Moved up a week to accommodate the Tokyo Olympics, the 2021 edition of the Tour de France kicks off on Saturday in Brest. Who will succeed 2020 winner Tadej Pogacar on the Champs Elysées in three weeks' time to claim cycling's most prestigious prize? FRANCE 24 takes a look at the riders to watch.
After an unusual pandemic-postponed edition in 2020 that was pushed into September, the 2021 Tour de France is a return to normal and the summer temperatures that go with it. On Saturday, 184 riders will saddle up with their dreams of yellow-jersey glory for the race start in the city of Brest, in Brittany, on the northwestern tip of the French mainland. After sprinting and climbing their way across France in epic style, the racers will cross the finish line on July 18 in Paris after the glamorous finale on the cobblestones of "la plus belle avenue du monde".
Who are the top contenders?
• Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates): The defending champion
Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar was a revelation for Tour de France fans last year. Just when it seemed impossible for anyone to pry the yellow jersey from his compatriot Primoz Roglic, Pogacar scrounged second after second before ultimately turning the tables in an unforgettable Planche des Belles Filles time trial. The next day, Pogacar became the second-youngest winner in the history of the Tour de France at just 21 years and 363 days old.
Naturally, Pogacar is a prime candidate to repeat last year's race and defend his title. After a glittering start to the 2021 campaign that saw him win the UAE Tour, the Tirreno-Adriatico and the iconic Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the young prodigy gave himself a long break to prepare the Tour de France. He chose to prepare at home, riding in the Tour of Slovenia, which he won.
Asked about this year's Tour de France, Pogacar said it would certainly be more difficult than last year's race. But it does seem like all systems are go for the UAE Emirates rider, with the only blemish on Pogacar's season so far a defeat in the National Road Championships' time trial that he was favoured to win.
• Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma): Eyeing vengeance
Last year, Primoz Roglic seemed untouchable. Until, that is, Pogacar broke him in the last time trial, the sort of event the elder Slovenian usually doesn't sweat. While Roglic did go onto win the Vuelta a Espana as a sort of consolation prize, the Tour de France yellow jersey remains the 31-year-old's main objective.
The method has changed, however. Roglic is now the uncontested team leader at Jumbo instead of one-third of the lead trio he comprised alongside Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin last year. Even more importantly, Roglic took a break from all competition from April onwards this year to prepare for the Tour de France, getting in lots of training, both at altitude and for time-trialling. The move is a risky gamble for Roglic, who could find himself searching for his bearings in the peloton in France.
Will he manage to hang in there for the full three weeks? The question bears asking given the veteran Slovenian's habit of cracking down the stretch. Aside from the Tour de France last year, Roglic also bowed out of the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné on the last stage even as he led the race. And during the 2021 Paris-Nice, he completely cracked on the last stage when he had seemed beyond reach.
• Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep): France's best chance?
With the reigning world champion's rainbow jersey on his back, Julian Alaphilippe very likely represents France's best chance at claiming the Tour for its home country. Solid in time trials, decent in the mountains and always up for big races, the 29-year-old has the wherewithal to shine once again and he has made the Tour a major objective for this year.
With his performances over the past two years, Alaphilippe is making a habit of pulling on the leader's yellow jersey come summertime. Last year, he wore it for three days before losing the coveted garment to a logistical error. In yellow for 14 days during the 2019 Tour de France, Alaphilippe set his compatriots dreaming that a Frenchman might finally win the overall, 35 years after Bernard Hinault last claimed cycling's holy grail for his native France in 1984.
The 2021 route might well suit Alaphilippe's skill set: the second stage could allow him to exploit his puncheur qualities to win the day at Mûr-de-Bretagne and set up a long sequence defending the yellow jersey on a stretch of the course that presents less high-mountain racing than in previous years. The script seems perfect. Add to it a finale photo on the Champs Elysées, with Alaphilippe in yellow holding tiny Nino, the newborn son for whom he has elected to skip the Tokyo Olympics.
