What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
Tonight, the most esteemed bike race in the world begins with the 108th edition of the Tour de France and the battle for the celebrated maillot jaune (yellow jersey).
After being postponed by two months last year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across Europe, the race returns to its rightful spot in the middle of the European summer.
The course (parcourse) this year is a bit of a throwback in that it will not favour the pure mountain climbers like Tours past, instead favouring the punchy rouleurs (all-rounders) who are comfortable on their time-trial bikes.
This year’s course will feature six genuine mountain stages, though only three summit finishes, therefore serving as opportunities for the climbing kings to gain some time. Overall, the race features a total of 51,153 metres of elevation gain (the least since 2018) and only goes beyond 2000 metres above sea level four times.
After last year’s thrilling penultima stage time-trial battle between Slovenians Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic, race organisers have scheduled a total of 58 kilometres of individual time trialling – the most since 2013 (65).
The fast men will have nine opportunities to strut their stuff, including the ritual final stage into Paris, while there are four stages labelled hilly/medium mountain stages that could entice breakaway hopefuls.
Some 184 riders will take to the start line tonight in Brest, but all eyes will be on the two Slovenians after last year’s all-time finish. Can anybody cause a Tour boil over and upstage them?
Let’s take a look at the contenders for this year’s race, starting with the Aussies.
After just two Australians took to the start line for last year’s race, ten Aussies will set off tonight across the French countryside with the hopes of arriving safely in Paris three weeks from tonight.
Among the Aussies contingent are Jack Haig (Bahrain – Victorious) and Ben O’Connor (AG2RCitroën Team), two riders who bring stellar form to the Tour after finishing inside the top ten at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, while Lucas Hamilton has been given the nod to lead Team BikeExchange. Luke Durbridge and Michael Matthews will ride in support of Hamilton for the Australian squad.
Simon Clarke will ride for Team Qhubeka-NextHash, while youngster Harry Sweeny will ride alongside Lotto Soudal teammate Caleb Ewan as Ewan chases his goal of winning a stage at each Grand Tour in 2021.
Miles Scotson (Groupama – FDJ) will support one of the home nations leading hopes in David Gaudu, while of course there’s Richie Porte (INEOS Grenadiers), winner of the Dauphiné earlier this month who will ride alongside a star-studded INEOS team boasting four previous Grand Tour winners.
Here are the main contenders for the 108th maillot jaune (in alphabetical order).
Team: Deceuninck – Quick Step
The current world champion arrives at the start line of his fifth Tour de France as one of the home nation’s leading hopes.
Alaphilippe has worn the yellow jersey at each of the past two tours, including for 14 days before finishing fifth overall in2019. The Frenchman has had an uncharacteristically subdued season to date, dotted with some typically impressive results including second-place finishes at Tour de la Provence, Strade Bianche and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with a barnstorming victory over the top of the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne in April.
He also showed great form at the Tour de Suisse two weeks ago both in the mountain and on the time-trial bike before abandoning the race after the penultimate stage to return home for the birth of his first child.
The course this year will suit Alaphilippe, with only three summit finishes, plenty of decent finishes and two rolling time trials, and with no Sam Bennett to attempt a second consecutive green jersey, Deceuninck – Quick Step are able to afford the enigmatic Frenchman the support he needs in the mountains if he is to become the first homegrown rider to win the Tour de France in 36 years (the great Bernard Hinault was the last in 1985).
Team: Groupama – FDJ
While Alaphilippe is perhaps more suited to the parcourse this year, Gaudu comes to the Tour as the form French rider in the race.
The Frenchman will be riding his fourth Tour at just 24 years of age and will be hoping to make amends after a disappointing showing last year, which culminated in the man from Brittany abandoning after stage 16 a year after finishing 13th.
Gaudu followed up strongly one month later, winning two stages at the Vuelta España on his way to finishing a respectable eighth. The 2021 Faun-Ardèche Classic winner also finished fifth at Basque Country after winning the final stage, mustered a terrific third place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a decent ninth at the Dauphiné earlier this month.
While he brings solid form to the race, the 58 kilometres of time-trialling will concern him: in his four previous Grand Tour time trials, Gaudu has finished within two and a half minutes of the winner just once. This year, Gaudu lost 46 seconds to Slovenian Primoz Roglic in a 14.4-kilometre time trial at Paris-Nice and 1:15 in 13.8 kilometres at the Basque Country to the Slovenian.
He’ll have to make his move when the race reaches the Pyrenees to have any chance.
Miguel Ángel López
Lopez will lead the line for his new team Movistar having crossed to the Spanish team from Astana in the off-season.
He’s another mountain dweller that won’t necessarily be suited to this year’s route – he’d prefer one or two more summit finishes – but a look at his Grand Tour track record might suggest otherwise. Lopez has finished six of the eight Grand Tours he’s been at the start line for and has finished in the top ten on each occasion (including third-place finishes at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta España in 2018).
In his debut at the Tour last year, Lopez finished sixth, with his Tour highlighted by a victory in the queen stage atop the nightmarish Col de la Loze. The Colombian didn’t begin racing this season until late April at the Tour de Romandie and has since won the pro level stage race Vuelta Andalucia and the Mont Ventoux Challenge, with a ninth-place finish at the Critérium Dauphiné sandwiched in between.
There’s a handful of general classification riders that will need to make a break for it in the mountains given their deficiencies as time triallists, and ‘Superman’ Lopez will be one of them. He’s looking to become only the second ever South American to win the Tour after Egan Bernal in 2019.
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Porte is back for his 11th Tour one year after riding the race of his life to finish third, becoming just the second Australian to finish on the podium at the great race after Cadel Evans’ victory in 2011.
He has stated that his move from Trek – Segafredo back to INEOS (the reincarnation of Porte’s former team TeamSky) is simply to ride in support of the team’s general classification hopeful, but Porte’s form is simply too good to ignore.
After crashing out of Paris-Nice on the opening stage, Porte has gone on to claim second-place finishes at both the Volta Catalunya and Tour de Romandie before claiming victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné two weeks ago, a race that generally serves as a good form guide for Tour de France hopefuls.
He’s not the team leader – he will be co-leader at best alongside Geraint Thomas – and bad luck seems to find him at this race (see back-to-back abandonments on stage nine of the Tour in 2017 and 2018), however he brings great form and is suited to this year’s route.
In any case, Porte will be one of the most important riders of the Tour this year.
Team: UAE-Team Emirates
The Slovenian wonder kid stormed home in the penultimate stage time trial last year, coming from 59 seconds down to defeat compatriot Primoz Roglic by 59 seconds in a near two-minute turnaround that stunned cycling fans the world over.
In doing so, Pogacar became the youngest winner of the Tour since Frenchman Henri Cornet in 1904 and just the seventh rider to win the race at the first attempt.
The Slovenian returns to defend his title off the back of some incredible form, having won both the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico as well as his home Tour of Slovenia two weeks ago. His impressive seventh place finish at Strade Bianche and victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year showcases just how incredibly talented and versatile he is.
However, he does come to the race with a target on his back and an inferior support team around him compared to some of the other main players. That didn’t seem to bother him in 2020, but INEOS and Jumbo Visma will be much more wary this time around.
The two time-trial battles with Primoz Roglic will set the scene for a brilliant battle between the two and will be must watch (keeping in mind Roglic beat Pogacar by 28 seconds in a 13.8-kilometre time trial at the Basque Country in April, the only battle between the two against the clock since the infamous La Planche des Belles Filles stage).
With luck on his side, the precocious Pogacar should be there at the pointy end again.
Team: Team Jumbo – Visma
Roglic returns to France to ride his fourth Tour after blowing a seemingly unassailable 59-second lead on the penultimate stage of last year’s edition. It was an incredible collapse from a rider who can be considered the world’s premier Grand Tour time triallist, and so the Slovenian is back with a vengeance.
While Roglic is a remarkably consistent rider, he’s beginning to produce a worrying portfolio of bad luck in the big races, exhibited this year by his final stage horror show at Paris-Nice where he crashed twice and was left to scale the final ascent alone, losing the yellow jersey in awful fashion at a race where he had otherwise looked a class above.
The back-to-back Vuelta España winner starts the tour as one of two clear favourites alongside Slovenian compatriot Pogacar and will look forward to a parcourse that suits him to the ground. He’s an incredible rider who almost never experiences runs of poor form and brings typically solid form into this year’s race, winning the Basque Country against solid competition (including Pogacar, David Gaudu, Pello Bilbao and Hugh Carthy among others) and finishing second at Flèche Wallonne.
Jumbo – Visma’s tactics were heavily criticised in the wake of last year’s Tour failure. Have they learnt from their mistakes?
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Thomas will ride his 11th Tour de France as team leader for INEOS having won the maillot jaune for the team in 2018.
The 35-year-old Welshman has built into the season nicely, finishing third at both the Volta Catalunya and the Dauphiné, with a victory at the Tour de Romandie in between (his first world tour victory since his 2018 Tour triumph).
He’s another who will be aided by the parcourse, particularly the near 60 kilometres of time trialling, though his effort against the clock recently at the Dauphiné – where he finished 23 seconds behind stage winner Alexey Lutsenko – was extremely underwhelming.
Thomas will carry the hopes of the British team that has two or three riders who could potentially win the race themselves. With a victory and runner up performance in his last two appearances in 2018 and 2019 respectively, it will be Thomas charged with the hopes of becoming Britain’s seventh winner in the last nine editions of the Tour.
He looks to be one of the few capable of going with the two Slovenians when the race heats up, and if the cycling gods can bless him with good fortune – something that has seemed to avoid Thomas in the past – then he’s as good a bet as any.
Team: Team BikeExchange
One of only a small handful of riders backing up at the Tour after having ridden the Giro d’Italia last month, Yates and the team are adamant the Brit is riding his fifth Tour for stage victories only. He is a Grand Tour winner however, so he must be considered.
Yates was his typically hot-and-cold self at the Giro last month, romping home to victory on stage 19 after a relatively anonymous first two weeks before ultimately finishing in third position (4:15 seconds behind winner Egan Bernal). A two-time stage winner at the Tour, Yates’ best previous result at the big race is seventh in 2017 when he won the best young rider classification.
He’s another that won’t be too fond of this year’s route, which makes the stage hunting philosophy an interesting one, but if he’s within touching distance of the Slovenians two weeks in, tactics would surely have to change.
Team: Bahrain – Victorious
Bilbao is another rider fresh off the Giro d’Italia where his Bahrain – Victorious team had an incredibly successful race, winning two stages and finishing second overall with Italian Damiano Caruso. The Spaniard finished a reasonable 13th himself and will be looking to improve on his 16th place at last year’s Tour.
With a sixth-place finish at his home Basque Country and a second place at the Tour of the Alps, Bilbao brings solid form despite an indifferent Giro. He will love the look of some of the mountain stages with descent finishes (he’s one of the best descenders in all the peloton), so look for him to be aggressive there.
He and Dutchman Wout Poels will lead the line for Bahrain – Victorious. An overall top-ten finish is not beyond either of them.
Team: BORA – hansgrohe
The highlight of the talented German’s career came when he finished an incredible fourth at the Tour in 2019.
Buchmann hasn’t been able to reach those lofty heights since and doesn’t have too much racing in the legs since a disappointing 38th place finish here last year. He looked to be in good form at the Giro last month, in sixth position just 2:36 off the overall lead before crashing out on stage 15. The German’s time trialling is his achilles heel, and he’d love more climbing, but he enters this year’s race as a smokey for top-five honours.
He would be just the second German to win the Tour after Jan Ullrich in 1997.
