The 2021 Tour de France is just a few days away, with riders and teams already descending on Brest for the Grand Départ.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) heads into the race as the main favourite after his jaw-dropping smash-and-grab victory in last year's edition but, while the parcours suits him and he has beefed up his team's climbing contingent over the winter, he is certainly not the only rider targeting the general classification and a shot at the yellow jersey.
Who better to rank the overall contenders than 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck? The former Saxo Bank rider is at the Tour de France once more, working for Skoda, but he took time out from his busy schedule to rank his main contenders for the GC, and provide some excellent insight and analysis as to why they might succeed.
Schleck had a hard time narrowing down his selection from Ineos Grenadiers - his initial list could have had four riders from the British team - while he's gone a bit nostalgic with picks such as Nairo Quintana and his ex-teammate Jakob Fuglsang.
Still, it's Andy Schleck, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Grand Tours and, last time we checked, he's won the Tour and we (you included) haven't.
★★★★★ – Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
Often, when a defending champion heads back to the Tour de France, he lines up as the race favourite and I see that trend continuing in 2021. It's still going to be a really complicated first week for all of the overall contenders and one or two of the riders on this list will lose the race in the first few days because of crashes, bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the race splits.
Some of the stages in the first week could see riders lose several minutes and then on stages like the one to Mûr-de-Bretagne, the roads are always a little bit rougher than in other areas of France.
That said, Pogačar is the main favourite in my eyes. Last year he lost some time early in the race but you could see that he was the only guy attacking Roglič, and while the final time trial was a surprise, it wasn’t as if the result came out of nowhere.
I think he can handle the pressure but the big question everyone has raised is over his team, and whether UAE Team Emirates are strong enough. I believe that they’re ready and they’ve recruited well in the winter, and they’ve chosen wisely not to bring a sprinter. We saw in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège that they have real depth.
★★★★★ – Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)
This is a bit more complicated because last year, despite his crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné, we saw just how strong he was in the build-up to the Tour de France. I still think that he'll be up there and in contention for the yellow jersey, but we've also learned his limits.
We have seen that he can reach a certain point, and it’s a very high point, but there’s often a day where he can lose the race through either a crash or just a really bad day. He's lost a few races like this, and the Tour de France is the hardest and the longest race of all, so he needs to be at 100 per cent. I don’t put him as the single big favourite this year, and Pogačar is just ahead.
There are certainly some positives for Roglič, and aspects that should favour him, such as the long time trials. However, I feel that some of the mountain stages, such as the one to Mont Ventoux really favour the man from UAE Team Emirates. Once Roglič loses time – 10 or 15 seconds on a climb, for example – the gap can quickly go out.
I still think that, despite a few question marks in the last few months, the Jumbo-Visma team will be one of the strongest in the race. They have an incredible line-up and the level of riders in the squad is so high. They seem to have a great spirit and they’re dedicated to sacrificing everything for their leader. That makes a big difference. It’s not just Roglič who wants revenge for last year, but the entire team.
★★★★☆ – Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers)
I believe in Geraint Thomas this year – both in terms of his climbing and his time trial ability. He was incredibly strong in 2018 when he won the race and even when he finished second to Egan Bernal in 2019 he wasn’t far off his best form, which was incredible given the tough build-up he had.
The reason why I believe in him this year is because when I hear him speak and give interviews, I just get the sense that his hunger has really returned and that he’s desperate to win the Tour de France one more time.
He looks completely dedicated and he’s one of the most complete riders out there. I think that when he’s on song he can go with the best in the mountains and make the difference in the mountains but his main advantage this year comes from the fact that he’s got the strongest team in the race. With Richard Carapaz, Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart, they have incredible depth. The team isn’t telling us who their leader is but for me Thomas is the best candidate.
We’ll get to Carapaz, and this list could have been very Ineos-heavy, but for me Porte isn’t quite at the level needed for three weeks. He’s a very good rider, but when he was third last year it was a bit of distant third.
★★★★☆ – Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers)
He has won the Giro d'Italia, he won the Tour de Suisse, and last year he was very close to beating Roglič in the Vuelta. I like the way that he races and he's a very clever rider who mixes his climbing ability with a very good tactical mind.
Sometimes that can make all the difference over three weeks because a Tour de France is all about managing your efforts, and of course surviving on the days that you don't feel super.
I think that Carapaz deserves a protected role at Ineos for the Tour and to me he’s maybe the best Ineos rider when it comes to matching riders like Pogačar and Roglič in the mountains. I think he can work well with Thomas, so I don’t see there being any issues or fighting.
