It’s T-minus six days and counting.
The 2021 Tour de France starts Saturday in Brittany with all the color, drama, excitement, and controversy that cycling’s biggest show brings every summer.
The 108th edition will make traditionalists happy, with an old-school course with “balance” as the overriding theme. The race commences earlier than normal due to the rescheduled Olympic Games but will end near its July date following last year’s “autumn” Tour.
- Can Ineos Grenadiers sweep all three grand tours?
- ‘Project Froome’ will see four-time winner in road captain role
COVID-19 will remain a factor, but perhaps a bit less extreme than last summer. It remains to be seen how many fans will be allowed to follow the race, so expect to see more social distancing and safety protocols.
This year’s Tour starts with a deep and competitive field. Three top teams come loaded with favorites, yet every Tour delivers a surprise or two.
With two time trials, a double ascent of the Mont Ventoux, and back-to-back summit finales in the Pyrénées, the 2021 route should keep things entertaining all the way back to Paris on July 18.
No Tour is easy, and every year is packed with thrills. This year’s Tour begins with the hope that the pandemic is beginning to break, with the exception of an unpredictable and wide-open race.
Here’s what to watch for in the next few weeks:
The route: A return to tradition
This year’s Tour de France route rolls back the years.
After tip-toeing into what a modern grand tour looks like over the past decade, with the slow rollout of shorter stages, impossible “walls,” a bit of gravel, and undiscovered climbs, the Tour went full-on Vuelta a España in 2020.
The route last year was more reminiscent of how grand tour racing looks south of the Pyrénées, and the peloton delivered scintillating racing every day.
2021 Tour de France, June 26 to July 18
- Total distance: 3,383km (2,102 miles), longest since 2000
- Longest/shortest road stages: 248km stage 7, 108.km stage 21
- Two time trials: 27.2km in stage 5, 30.8km in stage 20
- Six mountain stages: S8 (Grand Bornand), S9 (Tignes), S11 (double Ventoux), S15 (Andorra), S17 (Col de Portet), S18 (Luz-Ardiden)
- Eight flatter stages, four medium mountain stages
For 2021, the Tour turns back the clock with a more balanced route that includes two individual time trials, three summit finales in a total of six mountain stages, and a mix of sprint and breakaway stages that will provide something for everyone.
The big question is, will today’s fans get behind it?
There will be plenty of days — perhaps more than half of the Tour — when the GC riders will be hidden away in the bunch to clear the way for the sprinters or breakaway riders.
Will this year’s old-school Tour deliver the same day in, day out drama of the past few Tours? Or will the course layout that packs in all the drama in a few key stages be enough to keep fans interested?
Also read: Five stories to watch at the Tour de France
The inclusion of two individual time trials — the first since 2014 — could set up a tug-of-war between that favorites that could come down to the penultimate-stage race against the clock in Saint-Émilion.
But it could also set up the dynamic of someone taking the jersey early, and riding to keep it all the way to Paris. We shall see.
Mountain stages are harder than they look
Don’t be fooled by the tagline of “only” three summit finishes.
There are six challenging days in the mountains during this Tour, enough to keep the GC riders under pressure.
With two days in the Alps and back-to-back summit finishes in the Pyrénées, with Mont Ventoux squeezed in the middle, there is plenty of vertical in this Tour to keep things very interesting.
Also read: Key takeaways from 2021 Tour route
The double ascent of Mont Ventoux on stage 11, even though it doesn’t finish on top of the famous summit, should be a race-defining moment.
Also read: Week Two will prove decisive
Three downhill finales in the mountains — stages 8, 11, and 15 — also add a new twist to dynamics. Instead of waiting until the final kilometers from a summit finish to attack, teams will try to fracture the bunch earlier on the climbs, and carry the time gaps to the valley floors.
A few key mountain stages will also feature mid-race time bonuses, something that helped spice things up in 2020 to go along with finish-line time bonuses.
Generational transition or new parity?
