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Straining the Circuit Board: Here’s to an Unpredictable 2021 Tour de France

William Fotheringham's predictions for the 2021 Tour de France

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On paper, looking ahead to the Tour de France should be simple. Look at the route, assess the field, figure out whose results trajectory looks good. Maybe some boffin will one day invent a computer program that does it through an algorithm. Perhaps Sir Dave Brailsford has got one already. In fact, I’m sure he has. Because between 2012 and 2019 it was pretty simple: a rider in a Team Sky or Ineos jersey would win.

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

This year, the computer’s circuit boards would be straining a bit. The algorithm didn’t really work out in 2020, and I’m not sure it would be any simpler in 2021, because however you look at the next three weeks of bike racing, none of it is straightforward. There are five big favorites for the Tour, as I read it, and each of them has a question mark attached. Tadej Pogacar, Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz, Primoz Roglic, Miguel-Angel Lopez: each comes with a caveat.

Pogacar starts as the big favorite, because he looks the most complete in every area, because the route doesn’t seem to present any real danger-points for him, he’s had a perfect build-up, and because he’s strengthened his team, which was the one achilles heel he had in 2020. Now for the caveat: he’s not the surprise any more, so there will be no more flying under the radar. And I wonder how that team will function in adversity—you often find when the leader is flying so are the teammates, but it’s how they gel when something goes wrong, as it will at some point.

Tadej Pogacar Tour de France Yellow Jersey
Tadej Pogacar starts as the big favorite for the 2021 Tour.

Thomas and Carapaz can be dealt with together, as you imagine they will be for much of the next three weeks. They are complementary—Carapaz stronger in the high altitude finishes, Thomas better in the time trials—and they have the might of the Ineos galacticos behind them, led by Richie Porte and Tao Geogheghan-Hart, both of whom are qualified to lead the team as well. You’d imagine that the Ineos leadership question won’t be resolved at least until the Ventoux, the first really massive climbing test, and I just wonder if Carapaz will edge it. The question marks? I can’t see Thomas climbing at the same level as Pogaçar, plus I wonder about Thomas’s age, and I can’t see Carapaz in the same time trialling bracket as Pogacar or Roglic.

Geraint Thomas Tour de Romandie
Geraint Thomas at the 2021 Tour de Romandie.

Roglic has the benefit of last year’s learning experience plus the support of a climbing unit that is almost as good as Ineos, and he is Jumbo’s uncontested leader. He has grit to burn and we know he can time trial on his day, if you look at last year’s Vuelta as well as the Tour. His form is impossible to read as he hasn’t raced since April, so either he’s supremely confident or he’s taking a massive risk. I can see him racing strongly for 90 percent of the Tour, then cracking somewhere like Pla d’Adet or Luz Ardiden.

Primoz Roglic Tour de France
Roglic at the 2020 Tour.

Lopez? Well, he can climb well, we know he can win a meaty stage race, and if Movistar get behind him they are a formidable unit. But the time trial questions remain, and of the five he’s probably most vulnerable if the race hits crosswinds, because 2021’s Movistar don’t have a Tony Martin or a Luke Rowe. Briefly, I’d add in two other names, for the podium if not the final win: Rigoberto Uran and Julian Alaphilippe. Uran for the day-to-day consistency he can show, Alaphilippe for his ability to make things happen.

There’s one element to the Tour that you can never afford to ignore, another area where that algorithm might struggle: the unknown. It remains cycling’s greatest attraction, and the Tour’s. To go a bit Rumsfeldian, it’s the fact that you know stuff is bound to happen, but you can’t have any idea what or when. To start with, the crashes: at almost any moment, but especially in the first week, all predictions can be rendered void in an instant. Then, the wacky stuff like Julian Alaphilippe taking a bottle at the wrong moment, or Pogacar’s team going missing just as the race splits in a crosswind, both among 2020’s curious moments.

The Tour is 21 days of chaos theory. Think back to 2012: how would that race have been different if Chris Froome had not gone into a pothole on the Liège stage? 2014? The cobbled stage where Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour in the first week. It’s fashionable to pan the Team Sky years as being predictable, but the fact is that Chris Froome won his Tours in some fairly unlikely ways—running up Mont Ventoux, attacking downhill in the Pyrenees, blowing everyone away in a crosswind in the midi.

