The 2021 Tour de France kicks off on Saturday and, while much of the discussion ahead of the race has centred on the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and the other GC contenders, there will be plenty more going on beyond the battle for yellow over the next three weeks.
A major storyline set to begin early on, and run through the race, is the competition for sprint supremacy and the green points jersey. A possible eight flat sprint stages are scattered throughout the three weeks, with the first coming on stage 3 and the finale coming on the Champs-Élysées on July 18.
There's an inordinate number of chances for the fast men to fight for victory this year and consequently a long list of potential stage winners – even considering the absence of big names such as Sam Bennett, Pascal Ackermann, Elia Viviani, and Giacomo Nizzolo.
Here, we take a look at all the major names set to do battle in the sprint stages in France, from Chateauroux to Carcassonne and Pontivy to Paris.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal)
- Age: 26
- Tours raced: 2
- Palmarès: 51 wins. 11 Grand Tour stages, including five at the Tour
The Australian kicks off his second Grand Tour of the 2021 season with stage wins already under his belt from the Giro d'Italia and his eye on more at this year's Tour and Vuelta a España. Ewan is hoping to become only the fourth rider to achieve that triple, following Miguel Poblet (eight wins in 1956), Pierino Baffi (six wins in 1958), and Alessandro Petacchi (15 wins in 2003).
He's off to a good start after winning two of the eight stages he started in Italy before a knee injury forced him out of the race, much to the chagrin of Eddy 'not like in my day' Merckx. He has three other wins to his name in 2021, too, including a stage of the UAE Tour and two at the recent Baloise Belgium Tour.
In short, Ewan is still among the very top tier of sprinters in the peloton, and arguably the best. The other man with a major claim to that title, Sam Bennett, won't be taking part due to a knee injury of his own. Meanwhile, Pascal Ackermann was left out of Bora-Hansgrohe's squad.
That all leaves the path not exactly clear, but certainly clearer than it would otherwise have been, for Ewan to stamp his authority on the Tour. There are eight flat sprint stages at the race, including six in the first two weeks, and a tough opener in Brittany on Saturday which should only suit the most versatile of sprinters.
It's likely that Ewan will be at his best on the flatter stages later on. A shot at green could even be on the cards, though lead-out man Roger Kluge recently said that it's all about the wins.
Last year he had some troubles with his new lead-out train, but things are more dialled-in now, and, even if things don't run smoothly, Ewan can win improvising alone, as we saw at the Giro. He is outright team leader in France and has Brent Van Moer, Jasper De Buyst, and Kluge racing with him, so it would be a shock if Ewan doesn't add to his five Tour stage victories over the next three weeks.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
- Age: 29
- Tours raced: 4
- Palmarès: 83 wins. Milan-San Remo, two Tour stages, five Giro stages and the points jersey
Former French champion Démare has racked up the wins in the past two seasons, taking a career-high 14 victories in 2020 and adding eight so far this season. Sure, he's padded his palmarès a little at smaller races such as the Tour Poitou-Charentes and Boucles de la Mayenne, but the 29-year-old looks to be in his sprinting prime.
Among those 22 wins since last August are nestled four stages of last year's Giro d'Italia. Démare beat Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria at last October's race, taking the maglia ciclamino in the process.
He'll face off against the first two of those men at the Tour as he looks to add to his two stage victories in the race, taken back in 2017 and 2018. Démare certainly has the speed, and he has a strong lead-out train, too, with Ignatas Konovalovas, Stefan Küng, Miles Scotson and Jacopo Guarnieri all set to work on his behalf.
After capturing the points jersey at the Giro, he'll be keen to try for green here, too. He has the speed, the experience and the team to do it, and we'll soon get an idea whether it's possible.
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious)
- Age: 31
- Tours raced: 4
- Palmarès: 29 wins, plus the recent 2021 Dauphiné points jersey
The newly crowned Italian champion is certainly the form sprinter heading into the Tour and he is part of the form team after some of the stunning displays Bahrain Victorious riders have put in over the past month.