Every decade of Tour de France history since the 1960s has seen a singular rider emerge to dominate the race. From Jacques Anquetil as the first five-time winner in the 1960s to Chris Froome winning four in five years in the 2010s, the Tour in the modern era is marked by legendary champions.
This year’s Tour could go a long way to revealing if we are entering the era of Tadej Pogačar, or if cycling could be in a new phase marked by stronger teams and more diverse winners.
Pogačar packs the right profile to emerge as the Tour’s next big champion, but he’s facing compatriot Primož Roglič as well as the ever-powerful Ineos Grenadiers. Egan Bernal and Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Remco Evenepoel will be back next year.
Riders who won the Tour de France in their debut:
- 1903 — Maurice Garin
- 1904 — Henri Cornet
- 1905 — Louis Trousselier
- 1947 — Jean Robic
- 1949 — Fausto Coppi
- 1951 — Hugo Koblet
- 1957 — Jacques Anquetil
- 1965 — Felice Gimondi
- 1969 — Eddy Merckx
- 1978 — Bernard Hinault
- 1983 — Laurent Fignon
- 2020 — Tadej Pogačar
Ineos Grenadiers is rewriting the script when it comes to grand tour racing. The team’s adopted a Quick-Step-style “swarm” offense and will bring four riders who might be able to win.
Ineos Grenadiers won seven yellow jerseys in eight years with four different riders, a mark unprecedented in cycling history.
Can the Slovenians knock back cycling’s richest team? If not, Ineos Grenadiers could be soon back to its old tricks.
Time trials won’t suffocate the GC
The two time trials in this year’s Tour — 27.2km in stage 5 and 30.8km in stage 20 — will shape the Tour, but not smother it.
Long gone are the days of 50km-plus tests against the clock, and for good reason. Longer-distance time trials favor the few and suck the life out of the GC.
Today’s peloton doesn’t pack a Miguel Indurain-style rider who can take a fistful of minutes out of their respective rivals in one shot, so even if with two time trials stacked up on each side of the climbing stages, things should still be relatively open across three weeks.
The hope is, at least from ASO’s point of view, that the looming presence of the final, flat TT will provoke attacks across the mountains, serving to spice up the racing.
Riders who won Tour without winning a stage
- 1922 — Firmin Lambot (Bel)
- 1956 — Roger Walkowiak (Fra)
- 1960 — Gastone Nencini (Ita)
- 1966 — Lucien Aimar (Fra)
- 1990 — Greg LeMond (USA)
- 2006 — Óscar Pereiro (Spa)
- 2017 — Chris Froome (GBR)
- 2019 — Egan Bernal (Col)
The relatively shorter distances of the two TTs means that, even if someone has jets in their legs, the time gaps should still be close.
Of course, the big fear is that if someone powers into the yellow jersey in stage 5 with a commanding lead, it could indeed put a pall over the GC if they pack a strong team to defend in the mountains.
Ideal debut for Mathieu van der Poel
The presence of cycling’s most exciting racer in Mathieu van der Poel already assures a spike in interest in this year’s Tour.
It seems race organizers designed an ideal course for van der Poel to square off against the likes of Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, and Wout van Aert in a tussle for yellow.
The Tour’s long done away with the opening prologue, but the opening stages in Brittany will deliver some of the most thrilling racing of the entire Tour.
Top rookies in ‘class of 2021’
- Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates)
- Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën)
- Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma)
The yellow jersey will be up for grabs, and everyone will be believing in their chances. That tension will ripple through the peloton all week across Brittany and northern France, where crosswinds, narrow roads, and first-week nerves will produce fireworks and surely spell doom for a few GC ambitions.
Also read: Van der Poel proves he’s ready for the Tour
It will be interesting to see how long van der Poel sticks around. With Tim Merlier also in for the sprints, Alpecin-Fenix will have plenty of chances to win a stage. With Tokyo waiting in August, van der Poel isn’t expected to make it to Paris.
But if he doesn’t win a stage early and he’s in the hunt for the green jersey, he might hang around longer than expected.