"It's a very good course for him," opined Yvon Madiot, sporting director for the rival Groupama-FDJ team. "The Tour has been drawn up for him, intentionally or not, with arrivals at the tail-end of descents and not a huge amount in the mountains." Although, as Madiot noted, Alaphilippe has already shown that he can hold his own with the best in the mountains.
• Geraint Thomas (Ineos-Grenadiers): The Welshman returns
Ineos has won seven of the last nine editions of the Tour de France. So when the team arrives on la Grande Boucle, it is never to play also-ran. This year, the task falls to Geraint Thomas to bring the yellow jersey home.
After weathering a rough 2020 season, the 2018 Tour de France winner seems, at the age of 35, to have found new means to meet his ambitions. This year, Thomas took the overall at the Tour de Romandie and finished third in both the Volta a Catalunya and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
In a team like Ineos-Grenadiers, however, the danger sometimes comes from the inside, from teammates. Thomas will be surrounded by an armada of lieutenants who could well be poised for personal glory: Richie Porte, who recently won the Dauphiné and finished third overall in last year's Tour de France; Richard Carapaz, the recent Tour de Suisse winner and 2019 Giro d'Italia winner, as well as Tao Geoghehan Hart, who won the 2020 Giro.
• David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ): Promising young leader
After years in the shadow of Thibaut Pinot, David Gaudu has been thrust into the team leader's role at Groupama-FDJ for the first time on a Tour de France. The 24-year-old is one of the most promising young riders in French cycling. It will be up to Gaudu to meet the expectations of those predicting a very bright future for him.
The young Brittany native, who will be racing on home turf for the Tour's first four stages, saw his training somewhat curtailed by a fall. But that didn't stop him from bringing home the white jersey as the best young rider in the Critérium du Dauphiné and finishing ninth in the race, traditionally considered a springboard for the Tour de France. Moreover, Gaudu managed early this season to beat both Pogacar and Roglic to win the concluding stage of the Tour of the Basque Country in the mountains, which should provide a sliver of hope for the Frenchman.
• Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar): 'Superman' out to conquer summits
After arriving at Movistar over the winter, Colombia's Miguel Angel Lopez is one of the leaders in the Spanish team, alongside Enric Mas. The 27-year-old rode his first Tour de France last year and the experience was a good one: Lopez placed sixth overall and won the prestigious Col de la Loze stage.
On paper, the Colombian should be considered a contender for the podium in Paris. He chose to train for the Tour on the racecourse: riding the Tour de Romandie, winning the Vuelta a Andalucia and competing in the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he finished sixth. He also won the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, ideal for scouting a key location in the 2021 Tour de France with a double climb of the so-called "Bald Mountain" on the programme for July 7.
Still, the course and its two individual time-trial stages could cost the rider known as Superman, so nicknamed after he successfully repelled two assailants who tried to steal his bike at knifepoint. Lopez is not entirely at ease on the stopwatch stages.
More riders to keep an eye on...
Beyond the Geraint Thomas teammates cited above, the list of the potential dark horses for the 2021 Tour is a long one. Rigoberto Uran (Education-First) could surprise in the overall, as could Jack Haig (Bahrain Merida). Emanuel Buchmann and Wilco Kelderman of the Bora-Hansgrohe team could also do some damage. Finally, it is never wise to underestimate Colombia's Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic), who has been trying desperately for years to win the only Grand Tour missing from his collection.
Meanwhile, the competition for the green sprinter's jersey could create some beautiful battles: Peter Sagan will be looking to claim his eighth green jersey on the Tour after winning top sprinter honours for the first time at the Giro. Frenchman Arnaud Démare has a team built around him as he makes a return to his national tour. And finally, the ever-resilient Mark Cavendish has found a new lease on life in the care of his Deceuninck-QuickStep team. Will he be the one to rock the favourites' boat on the 2021 Tour?
This article has been translated from the original in French.