At the Critérium du Dauphiné, Colbrelli finished twice three times and won a stage and the points jersey in a dominant display. He looks to be in the form of his life and only confirmed that with his victory on the hilly National Championships course in Imola, beating climber Fausto Masnada to the line on a day where only one other man finished within two minutes of the leading duo.
He could be a candidate for yellow on Saturday, though the three-kilometre, 5.7 per cent climb to the finish in Landerneau would test even the most versatile of men on this list to the limit. On the flip side, though, the Tour's sprint stages look to be largely devoid of any hilly difficulties in the finals.
For a rider who thrives on tougher stages as opposed to pan-flat pure sprint shootouts, that could be a problem for Colbrelli. To illustrate, his best results at the Tour – a pair of second places in 2018 – came on hillier finishes won by Peter Sagan, and he's more frequently seen in fourth or fifth place on the flat finishes.
The question, then, is whether Colbrelli's uptick in form can bring him to the speeds of Ewan or Démare. If he can win on the flat stages, and if he takes an interest in the intermediate sprints, he will be a real candidate for what would be his third points classification win in a row after Romandie and the Dauphiné.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
- Age: 31
- Tours raced: 9
- Palmarès: 118 wins. 18 Grand Tour stages, including 12 at the Tour and seven green jerseys
The Slovakian, who will be back in his national jersey at this year's race after winning the title by over three minutes last week, is the king of the green jersey. He has seven under his belt and he's joint-16th on the Tour stage wins list with 12.
It's hard to doubt Sagan when it comes to Tour de France sprinting, though some have crept in over the past couple of years. From eight wins in 2018 – including three at the Tour – he slumped to four in 2019 and just one last year – that famous Giro breakaway win.
He's having a better year so far in 2021, with three wins to his name, though the sprint fields he beat in Catalunya, Romandie and the Giro weren't as tough as this Tour line-up.
Still, despite Sagan having lost some top-end speed, he can be relied upon to battle it out in the intermediate sprints and fight through to the end of a Grand Tour, while also nipping away in a break or two to collect points while other sprinters languish in the autobus.
At the Giro he took a stage win and finished in Milan with the points jersey. A repeat of that in France would indeed be a very good three weeks' work for Sagan.
Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Age: 28
- Tours raced: 0
- Palmarès: 15 wins. Six this year including a Giro stage
28-year-old Merlier began his debut Grand Tour, this year's Giro d'Italia, with a bang, sprinting to victory on the first road stage in Novara. The win, ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo and Elia Viviani, has so far been the crowning glory on an impressive opening half of the season.
Along with the Giro win, he has four others on his palmarès, all at Belgian semi-classics, including Le Samyn and the Ronde van Limburg. The cyclo-crosser has been making steps each year recently as his road programme has ramped up and a stage win at the Tour would certainly represent another shift up.
Merlier also has two other fast men on his team at their debut Tour in the shape of new signing Jasper Philipsen and a certain Mathieu van der Poel. Philipsen took out Scheldeprijs, plus two stages and the points jersey at the Tour of Turkey, while we all know what Van der Poel is capable of.
In truth, it wouldn't be a surprise to see any of the trio take a win at the Tour, with Van der Poel aiming for yellow on the uphill finish in Landerneau on Saturday as well as being a plausible green jersey challenger. His Olympic priorities, however, might put an end to that.
If the team can manage the chances for Merlier and Philipsen and come away with a win – in addition to whatever Van der Poel comes up with – the race will be a success.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
- Age: 26
- Tours raced: 2
- Palmarès: 22 wins. Milan-San Remo, three Tour stages
After recovering from a bout of appendicitis and subsequent appendectomy back in May, Van Aert has been publicly playing down his chances of success at the Tour.
At the end of May he said going for yellow in the first week wasn't a realistic goal anymore, but sounded a more upbeat tone after outsprinting Edward Theuns to win the Belgian road race title last week, in what was his first race since April.
He said that it was his best sprint of the year in terms of numbers and the goal of yellow, or a stage win, or both, is back on. He will, once again, be at the beck and call of team leader Primož Roglič in the GC-facing stages, though, meaning a tilt at green looks out of the question.