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
The former Giro d’Italia winner will ride his second Tour again in support of a teammate after aiding Egan Bernal’s ultimately failed campaign in 2020.
‘La Locomotora’ was not in any kind of form before dominating the Tour de Suisse two weeks ago, winning a stage and finishing fourth in the time trial ahead of some far more accomplished time triallists (including current Swiss European champion Stefan Kung).
Carapaz will be the main support for Geraint Thomas when the race reaches the mountains and should by virtue of this still be there with the group of favourites on the most decisive stages.
Team: Israel Start-Up Nation
Make no mistake, the four-time winner of this race makes this list by virtue of his reputation only.
Anybody who has seen Froome ride since suffering serious injuries in a horrific crash at the Dauphiné in 2019 will tell you he looks a mile off the true contenders in this race, despite what the man himself says about his training numbers.
As harsh as it sounds, Froome – one of cycling’s all-time great Grand Tour riders – doesn’t look like someone who will win another bike race let alone be standing on the top podium on the Champs-Élysées three weeks from tonight.
Tao Geoghegan Hart
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
The 2020 Giro d’Italia winner completes the ‘fab four’ at INEOS, a quartet of riders who would all lay claim to leader responsibilities if they rode for almost any other team.
Geoghegan Hart’s form has been a mixed bag leading into his first participation at the Tour, crashing out of both Paris-Nice and the Basque Country before finishing tenth at the Critérium du Dauphiné (1:57 behind winner and teammate Richie Porte). The Brit is one of 11 former Grand Tour winners to take to the start line and will have a crucial role riding in support of teammate Geraint Thomas.
Team: BORA – hansgrohe
It will be the in-form Dutchman who will lead the German team at this year’s Tour rather than the aforementioned Buchman, and a quick look at this year’s results indicates why.
Before finishing fourth overall recently at the Dauphiné (where Kelderman looked particularly strong against the clock), the 30-year-old bagged a tenth-place finish at the Tour of Romandie and a fifth place at Volta Catalunya. He has only finished on the podium at a Grand Tour once in his 11 attempts (third at the Giro d’Italia last year) and much of the teams resources will go towards securing sprinter Peter Sagan an eighth green jersey, but with the form he’s in, particularly on his time-trial bike, a podium finish is not beyond the realms of possibility.
He would be the third Dutchman to win the Tour after Jan Janssen (1968) and Joop Zoetemelk (1980).
Martin was one of the revelations of the Tour last year, holding onto third position for two weeks before eventually finishing 11th. The climbing Frenchman backed that up with an impressive showing at the Vuelta España a month later, finishing 14th and securing the king of the mountain jersey.
He rode the Dauphiné two weeks ago but did not look too impressive, finishing a disappointing 20th. However, Martin is a rider that enjoys riding on home roads, having never finished lower than 23rd at the Tour and finishing on the podium at the Critérium du Dauphiné last year in third position to go along with a sixth place finish at Paris-Nice earlier this year.
He will lead French team Cofidis in his fifth Tour de France appearance.
The Spaniard returns for his third Tour de France after finishing an exceptional fifth in 2020, including a great ninth-place finish at the now famous La Planche des Belles Filles time-trial stage. Mas backed that performance up with a strong showing at the Vuelta España the following month, finishing fifth again while securing the best young rider classification.
He hasn’t been in great form this season, though he does have an incredible track record at Grand Tours, with his two fifth-place finishes last year alongside a second place at the Vuelta España in 2018 from just five Grand Tours.
It will be interesting to see how the Spanish team deploys both Mas and Lopez given how well both riders performed here last year.
Team: Trek – Segafredo
The 2014 Tour winner would have entered this type of race as odds-on favourite five years ago.
His best is behind him, although the Italian did remarkably well to finish the Giro d’Italia last month after breaking a bone in his wrist on a training ride only four weeks earlier. One of only seven riders to have won all three Grand Tours, Nibali is one of the great general classification riders of his era, and it therefore would be unwise to write him off.
Realistically, a top-ten finish at his ninth Tour would be a great result.
Team: Team Arkéa Samsic
The 31-year-old Colombian has an impressive record at the race, finishing on the podium three times from seven attempts (including twice as runner-up).
Quintana would become the eight rider to win all three Grand Tours having won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and the Vuelta España in 2016, although he hasn’t been able to recapture his best form since being hit by a car while training in Colombia shortly before the Tour last year.
He’s one of the better time triallists amongst the climbers and could be a dark horse contender if he can recapture his best form, though his 18th-place finish at the Dauphiné recently left a bit to be desired.
Team: EF Education – Nippo
Urán enters the Tour this year as one of the form riders, exhibited by his scintillating performance at the Tour de Suisse earlier this month where he finished second (including a terrific win in the 23.2-kilometre time trial).
The charismatic Colombian would be a popular winner, and he seems to love riding the Tour, finishing runner-up in 2017 before seventh-place and eighth-place finishes in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
The Tour de Suisse was the first time he had raced since March, so there’s not a lot of exposed form, but his great performance across the border in Switzerland can’t be overlooked.
King of the mountain jersey
Six previous winners of the KOM jersey will compete in this year’s race: last year’s winner Tadej Pogacar, Frenchmen Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick Step) and Warren Barguil (Team Arkéa Samsic), Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation), Nairo Quintana (Team Arkéa Samsic) and two-time winner Rafał Majka (UAE Team Emirates).
Other potential names to look out for include Kazak Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Spaniard Jesus Herrada (Cofidis), Colombian Sergio Higuita (EF Education – Nippo) as well as Frenchman Pierre Latour (Team TotalEnergies), Pierre Rolland (B&BHotels), Julien Bernard (Trek – Segafredo) and last year’s KOM jersey wearer for 15 days, Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën Team).
Points classification (green jersey)
Just three previous winners of the renowned green jersey are present at this year’s race: seven-time winner and race record holder Peter Sagan (BORA – Hansgrohe), Brit Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck – Quick Step) and Aussie Michael Matthews (TeamBikeExchange).
While last year’s battle between Sagan and eventual winner Sam Bennett was a bit of a non-event, this year’s sprinters group looks solid, headlined by the battle between the two best classics riders in the world at the moment in newly crowned Belgian champion Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo – Visma) and Dutchman Mathieu van Der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
Other names looking to stake their claim on the green jersey include Mathieu van Der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix teammates Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, Aussie Caleb Ewan (LottoSoudal), Frenchmen Arnaud Demare (Groupama – FDJ) and Nacer Bouhani (Team ArkéaSamsic), Dane Mads Pedersen (Trek – Segafredo), Italians Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain – Victorious) and Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck – Quick Step) and Dutchman Cees Bol (Team DSM).
Young rider classification (white jersey)
The best young rider classification is awarded simply to the highest place rider in the general classification under the age of 25.
Of the contenders listed above, only Tadej Pogacar (UAE – Team Emirates) and David Gaudu (Groupama – FDJ) are eligible. Other young riders to keep an eye out for include Australian Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange), Americans Brandon McNulty (UAE – Team Emirates) and Neilson Powless (EF Education – Nippo), Dane Jonas Vingegaard (Team Jumbo – Visma), Colombian Sergio Higuita (EF Education – Nippo) and Frenchmen Valentin Madouas (Groupama – FDJ) and Aurelien Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën Team).
1. Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo – Visma)
2. Tadej Pogacar (UAE – Team Emirates)
3. Richie Porte (INEOS Grenadiers)
4. Rigoberto Uran (EF Education – Nippo)
5. Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers)
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick Step)
7. Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers)
8. Wilco Kelderman (BORA – Hansgrohe)
9. Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar)
10. Jonas Vingegaard (Team Jumbo – Visma)
Points classification: Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo – Visma)
King of the mountain: Tadej Pogacar (UAE – Team Emirates)
Best young rider: Tadej Pogacar (UAE – Team Emirates)