This year, with so many stages suiting the puncheurs over the sprinters, the balance could tilt towards the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel.

Van Aert said earlier this year that as well as helping his Jumbo-Visma team leader, Primož Roglič, to try to win the yellow jersey, he believes he can target green. And that sets up the possibility of the Tour being the stage for the latest instalment of his captivating rivalry with his old cyclocross foe, Van der Poel.

The first stage in Brittany has a hilltop finish that looks tailor-made for Julian Alaphilippe, but which is certainly not beyond either Van der Poel or Van Aert. The green jersey competition should explode into life as early as day one.