Only one rider gets their name on the trophy, but cycling is very much a team game.
Just about anything can happen across three weeks of racing and, as the Giro d’Italia showed in May, having a strong support squad to call upon is vital.
With a little over two weeks until the peloton sets off from Brittany, just how are this year’s key Tour de France squads shaping up, which is the strongest, and who needs a bit more time?
Ineos Grenadiers is just about the strongest line-up out there ahead of the Tour de France with three grand tour winners in their midst and a whole host of options for overall success. In fact, 50 percent of their Tour squad head into the race with a realistic shot of making the podium.
The team flexed its collective muscles at the Critérium du Dauphiné last week, a proven testing ground for the team. Richie Porte, who finished third in last year’s Tour, looked to be as good as ever as he rode to his first title at the weeklong French race.
Geraint Thomas came in 29 seconds behind Porte — despite getting it all wrong in the time trial — to finish in third place. His canny victory on stage 5 showed that his racing instinct is there, just as much as his form.
Thomas is the only former Tour winner in the line-up with Egan Bernal choosing to skip the race in favor of the Vuelta a España later this year — not that could anyway after his recent COVID-19 diagnosis.
Last year’s Giro d’Italia champion Tao Geoghegan Hart also looked in fine fettle at the Dauphiné. Riding home into 10th overall and coming close to a stage victory, only to be passed by Alejandro Valverde.
Over in Switzerland, Richard Carapaz — the 2019 Giro d’Italia champion — looks to be ramping up to full form. The early Tour de Suisse stages have not been too taxing, and the real test of form will come later, but the early signs are positive.
The final line-up is yet to be decided, but there should also be some very strong support from the likes of Rohan Dennis, Luke Rowe, and Michal Kwiatkowski.
With so many potential prospects, the biggest challenge for Ineos Grenadiers will be to manage the expectations of each rider so that the team doesn’t become its own biggest enemy.
"To win this race just means so so much to me. For all the sacrifices and the time away from my wife and two kids – this makes it worth it."
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) June 6, 2021
Expectations will be high for UAE-Team Emirates as it aims to defend Tadej Pogačar’s surprise 2020 Tour de France title.
Pogačar went into last year’s race sharing the leadership with Fabio Aru and with the intention of building on his Vuelta a España podium from the year before. Few could have imagined just how far he would have been able to take it.
Indeed, heading into the time trial on the penultimate stage, Pogačar looked set to take home a hard-earned second place.
We all know what went down on that fateful day on Planche des Belle Filles, and Pogačar returns to the Tour with the number one pinned to his back. In 2020, the Slovenian rode with a limited support network behind him compared to his rivals.
Over the last months, UAE-Team Emirates has looked to bolster that support in the mountains. Rafał Majka and Marc Hirschi were parachuted in over the winter, while up-and-coming American star Brandon McNulty has had his calendar altered to include the Tour de France.
Pogačar should also have the services of David de la Cruz and Jan Polanc, who rode in support of him in 2020.
Despite the new riders and program changes, the UAE-Team Emirates squad for the Tour de France does not pack the same punch as its closest rivals. Majka and Hirschi have been out of sorts so far this year, though the latter appears to be riding much better at this week’s Tour de Suisse.
McNulty was the linchpin to Pogačar’s ambitions at Itztulia Basque Country in April, which is one of the reasons he has been eyed for his debut Tour.
After a month away from racing, the Critérium du Dauphiné was a chance to test himself and his GC capabilities ahead of the main event later this month. Following a strong start, McNulty floundered in the latter part of the race and ultimately finished well down the pack.
There is still a little time for the team to take a step forward, but UAE-Team Emirates looks to be the weakest of the key GC teams at this year’s Tour de France. With or without a strong team behind him, Pogačar is still a very dangerous competitor, but it might prove easier to isolate him than some of the other contenders.
Jumbo-Visma, with its strength and depth, was the team to beat at last year’s Tour de France. It looked as though it would boss its way to victory in 2020, all the way up until Pogačar spoiled the celebrations.
Wind forward to June 2021 and the team might not be the overall strongest, but it’s not far off. Unlike Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma comes to the race with just one potential winner in Roglič but the support behind him is formidable.
The core of the roster is largely unchanged from 2020 with a few key changes.
Wout van Aert, Robert Gesink, Tony Martin, and Sepp Kuss will all be back for another bite of the yellow cherry this year after backing up Roglič in 2020. One major difference will be the lack of Tom Dumoulin after the Dutchman decided to take a career break in the first half of the year and only returned to racing this week at the Tour de Suisse.
George Bennett is also out of the Tour de France team after opting to go to the Giro d’Italia, while Amund Grøndahl Jansen switched teams over the winter.
In their places, Jumbo-Visma has shuttled in a string of top-end riders to carry the burden of the GC challenge. Steven Kruijswijk steps into the gap left by Bennett while Jonas Vingegaard comes in to fill the hole left by Dumoulin. Meanwhile, Mike Teunissen slots in where Jansen left.
Though Kuss, Kruijswijk, and Vingegaard pedaled away from the Critérium du Dauphiné without a stage victory or a decent GC finish, the trio appeared to be moving steadily in the right direction. These three will be key for Roglič in the high mountains, while Teunissen and Martin will provide some serious firepower on the flatter sections of road.
Also read: Wout van Aert and his summer-shaping setback
Van Aert proved last year that he can give some serious support in the big mountains, and how far he can go into a stage could be a key factor in how many teammates Roglič has left in the latter kilometers on key stages.
How the Belgian will fare remains a mystery after he had to undergo surgery when he developed appendicitis. If he can find even a modicum of what he had in 2020, then he will be a very important player in Roglič’s yellow ambitions.