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Racing the Tour de France for the first time is an important milestone in any rider’s resume.
Sometimes that honor comes early in a pro career, but some have to wait until they’re grizzled pros to punch their ticket to cycling’s big show.
For 2020, the rookie class includes a wide range of talent and potential. Though the final start list for Nice has yet to be confirmed, it looks to be about 40 riders racing the Tour de France for the first time.
Three are just 21 — Maxime Chevalier (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), Mathieu Burgaudeau (Total-Direct Energie), and the highly touted Tadej Pogaçar (UAE-Team Emirates). Ben Hermans (Israel Start-Up Nation) is on the other end of the spectrum. The Belgian veteran will start his first Tour at the ripe age of 34.
Among the Tour newbie crew are two Americans. Sepp Kuss earned his spot on the powerful Jumbo-Visma lineup, while former teammate Neilson Powless is on for EF Pro Cycling. Five of the eight starters at Israel Start-Up Nation — racing its first Tour as a team — are Tour rookies, including Guy Niv, who will become Israel’s first Tour starter Saturday in Nice.
Many of the Tour freshman class of 2020 also fall into the white jersey category, and a number of this year’s first-timers will be battling it out for the honor of hitting the podium in Paris for the best rider 25 or younger. It won’t be surprising to see a few of them fighting for more than just making it to Paris in their first try.
It’s rare for a Tour de France debutant to win the yellow jersey in their first try. Riders like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon did it.
Could one of this year’s crop of Tour newbies pull off a stunner? Here’s a look at five Tour rookies who should rock in their Tour debut in 2020:
Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), 21
If anyone could pull off a GC miracle this year, many believe it’s spindly Slovenian all-rounder Tadej Pogačar.
A winner of the Tour de l’Avenir in 2018, Pogačar was impressive out of the gates in his sophomore 2020 season, rolling off wins at the Volta a Valenciana and UAE Tour before coronavirus put the brakes on racing.
Since coming back, he won the Slovenian TT title and followed the wheels at the Critérium du Dauphiné to finish fourth. Last year, Pogačar charged onto the final podium at the Vuelta a España in his grand tour debut, with three stage wins and third overall. With this year’s Tour looking eerily like the Spanish grand tour, insiders believe Pogačar shouldn’t be counted out for the podium in Paris.
His role on the Tour: Fabio Aru starts as team captain, but Pogaçar will have freedom to move. The team is targeting a top-10 and a stage win and brings a mixed squad, so they’re not all-in on GC. Management isn’t trying to put too much pressure on their young charge, but their biggest challenge is often trying to hold him back.
What needs to go his way: The Tour is much harder than the Vuelta, but having a series of health protocols in place for this year’s edition, with team areas and finish zones closed off to media, could help many of the rookies this year ease into the pressure-cooker that is the Tour. Much like the Vuelta last year, there will be several chances for Pogaçar to roam. The pace could be a shock for Pogaçar, and there are questions about his durability over three weeks in a race as hard as the Tour.
Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers), 23
With both of his parents being former pros, racing is part of Pavel Sivakov‘s DNA. A complete rider, the 23-year-old has the climbing and TT chops to be a future yellow jersey candidate.
Last year, Sivakov won the Tour of the Alps and Tour de Pologne to confirm his stage-race future. He didn’t finish his grand tour debut in the 2018 Vuelta, and fought to ninth last year at the Giro d’Italia. Insiders say he’s flying right now.
His role on the Tour: The team will be counting on him to be one of the last riders for Egan Bernal in the mountains. On paper, Bernal and Richard Carapaz, another Tour rookie, will have protected status. Sivakov will be saving his legs for the mountains, and the GC is not the priority.
What needs to go his way: An ideal Tour for Sivakov would be to help the team win another Tour, and make it to Paris feeling stronger. The future looks bright for Sivakov, whom many believe could be the best candidate to become Russia’s first Tour winner. Ineos made history with Bernal as Colombia’s first yellow jersey. A solid outing in 2020 could put Sivakov on the right path.
Sergio Higuita (EF Pro Cycling), 23
Pint-sized climber Sergio Higuita started 2020 with a bang, winning the Colombia Tour 2.1, and finishing third overall at Paris-Nice. A crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné took a bit of wind out of his sails, but he is expected to be a key player in EF Pro Cycling’s potentially disruptive team.
A stage-winner in his grand tour debut last year at the Vuelta a España, Higuita could be the firecracker that blows up the race in the mountains.
His role on the Tour: Compatriots Rigoberto Urán and Dani Martínez, hot off his win at Critérium du Dauphiné, will be the team’s protected GC leaders. Higuita will be trying to survive the first half of the Tour, and hit the mountains with something in his legs. He will flank his captains, and maybe move if the opportunity presents itself.
What needs to go his way: Higuita needs to avoid crashing and survive the higher pace and intensity of the Tour. He won’t be under pressure to be in every split, especially in the flats, so sport directors will be telling him not to stress if he loses time. In fact, losing time would give him rope to move on select days.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), 25
Durango product Sepp Kuss just keeps getting better by the race. After a bit of a rough start in 2018 WorldTour rookie season, Kuss has gone from one impressive performance to another. A stage win in last year’s Vuelta was a just prize for his hard work and dedication to the team.
This Tour will be Kuss’s fourth grand tour start, and simply earning a spot on Jumbo-Visma’s powerful machine reveals how much confidence the team has in his climbing prowess.
His role on the Tour: Jumbo-Visma is intent on winning the Tour, and Kuss has made it loud and clear he has no personal ambitions in this Tour. It’s all-in to help Primož Roglič and Tom Dumoulin. The absence of Steven Kruijswijk due to injury makes that job less complicated for everyone inside the Jumbo-Visma bus. Kuss will be one of the final riders shepherding his captains on the highest mountains, so he will be peeling off after his work his done to keep the tank full.
What needs to go his way: Things could change for Kuss if somehow Roglič or Dumoulin are clearly in the yellow jersey, or if both of them are out of the race. Last year, Kuss’s stage win at the Vuelta came after he was sent up the road to cover moves, and he found himself in a large group without having to have any responsibility to work. A stage win might be on the cards, because he certainly has the legs to do it, but only if the team gives him the green light.
Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), 27
Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz was a final-hour replacement after management decided to leave Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home.
Carapaz has the legs to go far, and following his dramatic 2019 victory at the Giro d’Italia, will be among a handful of grand tour winners lining up in Nice. He’s been solid since returning to Europe, with sixth at Vuelta a Burgos, and a stage win and leader’s jersey before crashing out at the Tour de Pologne.
His role on the Tour: Carapaz will be a protected GC captain alongside defending champion Egan Bernal. The mighty force of the team will be wrapping around the two South American climbers to protect them until the Pyrénées and Alps. Carapaz and Bernal will be walking a fine line throughout the 2020 Tour. The hardest, most decisive stages might come at the end, but with the threat of the coronavirus looming with possible stage cancelations or disruption of the race, teams will be moving at every opportunity just in case the race is altered. Expect to see Carapaz or Bernal very close to yellow, if not already in it, by the time the Tour rolls out of the Pyrénées.
What needs to go his way: On paper, Bernal is the first-in-line leader. Ineos might use that assumption to their advantage, and let Carapaz fly early in a similar tactic to what won him pink last May. Everyone will be marking Bernal, so that could open up some space for Carapaz to counter-attack to disrupt their rivals. Carapaz will be loyal to whatever the team strategy is, but it’s very likely he will be front and center of Ineos’s coming storm.