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Tour de France

Tour de France: Van der Poel, van Aert, Alaphilippe lead race for first yellow jersey

Julian Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel will face-off in Tour's grippy opening stage — unless Tadej Pogačar spoils the party.

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Brittany will take on a Belgian flavor this weekend.

Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, and Wout van Aert are set to resume the three-way face-off that lit up the spring in the opening stage of the Tour de France.

Packing nearly 4,000m of elevation gain into a stage set on tight narrow roads littered with hills and battered with wind, Saturday’s race through northwestern France has all the hallmarks of a Breton classic. With the Tour’s first yellow jersey up for grabs, spring racing’s three brightest stars have designs on a prize that carries all the kudos of a victory in the most prestigious of one-day races.

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Alaphilippe already has 17 yellow jerseys in his wardrobe and has strong odds of adding to his collection Saturday. The Frenchman this week scouted both stage 1 to Landerneau and the equally tough stage 2 to Mûr de Bretagne. He liked what he saw, and knows who he will have to beat in stage 1’s hilltop finish.

“I’ve just reconned the first stage, and it’s a really nice finale – harder than I had imagined,” he said this week.

“It will suit Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, too, even though it’s a very hard finale because you never know what to expect with riders like them.”

Tour de France 2021 stage 1
Stage 1 packs almost 4,000m ascent into what could be one of the toughest opening days the Tour has seen in years.

Alaphilippe heads into the Tour hot off a typically raucous ride through the Tour de Suisse this month and is a half wheel ahead in the pecking order for the first yellow of the Tour.

The French nation expects a lot from their charismatic rider, and so will Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who has openly acknowledged that the opening stages of his race have been designed with “Loulou” in mind.

There are small question marks over van Aert and van der Poel’s form, however.

Van der Poel scored on two tough hilly days in Switzerland — bettering Alaphilippe both times — but then abandoned the race early with illness and flamed out in the Dutch nationals.

Van Aert has repeatedly insisted he’s behind schedule after an appendectomy in May, yet outsprinted Edward Theuns and Remco Evenepoel at the Belgian nationals last weekend.

The Jumbo-Visma ace has had designs on the Tour’s first yellow jersey since he first saw this year’s parcours. With a morale-boosting win under his belt and the iconic Belgian jersey on his back, van Aert may surprise even himself.

“Let’s just say that my condition is already a bit better than I expected and that is good for me mentally,” van Aert said Thursday. “Of course the yellow is in my head, but I don’t see it as a goal in itself. It is every rider’s dream to wear the yellow.”

For other top contenders for stage 1, look no further than those that have been taking it to “the three tenors” of the hilly classics through recent years. Alejandro Valverde, Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Woods, and David Gaudu could all be there.

Could Tadej Pogačar seize yellow early?

But don’t scrub Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar from the stage 1 equation.

The Tour’s Slovenian supremos both thrive in the Ardennes and have the legs to match Alaphilippe et al on a punchy uphill finish. UAE-Team Emirates director Allan Peiper isn’t ruling out the chance of defending champion Pogačar seizing the yellow jersey at the very first opportunity.

Also read: UAE-Team Emirates: ‘Roglič is main rival’

“It’s a bit of a Liège-Bastogne-Liège finish. …. If it’s been a hard stage, it could be a select group of 40-50 route riders in the finish — Pogačar could have a chance,” Peiper said this week.

“Oh for sure [Pogačar would go for it]. Why not? You’re racing, if you’re there you might as well if you can win. But Alaphilippe is going to be probably the main favorite for that stage I would say.”

After winning in Liège this spring, a day one yellow is within Pogačar’s reach – should he and UAE-Team Emirates wish to take that responsibility.

The teams of Alaphilippe and van der Poel will be relatively unburdened by leading the GC on the opening day of the race. Van der Poel is certainly no classification contender, and Alaphilippe is as freewheeling about his GC chances as ever. Similarly, Jumbo-Visma sees no complications caused by van Aert taking yellow before Roglič makes his own move for the maillot.

For UAE-Team Emirates, defending the yellow jersey early from stage one could be both a blessing and a curse.

The massive bonus of leading the race will be balanced by the pressure to control the action and burn through domestiques before the GC-shaping stages are even in the eyeline — a risky strategy for a squad without the weight of Ineos Grenadiers or Jumbo-Visma.

Nonetheless, Peiper refused to rule out the prospect of a chest-beating raid on yellow.

“Nothing can beat taking yellow jersey on the first day and confirming how good you are and having that confidence,” he said.

Whoever lands into yellow Saturday stands a strong chance of holding it through to stage 5’s time trial. With a reward so rich and the typically raucous Breton fans lining the roadside, this year’s Grand Départ will be a classic — even though it’s not in spring.