Teammate Mike Teunissen did what Van Aert is aiming for – an opening stage win – in Brussels two years ago. Since then, he's endured a tough two seasons thanks to training camp crashes but finished fourth at the Dutch National Championships and provides another sprint option for the GC-focussed team, which is a rarity in such a squad in modern cycling.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
- Age: 30
- Tours raced: 5
- Palmarès: 37 wins. Eight Grand Tour stages, including three at the Tour and a green jersey
Matthews is looking for his first win since rejoining BikeExchange this season, but he's a big-race rider and never ends a season without a WorldTour result on his victory list.
Of Matthews' past 28 wins, 24 of them have come at WorldTour-level races, with eight of those coming from the three Grand Tours. However, he hasn't won a Grand Tour stage since the 2017 Tour de France, where he went on to win the green jersey, becoming one of only two men to break Sagan's stranglehold in recent history.
In the past month, the Australian has finished sixth at the GP Kantons Aargau and taken fourth on stage 3 at the Tour de Suisse. They're decent results, but nothing to suggest he's likely to dominate the sprints in France.
As more of a versatile fast man, who enjoys hillier stages and tough conditions, Matthews is another who might not be overjoyed at how flat so many of the sprints look at this year's Tour. Still, he's a quality rider and always grabs a big win somewhere during the year. Why not here?
Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Age: 36
- Tours raced: 12
- Palmarès: 151 wins. Milan-San Remo, 48 Grand Tour stages including 30 at the Tour and points jerseys at all three
The 30-time Tour stage winner will on Saturday complete an unexpected return to the Tour, three years since his last appearance at Le Grand Boucle. Sure, it took a knee injury for reigning green jersey Sam Bennett for Cavendish to get a spot in the Belgian squad, but he is here on merit and would be an outright sprint leader were he on several of the other teams at the Tour.
After enduring a tough couple of years to end his stint at Dimension Data, including the spectre of retirement raising its head last October, he has bounced back in some style in 2021.
Cavendish has taken five wins, including four at the Tour of Turkey. Earlier this month he beat Merlier, Ackermann and Ewan at the Baloise Belgium Tour, while he also has a podium at Scheldeprijs to his name. It's already his best season since 2016, where he took the most recent quartet of his Tour stage haul.
Another four would see him equal Eddy Merckx's Tour stage wins record, though of course nobody is expecting that. Backed up by the best lead-out train in the world – Tim Declercq, Kasper Asgreen, Davide Ballerini, and Michael Mørkøv – he has a real chance of adding to his 30 wins and he'll certainly be the most closely monitored sprinter at the race.
Best of the rest
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo): More of a Classics man than a pure sprinter, but he took two second places last year. One to watch, while teammate Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns are also fast finishers.
Cees Bol (Team DSM): A stage runner-up last year and Paris-Nice stage winner in 2021. He has a nice lead-out but isn't quite at the top level of sprinters yet.
Christophe Laporte (Cofidis): No Viviani for the French squad this year, so Laporte takes the reins. Impressed at Paris-Nice and in the Classics but would do extremely well to win a stage.
Danny Van Poppel (Intermarché-Wanty Gobert): He has a Vuelta stage win to his name, but that was six years ago, and a sprint win here would be a big surprise result.
André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation): After a tough few years, Greipel has been back to winning ways in Spain. Can he add to his 11 Tour stage wins at the age of 38 without a full lead-out though?
Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels p/b KTM): Something of a sprint nearly-man, Coquard has five Tour stage podiums to his name, no WorldTour career wins, and hasn't won since 2019. This might be a 'now or never' Tour for him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team TotalEnergies): He has 3 Tour stage wins, dating back to 2017 and 2011, and was second on a sprint stage last year but has been extremely quiet since moving teams. A result here would be a shock, quite frankly.
Dan McLay/Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic): It's unclear who will lead in the sprints, though Bouhanni has historically been faster. The Frenchman could win one on his day, but hasn't looked especially threatening since his ban.
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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