★★★★☆ – Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
He recently had a child and that's usually motivation for a rider, but I don't think a rider such as Alaphilippe has ever struggled with finding motivation or drive. He wants to win every race he enters. Whether it's a time trial or criterium, he always wants to be in the thick of the action.
Everything he does is at 100 per cent and at the Tour Suisse he showed that his time trialling is back on a very high level. You can almost compare him to a rider like Thomas Voeckler from about a decade ago but he's simply twice as good, no offence to Thomas. Whenever I turn on the television and see Alaphilippe in a race kicking around I know that he's always going to be a threat. You have to watch out for him.
The route also really suits him as well, with just three summit finishes, and his character always shines through. I’m convinced that if you put him on a mountain bike he could win a World Cup within two weeks, and if you give him a cyclo-cross bike for the winter he'd start winning races there too.
★★★★☆ – Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo)
He doesn't get a lot of attention and he never seems to make a big fuss, but Urán always seems to be able to hit top form just at the right time. He's so experienced in that way. He's had some bad luck over the years but his consistency at being in the top-ten is very impressive, so he has to be on my list.
There aren't many huge attacks from him, but he's always in that lead group and setting his own tempo on the climbs. He's just indestructible, like a tank. At the Tour de Suisse he really caught the eye with his time trial win and second place overall, and if he can keep out of trouble in that first week the race could really open up for him.
★★★☆☆ – David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ)
To win the Tour de France you need a team, and I just don’t believe that Gaudu has a strong enough squad to support him over three weeks. I just don’t see him on the same level as the very top guys because of this but I do see him wining a stage and being in the top 10 because of the way he rides.
He's always pushing, always going full gas, but the third week is going to be tough for him this year. He's one of the riders that I think could also come into trouble in the first week with the crosswinds. I do think that in the coming years he will get better but his team don't have the same number of V8 engines that Jumbo-Visma or Ineos have.
He's an excellent climber but even if you're climbing like a mountain goat it can be a very difficult three weeks. Unlike Jumbo-Visma and Ineos, the Groupama-FDJ team are split between GC and having a sprint train and it's not always as simple as telling a rider like Gaudu to just hold onto the train in the finales.
★★★☆☆ – Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech)
He admitted to me a few weeks ago that it's getting harder to train, lose weight and reach peak condition but he's looked good in the last few races. I know that Astana have said that they're targeting stages rather than the GC in the Tour de France, but Fuglsang was third overall in the Tour de Suisse and almost won a key mountain stage – so he’s clearly riding very well. He had a disappointing time trial on the first day, when he was 58th, and that really cost him the chance of going for the overall win, but I would have him on my list.
I like him, I admire him, and he's always there and in the mix, so if he can come through the first week unscathed and still in contention then I think that he could surprise quite a few people. The fact that he's admitted that things aren’t getting easier with age also suggests to me that he’s heading into the Tour de France without too much pressure because he’s relaxed in himself.
That sort of attitude gives a rider a new sense or feeling because they can say to themselves 'okay I’m not the young one anymore but I can go into the race and do my best'. I look at what Damiano Caruso did at the Giro, and I think Jakob could be a rider for the top 10 again.
★★☆☆☆ – Enric Mas (Movistar)
He was good in the Critérium du Dauphiné but wasn't super either. I thought that he was building up and getting better and that might be a good sign because you obviously don't want to show too much a few weeks before the Tour de France has even begun.
Sometimes Movistar have great tactics, but they always seem to have a hard time figuring out who they should work for. By the time they figure it out it’s often too late because I’ve seen them have three guys in the last 10 riders just a few kilometers from the summit and they don’t pull for each other. If they go with one goal, and one commitment then I’m convinced that they can have a rider up there.
★★☆☆☆ – Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic)
I’m not talking about the podium anymore - the guys listed above should take those places - but Quintana is still a rider who I think can finish in the top-10 in a Grand Tour. He looks happy where he is, and I think we’ll get the best out of him this time. I feel like he’s relaxed now that he's out of Movistar.
He's on my list partly out of sympathy, because I just hope he can do something special. He a very nice guy and very humble. Again, that first week could be a problem but who knows, maybe he can surprise us because he was up there in the crosswinds last year.
★★★★★ Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)
★★★★☆ Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo)
★★★☆☆ David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech)
★★☆☆☆ Enric Mas (Movistar), Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic)
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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