With just over a week until the 2023 Tour de France, teams are beginning to release their teams for the biggest race of the year. With 176 riders lining up in Bilbao next Saturday, however, it could be difficult to pick out the riders who you should be concentrating on.
So, to that end, here's Cycling Weekly's guide to those names you should have circled on the start list. Obviously, this can't be an exhaustive list, so there will be riders who win stages who we aren't even considering right now: remember Yves Lampaert in Copenhagen or Hugo Houle in Foix last year?
We have separated out this list into four separate categories - the big two; the pretenders to the throne; the stage hunters; and the sprinters. All will have their chance over an exciting route, with lots of climbing, but also a few bunch finish stages thrown in too.
The big two
In the five Tours de France they have collectively raced, neither Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) or Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) have finished outside the top two. There are not a lot of safe bets in cycling, what with the constant threat of misfortune, but it will be a huge shock if these two are not at the top of the general classification come the end of the race.
They come into the Tour in different states. Vingegaard, the defending champion, has had a largely smooth buildup to the big goal of his season. His Jumbo team has only deployed him where necessarily, meaning he has only taken part in four stage races all season, and he has won three of them. The margin of victory he managed at the Critérium du Dauphiné this month was a statement of intent, and showed that he is in seriously good form ahead of his attempt to retain the yellow jersey.
Pogačar will come into his fourth Tour a bit undercooked, without the racing in his legs that he would have wished; the 24-year-old crashed out of Liège-Bastogne-Liège back in April, breaking his wrist, and he will only compete in the Slovenian National Championships ahead of the French Grand Tour.
However, he has won 12 races this season, and remains the best, most electric bike rider in the world. He has won three stages in each of his first three Tours, and does not look like slowing. It will take a seriously good performance from Vingegaard to beat Pogačar, and vice versa. Expect a titanic battle.
It is also hard to see weaknesses in either team, with Jumbo-Visma able to field a team almost wholly in support of Vingegaard, although missing Steven Kruijswijk is a blow. UAE has strengthened again, with Adam Yates perhaps the missing piece for Pogačar's attempt at yellow
The pretenders to the throne
With what is expected of both Pogačar and Vingegaard, is it almost impossible to look past them as favourites for the top of general classification. However, bad luck does strike in cycling, so it is well worth going through those pretenders to the throne, those who are waiting to step in should a void open. If not, these riders will likely battle it out for the third step on the podium.
First, there are the Australians, Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën) and Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), both of whom impressed at the recent Dauphiné. O'Connor finished third overall - although this was 2-56 back on Vingegaard - with Hindley a further 20 seconds back.
This will be Hindley's first attempt at the Tour, so it will be fascinating to see how the 2022 Giro d'Italia winner shapes up in the pressure cooker environment of the French Grand Tour, while O'Connor finished a creditable but distant fourth behind Pogačar in 2021. How they hang onto the big two in the high mountains will be the big game.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) takes on the mantle as the great French GC hope, but after a promising start to 2023 - including second at Paris-Nice - the Breton rider has drifted a little, with a disappointing Dauphiné hardly the best run into the Tour. However, he has improved his Tour result every year, and definitely has the capability to finish third overall.
The Tour de Suisse was muted due to the tragic death of Gino Mäder, but Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) emerged with his reputation burnished. The 22-year-old bested Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) over the week, and this might well be his breakthrough race.
Ineos Grenadiers, once dominant at the Tour, will have a mixed approach to this year's race, with Carlos Rodriguez probably the team's best bet to finish high up on GC. The promising Spaniard has had a stop-start 2023, largely thanks to injury, but impressed at last year's Vuelta a España and so might be able to turn in a similar top ten finish in July.
The stage hunters
It very much is not just all about the general classification at a 21-stage race like the Tour de France, and there will be many riders who are dreaming of winning on the opening stage and pulling on the yellow jersey, or springing a surprise and winning from a solo move or the breakaway deeper in to the race.
Two of the biggest names on the start list - away from Pogačar and Vinegaard, of course - are Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck). The two are the best Classics riders in the world, the two best cyclo-crossers in the world, and will surely battle on the roads of Spain and France for stage wins.
Van der Poel has had the better 2023, with two Monument wins, but Van Aert always turns up at the Tour de France, where he has won three stages in both of the last two editions. He might be a little hampered by the amount of work he is expected to do for his team leader Vingegaard, but he will always get an opportunity, whether that's in a sprint, an uphill finish or a time trial. Van der Poel has won just one stage at the Tour, in 2021, but has focused his whole season around this year's race, so will hope to start with a bang.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) might not have the palmarès of the former two, but is just as exciting a rider. Any kind of uphill finish suits him, and as he showed at Alpe d'Huez last year, he is ready to perform on the biggest stage. It will be interesting to see how Ineos deploys him.
The two old French stagers of Romain Bardet (DSM) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) might never have quite succeeded in winning Grand Tours, but they are still more than capable of winning stages. The former will likely be a fixture on GC too, but the Pûy de Dome stage has his name all over it, while Pinot will want to go out with a bang in his final time at the Tour.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) fits into an interesting category - like Van Aert - where he can sprint, and win, but is also effective on punchy finishes. He left the Giro after stage 13 due to sickness, giving him plenty of time to get ready for the Tour, and will likely to be a threat on all kinds of stages. The man he beat into Saint-Etienne last year, Fred Wright (Bahrain-Victorious) will also return, aiming to finally break his duck in professional racing after such a promising Tour and Vuelta in 2022.
It will be interesting to see whether EF Education-EasyPost aim for GC or stage wins; it is more likely to be the latter, and Neilson Powless and Richard Carapaz will loom large in their squad's attempts to win. Powless impressed a lot, earlier in 2023, and will hope to reclaim some of that form, while it will be interesting to see Carapaz free from the need to maintain his GC position, and just attack.
Finally, there are the fast men, those riders who will want to take any opportunity they can at bunch finishes, one of which could come as early as stage three to Bayonne.
All eyes will be on Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) throughout the race, as the 38-year-old attempts to win a record 35th Tour de France stage. All he needs is one chance, and as we saw at the Giro d'Italia, he still has the ability to finish it off.
The most likely bet to take multiple stage wins is Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), because he was the only sprinter to do so at last year's Tour, and has looked solid, if not spectacular, so far in 2023.
Challenging him will be Low Countries rivals Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco AlUla) and Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal Quick-Step), both of whom won a single stage each in 2022. The latter recently beat Philipsen twice at the Belgium Tour, but had had a mixed season up to that point. Never condemn the Quick-Step leadout train, though.
At the opposite end of his Tour career is Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), who will be making his debut at the French race in Bilbao. The Eritrean is one of the most exciting talents in the world, and is a bit more than just a pure bunch sprinter, but the way he won a stage at the Tour de Suisse in June showed his pure speed.
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