A HUNGRY POGACAR VERSUS A DEPLETED JUMBO-VISMA
Tadej Pogačar is not a man used to coming second. This year alone, the UAE Team Emirates rider has won nine races, plus three overall titles, while placing second precisely once — on which occasion (stage four of the Tour of Slovenia) he let his teammate Rafał Majka.
This isn't anything new for the Slovenian, either. Since turning pro in 2019, he’s won a total of 31 races plus another 11 overall stage race titles, yet only placed second nine times, and just once on GC.
All that is to say that he won’t be content with his current second-place ranking on the GC at the Tour de France, and is therefore sure to try everything in his power to dethrone Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) at the top of the classification. We can expect him to risk falling further down the classification in order to try and win a third successive yellow jersey, and therefore look to gain time at every opportunity.
He’ll be aided by a worrying situation at Jumbo-Visma, who will be depleted in number going into the final week. The final stage of the second week saw Primož Roglič fail to start and Steven Kruijswijk fail to finish, ridding Vingegaard of two of his most trusted climbing domestiques ahead of the crucial Pyrenean stages. He’ll still have the ever-reliable Sepp Kuss by his side, plus Wout van Aert and (if unhurt from a stage 15 crash) Tiesj Benoot, but Jumbo-Visma are looking much weaker than this time a week ago.
The summit finishes at Peyragudes at Hautacam on stages 17 and 18 respectively, plus the final time trial to Rocamadour, are the obvious days to try and gain time. But given Jumbo-Visma’s weakness, and Pogačar’s love for attacking, UAE Team Emirates might look to turn the tables on them and launch an ambush similar to the one they themselves received at the hands of the Dutch team last week. Everything could be seen as a chance to gain time, from the category one climbs that precede the two Pyrenean summit finishes, to stage 16’s downhill finish to Foix, to — who knows? — maybe even the flat stage nineteen to Cahors.
All hell could break loose this week, in what is poised to be among the most thrilling finales in recent Tour history.
DO INEOS HAVE ANY TRICKS UP THEIR SLEEVE?
Gone are the days when Ineos Grenadiers would take the yellow jersey early at the Tour de France, then defend it all the way to Paris. For the second successive Tour, they begin the third week playing catch up behind Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, this time with Geraint Thomas in third and Adam Yates in fifth.
Yet recent history suggests that the team might have a trick up their sleeve to potentially make a bid for a shock overall victory.
On three occasions in the past four years, they’ve come from behind to win Grand Tours in the final week. Chris Froome famously produced one of the all-time great comebacks to win the pink jersey at the 2018 Giro; at the 2019 Tour de France, Egan Bernal flew up the rankings from fifth at the final rest day to first overall; and with help from Rohan Dennis, Tao Geoghegan Hart overturned a deficit of 2-57 to win the 2020 Giro.
With Thomas in third at 2-43 and Yates in fifth at 4-06, the team are similarly poised going into the final week of this year’s Tour. And, following the recent abandonments at the Jumbo-Visma camp, they also now look like the strongest team, with the likes of Dylan van Baarle, Jonathan Castroviejo, an improving Dani Martínez and Tom Pidcock (himself as high as ninth overall at 8-49) all capable of putting the other GC teams under pressure in all kinds of terrain.
The team have kept their powder dry so far at the Tour, content to follow wheels and not try any ambitious attacks. But if the recent precedents of final weeks are anything to go by, and their own manta of not settling for second-best, we can be sure that some plan is being cooked up to add yet another intriguing factor to this finely poised race for the yellow jersey.
MULTIPLE RIDERS STILL IN CONTENTION FOR PODIUM
Given the form of Pogačar and Vingegaard so far, and the upcoming time trial awaiting them on stage 20, it certainly appears right now that two they’re likely to seal two of the podium spots But that leaves one more to fill, and the race for it appears wide open, with five riders still within 1-41 of the rider currently in third place, Geraint Thomas.
Of those riders, Thomas will be the most pleased by that aforementioned time trial. Given his superiority against the clock, and the fact that it’s over 40km long, he can expect to gain minutes on the others.