As Tours go, 2020 was even more random than most, thanks to the pandemic; 2021 may look as if it’s back to business as usual, but as Henri Desgrange realised back in 1903, if you put a load of cyclists on the road, and send them off around France, you end up with an enthralling mix of sport and soap opera. One thing is certain: the opening weekend in Brittany is set to be one of the hardest ever, and all those who get to Mur de Bretagne on Sunday within reach of the leaders will breathe a sigh of relief.

As we did last year, we at La Course en Tête in partnership with Peloton in the US will be commenting daily on the race. It’s going to be an exhilarating three weeks.

7 questions for the next 3 weeks

Can Tadej Pogaçar kick on? Answer: yes. Winning a first Tour de France is never easy, but winning a second is so hard that it moves a rider onto another level. The bulk of Tour winners manage it only once. But “Pog” has looked so good this year, posting an astonishingly high hit rate in the races he’s started, that it’s perfectly possible to envisage him building on his success of 2020.

Will the Ineos trident be Movistar mark two? Answer: maybe. In theory, having three definite leaders – Thomas, Carapaz and Geogheghan Hart—plus a wild card in Richie Porte is a huge advantage. Given Pogaçar’s form so far this year, and the usual uncertainties of the Tour, it is far better to be taking him on in numbers, and the Ineos management have recently coped well with multiple leaders. But it will only work if at least two of the trident are as good as “Pog” and “Rog” when the chips are down. If it starts to go wrong and egos get bruised… well, it all gets very interesting.

Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar Tour de France 2020
Will Ineos have riders as good as “Pog” and “Rog”?

Who will turn up from left field? No clear answer to this, because the nature of modern cycling means that riders and teams turn up at grand tours without clearly posting their form. Not many would expected Sunweb to win three stages at last year’s Tour, or Qhubeka to land three at this year’s Giro. Given the freak nature of last year’s race in terms of timing and run-in, this year’s race looks more like business as usual. There’s not as much space for unproven talents, but the ones I will be looking out for are Bruno Armirail, Stephen Bissegger, Jonas Vingegaard and Mark Donovan.

What effect will the time trial stages have? The constant tinkering with the format in recent years means the last time there were two time trials was 2017—and the first was a relatively short one at 14km—and the last time there were two time trials of comparative length at similar points in the race was 2008. In 2017, the Marseille time trial on the penultimate day seemed to make for conservative riding in the Alpine stages immediately beforehand. My hunch, this year, is that the first time trial won’t eliminate many contenders, and the second will merely confirm the verdict of five extremely hard days in the Pyrenees. But I might not put my mortgage on it…

Will the pressure get to Julian Alaphilippe? No. Who would be a French star trying to perform in the home Tour? Remember what it did to Thibaut Pinot in 2015—not nice. My sense is that by his nature Alaphilippe is not a GC rider, but a rider more in the classics register who can knock out a good GC ride on occasion. That might seem a weird thing to say of a rider who led the race for 14 days and finished fifth overall in 2019, but he said today that he sometimes forgets exactly where he ended up overall that year. What that means is that, as he’s not worrying if he’s seventh overall or ninth, Alaphilippe can switch off on certain days and focus on what he does best, and that’s a vital safety valve.   

Julian Alaphilippe 2019 TDF
Alaphilippe led the 2019 Tour for two weeks.

Will Mark Cavendish win a stage? Yes. For sure, he’s 36, and for sure he insists he hasn’t prepared specifically. But behind Caleb Ewan this isn’t the strongest sprint line-up I’ve seen at the Tour, with no Dylan Groenewegen, no Pascal Ackermann, and (obviously) no Sam Bennett. Yes, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel will get in there occasionally to mix it up, but Cavendish has the best sprint train in front of him, arguably the best lead-out man in Michael Mørkøv and he has six chances before the race reaches the Pyrenees. Ewan should win at least two stages of the eight on offer before Paris, but the random nature of sprinting means there will be openings.

Which is the one unmissable stage? The double ascent of Mont Ventoux in the second week. It’s a unique prospect and it falls at just the right time to set up the overall battle for the rest of the race.

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