Around 30km separates the hometowns of Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, an hour’s cycle between the villages of Komenda and Kosivec, and for all the talent of cycling’s heartlands it is this corner of Slovenia which expects to herald another Tour de France victory.
The pair produced an unforgettable finale in September’s rescheduled Tour when Roglic cracked on the stage 20 time-trial and Pogacar surged to win the yellow jersey. Both riders have enjoyed near-immaculate seasons – Pogacar winning a tough Tierreno-Adriatico and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Roglic winning Tour of the Basque Country and Paris-Nice – and it is all set up for another battle between the pair over the next three weeks.
If the sensational 22-year-old Pogacar doesn’t win his second Tour, and if the 31-year-old Roglic doesn’t add a Tour to his two previous Grand Tour wins at the Vuelta a Espana, that will surely be because Ineos Grenadiers scuppered their chances. The biggest question with Ineos is: who?
Geraint Thomas appears the natural team leader, three years on from his own Tour de France triumph, but he is joined by a stellar cast. Richard Carapaz is a Giro d’Italia winner, as is Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart who is competing at his first Tour. Then there’s Richie Porte, one of the best riders never to have won a Grand Tour and in form having won the Criterium du Dauphine earlier in June, always a useful forecast for who might peak in July.
Dave Brailsford’s task as manager is to create harmony or at least sufficiently repair division and soothe egos so as to get the best out of whoever looks like posting a serious challenge to the Slovenians. Chris Froome may have departed for Israel Start-Up Nation and Egan Bernal may be injured, but Ineos rarely fail to turn their leadership into an intriguing sub-plot and even without those two this summer looks to be no different.
Other contenders will emerge, of course, in what can be such a highly unpredictable race. Movistar have proven Tour challengers in Miguel Angel Lopez and Enric Mas. EF Education’s Rigoberto Uran tends to come to the fore in the mountains, while local hopes will be pinned on FDJ’s 24-year-old David Gaudu. But they are all more likely to be contending for top-10 finishes or perhaps a podium spot than the top step.
The puncheurs’ showdown
What made the 2019 Tour de France such a joy was the prominence of Julian Alaphilippe, who grabbed the yellow jersey and clung on for dear life, and forced Egan Bernal to come and take it away from him.
The first two stages of this Tour suggest we might get a similar scenario, with enough punch in them to tease the one-day specialists to the fore, and what a line-up it is. Alaphilippe is the world champion and home favourite, and he will be up against two 26-year-olds brimming with talent: Belgium’s brilliant Wout van Aert and Netherlands’ extraordinary Mathieu van der Poel.
They are multi-talented. Van Aert is a three-time cyclo-cross world champion who was a star of last year’s Tour, winning two stages while proving a crucial foil for his Jumbo-Visma teammate Roglic in the mountains. Van der Poel is a four-time cyclo-cross world champion who will likely be leaving the Tour early to prepare for his bid at Olympic mountain-bike gold, but even so, he is too good not to leave a mark on his first Grand Tour.
Alaphilippe vs Van Aert vs Van der Poel. France vs Belgium vs Netherlands. It has everything to be a mouth-watering appetiser before the main event in the mountains.
Bennett’s loss is Cavendish’s gain
News emerged this week that reigning points classification champion Sam Bennett would not be riding after suffering a minor injury in training which would not heal. It is a huge shame for the Irishman who has been in form and would have entered the Tour as the favourite to win the green jersey again. Instead it means the surprise return of Mark Cavendish to the Tour as his replacement at Deceuninck–Quick-Step, and it will be fascinating to see if the 36-year-old sprinter can find the form to earn a stage win and close the gap to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 – Cavendish is currently on 30.
Bennett’s absence increases Peter Sagan’s chances of claiming his eighth green jersey at the Tour de France but the standout sprinters are Australia’s hunched powerball Caleb Ewan, who has five Tour stage wins to date, and France’s Arnaud Demare, who has two.
Stages to watch
Stage 1, Saturday 26 June, Brest to Landernau (187km)
A hilly opening with a coastal section which could cause chaos right from the off if the wind picks up. It seems deliberately designed for Alaphilippe to clinch yellow with a short, sharp climb to the finish but he will have plenty of competition for the honour.
Stage 3, Monday 28 June, Lorient to Pontivry (152km)
This looks like the first opportunity for the sprinters to stretch their legs. Expect Ewan Demare to be amongst the front-runners, while Sagan and Van Aert could a slightly lumpy profile like this one.
Stage 5, Wednesday 30 June, Change to Laval (27km)
This individual time-trial is short and relatively flat, so it might be quite uneventful, but it will reveal some form among the general classification contenders and always opens up some small time gaps. Ineos know how to time trial better than most and so too does Thomas, so he won’t mind this early opportunity to gain an edge on some of his competitors.
Stage 7, Frida 2 July, Vierzon to Le Creosot (248km)
This is the longest Tour stage for 21 years, with five categorised climbs, preceding the peloton’s move into the Alps. It is well setup for a breakaway and any stage win here will be hard-earned.
Stage 11, Wednesday 7 July, Sorgues to Malaucene (199km)
Without doubt the most eye-catching stage of this year’s Tour, stage 11 is nearly 200km long and takes in two climbs of Mont Ventoux – something race director Christian Prudhomme has long had his eye on. The final brutal climb and run down to the finish at Malaucene is likely to collect a few victims and test the strength of the real yellow jersey contenders.
Stage 15, Sunday 11 July, Ceret to Andorra-La-Vielle (191.5km)
A long, high and gruelling stage which starts in France and finishes in Andorra. The route includes four categorised climbs and passes the highest point of this year’s Tour, the summit of the Port d’Envalira at 2,408m. The final climb to the Col de Beixalis holds bonus seconds at the summit, before a drop to the finish, and it could be crucial to the fight for the yellow jersey.
Stage 18, Thursday 15 July, Pau to Luz Ardiden (130km)
The second of two back-to-back summit finishes, the Col du Tourmalet is a classic Pyrenean brute and stands before the finish, the 13km ascent of the Luz Ardiden.
Stage 20, Saturday 17 July, Libourne to Saint-Emilion (30.8km)
This may not throw up the same drama as last year’s individual time-trial finale, given it is flatter and shorter, but it will still test the time trial skills enough to make a potentially decisive difference to the standings.