The onus will therefore be on the others to attack if they’re to make it to the podium. Romain Bardet (DSM) has already shown a willingness to do so, attacking on the Col du Granon on stage 11 before Pogačar had even been dropped, and is the kind of rider who always seeks to gain time when he can.
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) also attacked on that same climb, and is in a similar resurgent situation in terms of his career as a whole as the Frenchman. While a whole five years have passed since Bardet made the podium at the Tour, it’s been six years for the Colombian, so it’d be a brilliant comeback for him to climb upon the podium once more.
By contrast, Adam Yates has never made the podium at the Tour, his best finish remaining fourth in 2016 when he was denied by, coincidentally, Bardet and Quintana. He’s been very careful not to lose time so far, but may have to be sacrificed if Ineos are to chase the yellow jersey for Thomas.
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) is the least experienced of the best-place riders, with a Grand Tour best finish of eighth at the 2020 Vuelta a España, so therefore is facing the most important week of his career so far.
Aside from them, Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) catapulted himself into contention by gaining time from breakaways during the second week, though his performances in the Alps indicates he’s likely to fall away again in the Pyrenees; Enric Mas (Movistar) could make a late push having shown signs of improvement recently, though has a big deficit of 7-15 from third-place to overturn; and if Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) can rediscover his pre-Tour form, it’s not inconceivable that could gain the 7-49 he needs to finish third, especially considering his usefulness in the time trial.
FINAL CHANCES FOR THE SPRINTERS
With an enormous lead of 196, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) virtually has the green jersey wrapped up already; especially when you consider that it’s Tadej Pogačar rather than any of the sprinters who trails him in second-place.
That also helps to illustrate how few bunch sprints there have been during the first two weeks of the Tour, and how there hasn’t been a single sprinter who has emerged as the fastest man.
The three sprints so far have produced three different winners — Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) in Nyborg, Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) in Sønderborg, and, just yesterday, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in Carcassonne.
Although the green jersey seems beyond all of them, they still each have the chance to establish themselves as the race’s best pure sprinter. There are two more stages that could / should end in bunch sprints: Friday’s stage to Cahors, although rolling terrain could see the break once again deny the sprinters; and, of course, the Champs Elysees finale, the one that all will want above all.
Given how open the sprints have been, it could be that a different rider triumphs, such as Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Danny van Poppel (Bora-Hansgrohe) or Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), while Wout van Aert is of course always a threat, having already placed second in three of the bunch sprints.
With these two stages to come, there will be an incentive for all of the sprinters to survive the grim Pyrenean stages that await them first.
STAGE WINS AND KING OF THE MOUNTAINS UP FOR GRABS
Unusually for this deep into a Grand Tour, a clear front-runner still hasn’t emerged for the King of the Mountains classification. Simon Geschke (Cofidis) still leads with 46 points, and behind him are multiple other riders not far adrift.
The opportunity is therefore there for any top climbers far enough down on GC to get into some breakaways during the Pyrenees and hoover up a haul of points, with two category one climbs on the menu on Tuesday, another three the following day, then one category one and two hors category climbs on Thursday, the Col d'Aubisque and Hautacam.
With over 35 points already in the bag, Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost), Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Pierre Latour (TotalEnergies), especially considering the latter two’s history of chasing King of the Mountain points. And further down the classification, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) may target the polka-dot jersey while also going for stages, while his stage win suggests that Bob Jungels (Ag2r Citroën) is climbing well to challenge for it.
As well as King of the Mountains points, the Pyrenean stages will also see a huge battle for stage wins, as teams still without anything from this Tour throw the kitchen sink before it’s too late. This is a familiar situation for the likes of Cofidis, TotalEnergies and B&B Hotels, but Bora-Hansgrohe and Bahrain-Victorious are used to much more success, so look out for Lennard Kämna and Patrick Konrad for the former and Luis León Sánchez and Damiano Caruso for the latter to do everything they can to put that right this week.
Other teams like DSM, Groupama-FDJ and Movistar might be prioritising high GC placings during the final week, but their respective climbers Andreas Leknessund, Michael Storer and Carlos Verona might be given some freedom to get into the breaks.
With Astana Qazaqstan, Lotto-Soudal, Arkéa Samsic and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux all also without wins, the racing could get even more hectic than it’s already been this week.
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