Sprinters will be happy, but who will win green?
There could be up to eight sprint stages in this year’s Tour, which is just fine for the fast finishers in the bunch who’ve been suffering through ever-diminishing opportunities during the past 10 years.
Also read: These are the favorites for the green jersey
That could tip the green jersey in favor of a pure sprinter, but the hilly opening week in Brittany favors Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in a big way. If Sagan can score early points on days when the sprinters will get gapped, both in the first week and in some key breakaway stages in the second half, Sagan could be back on the podium in Paris for a record eighth time.
Record winners of the green jersey
- Peter Sagan (2012-2016, 2018-19), 7
- Erik Zabel (1996-2001), 6
- Sean Kelly (1982-83, 1985, 1988), 4
- Jan Janssen, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Robbie McEwen, 3
Sagan’s controversial relegation in stage 11 last year was the nail in his green jersey coffin, and though he’s not going to win straight up against the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), he’s consistently in the top-5 in just about every sprint finale. That’s always been Sagan’s secret weapon to win green.
With Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) coming into the Tour a bit hobbled and without a lot of racing, it’s hard to imagine the Irishman repeating his stunning performances of 2020. If Ewan gets on a tear and starts reeling off sprint victories, the Australian pocket-rocket could be in with a chance of the points jersey.
Also read: Will Peter Sagan win another green jersey?
Others in the running could be 2017 green jersey winner Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), or even Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) if he decides to race all the way to Paris, which is unlikely.
For better or worse, the current points allocation — tweaked in 2011 and again in 2019 to award more points with bigger differences between the placings — favors Sagan against the pure sprinters, and largely deflates the drama of the green jersey battle.
More than a three-team race
Despite the presence of three heavy favorites — Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and half of the Ineos Grenadiers team — there are still a few outsiders who could spice things up.
Also read: The rise of the ‘super-teams’
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious), Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën), or Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) could elbow their way into the frame. EF Education-Nippo brings Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Higuita, and Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) could surprise.
And Chris Froome? Based on his spring, the odds scream no, but you never know.
Record yellow jerseys per franchise since WWII
- Reynolds/Banesto/Caisse d’Epargne/Movistar (1988, 1991-1995, 2006), 8 — Delgado, Indurain, Pereiro
- Team Sky/Ineos (2012-13, 2015-19), 7 — Wiggins, Froome, Thomas, Bernal
- US Postal Service/Discovery Channel (1999-2005), 7* disqualified
- Renault (1978-79, 1981-84), 6 — Hinault, Fignon
Of course, to win the Tour means you have to finish the Tour.
Any one of the favorites could flame out — at least one of the big names does just about every year.
How will Pogačar deal with the pressure? Can Roglič finally deliver, especially after his untraditional approach? And will Ineos Grenadiers keep all of its egos and ambitions in check?
Final sprint on the Champs-Élysées
Perhaps no sport packs such a dramatic setting and backdrop as the Tour de France and its finale on the Champs-Élysées.
Some people prefer to see a time trial to conclude a grand tour, assuring uncertainty and drama until the final pedal strokes, but ASO continues with the pageantry and tradition of the finishing straight with the Arc de Triomphe as a backdrop.
Of course, there was the famous, final-day time trial when Greg LeMond beat back Laurent Fignon in 1989.
The Tour’s only finished in three spots during its century-plus history. First at the Parc du Princes from its founding until 1968, and then the Piste Municipale until the Champs-Élysées was introduced in 1975.
Winners on Champs-Élysées
- Mark Cavendish (2009-12), 4
- Bernard Hinault (1979, 1982), Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (1993, 1995), Robbie McEwen (1999, 2002), Marcel Kittel (2013-14), André Greipel (2015-16) — two each
Riders seem to enjoy the final frolic, giving the teams a chance to celebrate their individual and collective successes over three hard weeks of racing. Things get serious enough on the closing laps on Champs-Élysées
For the sprinters, victory there is almost equivalent to the “sprinter’s world title,” and the overall victors savor their glory against sport’s most compelling backdrop.