Tension was mounting Friday as the contenders to the 2021 Tour de France fine-tuned their plans to dethrone the champion Tadej Pogacar with the 21-day bike race about to embark from the Atlantic Coast. France’s fortified western port of Brest hosts the Grand Depart on Saturday as the battle to sink the relentless Slovenian Pogacar rolls out with a bang for the 184 riders as the first two stages end in hilltop finishes.
British team Ineos are gunning for an eighth Tour de France title in ten years, and have unfurled a quartet of riders they hope can submerge 22-year-old sensation Pogacar by force of numbers.
“He can’t follow all four of us, but he is the benchmark,” Ineos climber Richie Porte said on Thursday.
Porte and his teammates, 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and the Giro d’Italia winners Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart, will have to work together to equal the ever-improving UAE team leader.
Pogacar’s svengali, Team UAE Emirates CEO Mauro Gianetti, told AFP that the champion he unearthed and recruited was ready to defend his title.
“Ineos is going to be the favorite as they always are and they have a very strong team again this year,” he said. “But we won it last year and we are going to try and win it again,” he insisted.
Four-time winner Chris Froome, now with Israel Start-up Nation, mentioned Pogacar first when asked for his tip saying: “Tadej isn’t getting any slower is he?”
Van der Poel takes up family’s fight
A heavy atmosphere shrouded the French Riviera resort city Nice at the start of 2020’s delayed Tour de France, but the feeling in 2021 is that a fresh as the wind blowing in from the Atlantic.
The race was originally slated to start in Copenhagen but will begin on the French west coast instead.
“The Tour will be forever grateful to Brittany for stepping in to host the first three stages, we were so happy we gave them a fourth, one for each department,” race director Christian Prudhomme told AFP on Friday.
One breath of invigorating air might be Dutch rookie Mathieu van der Poel, who will be cheered around every mile of the race.
A hero already in the mountain biking and cross disciplines for his gung-ho, all-in, attitude, he is also the grandson of France’s most beloved cyclist Raymond Poulidor.
Poulidor finished regularly in the Tour top three but never won it or even wore the leader’s yellow jersey.
Van der Poel appears intent on righting this historical blight and his entire team are wearing a jersey in homage to Poulidor. All the signs are he will produce a Herculean effort and will be hailed whether he wins or not, just as his grandfather was.
British fans will be especially interested to see ‘MVDP’ in action as he will be the chief obstacle to Tom Pidcock taking the Tokyo mountain bike crown shortly after the Tour. Pidcock, another Ineos man, is not racing in the Tour.
The four Brittany stages will be followed by a 15 mile individual time-trial and then a very short stage and a very long stage as the race heads through the Chateau-littered Loire Valley.
The race crosses the breadth of France into the Alps, where the knives will likely come out for Pogacar.
“The one thing we can’t do is let him within sight of the finish with a lead,” Porte said, signalling Ineos may try and finish Pogacar off before the Pyrenees.
A great place to do that and against a spectacular backdrop, would be on the so-called Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux, with its treeless lunar upper reaches. The peloton must climb it not once but twice on stage 11.
The race then sweeps down to the Pyrenees before a transfer back to Paris and the final day sprint along the cobbles of the Champs Elysees where the champion will pull on the fabled winner’s yellow jersey.
RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini