There's just one more sleep to go until the Tour de France 2022 officially kicks off.
With rider presentations complete, press badges collected, and start lists now cemented, here's what we're looking out for in the opening week...
Van Aert, Van der Poel and Ganna headline star-studded tussle for yellow
While the battle for who will be crowned overall winner in Paris won't intensify until deeper into the race, the subplot involving those wanting to wear it before the GC contenders take over in the mountains is set to be a thrilling one.
Two men featuring on the 2022 Tour de France start list will inevitably be at the forefront of this contest: Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Their rivalry has defined both cyclocross and one-day racing in recent years, and now for the second time will be staged at the Tour de France. The opening week will encourage their insatiable appetite to contest as many stages as possible, as well as plenty of chances to take yellow should they fall short of doing so in the opening time trial.
Van der Poel wore yellow for most of the first week last year, but Van Aert is likely to have the edge in the opening time trial, as he guns for what would be his first ever stint in yellow.
Van Aert’s main rival in the time trial will be Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), who has already beaten him into second at both the previous world time trial championships. The Italian is the favourite, but the likes of Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Easypost) and the in-form Stefan Küng should also be in the mix.
GC favourites Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) are sure to be right up there, but the fact it is completely flat plays more in favour of the specialists — and besides, they may not want the reliability of defending yellow this year.
And then there are a handful of sprinters, including Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Danish home favourite Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), who might be aiming to limit their losses in the time trial so as to have a shot of taking yellow later in the week, via the bonus points on offer on the following bunch sprints.
With hills on stage four of the 2022 Tour de France route, cobbles on stage five and a punchy uphill finish on stage six, there’s plenty of scope for the jersey to change hands during the week.
Who are the Tour de France GC contenders?
Green jersey contest takes shape
Notwithstanding the threat of crosswinds, the flat Danish terrain of the two stages that follow the opening time trial are ideal for the pure sprinters.
Fabio Jakobsen will be out to show why QuickStep-AlphaVinyl selected him over last year’s star sprinter Mark Cavendish, with the fiercest competition likely to come from Caleb Ewan (assuming the Lotto-Soudal rider has fully recovered from the crash that affected him at the Giro), and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), hoping for a first-ever Tour stage win after placing twice three times last year.
And in the absence of Sam Bennett, who was once again snubbed for selection by Bora-Hansgrohe, the best outsider bets look to be Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Giro stage winner Alberto Dainese (DSM).
As well as the stage wins on offer, this week will be crucial in the contest for the Tour de France green jersey
It’s the sprinters who can stay in contention on the hills of stage four and the cobbles of stage five, as well as the punchy uphill finishes of stage six and eight, that will emerge as the contenders.
The unparalleled sensation Wout van Aert is the comfortable favourite, having stated his intention of targeting the jersey for the first time in his career, but there are other all-rounders who can rival him.
Of the pure sprinters, Ewan will be one to watch if he targets it, while Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) is an all-rounder who could be up there if he targets high finishes in the pure bunch sprints.
Runner-up last year and winner in 2017, Michael Matthews has all the attributes to win points in all terrain this week, but will he be able to get any points in the flat bunch sprints if Groenewegen is BikeExchange-Jayco’s designated rider for those stages? And following his comeback stage win at the Tour de Suisse, could Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) have the legs to extend his record to eight green jersey wins?
Cobblestones among the early hazards for GC riders to navigate
There are always high-profile casualties during the tense, hurly burly of the Tour de France opening week, and this year the hazards are especially pronounced due to the day on the cobblestones on stage five.
While things like crashes and crosswinds (keep an eye out for the 18km crossing of
the Great Belt Bridge on stage two) have the potential to bring a premature end to a top contender’s GC hopes, it’s the cobblestones that really capture the imagination of fans, and strike fear into the riders.
Examples from recent Tours have invariably proven thrilling, and this year looks set to be no exception, with a total of 11 sectors totalling 19.4km crammed into the final 77km prior to the finish in Arenberg.
Of particular interest will be how Jumbo-Visma approach the stage. While their leaders Roglič and Vingegaard only have very limited experience riding pavé, their domestiques Van Aert, Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot and Nathan Van Hooydonck are among the best cobbled specialists in the peloton.
Will they therefore look to use these riders to put their rivals, and especially Pogačar, under pressure? Pogačar took to the cobbles like a duck to water when he debuted at the Tour of Flanders this spring, but might find himself isolated, with no classics specialists in his team to support him.
And might Ineos Grenadiers also sniff an opportunity to put time into the Slovenians, given how difficult it will be to do so in the mountains? Thomas is himself a veteran of the cobbled classics, and could with Luke Rowe, Thomas Pidcock and Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan van Baarle cause some serious damage on these roads.
Round one of Pogačar and Roglič climbing skirmishes
Intriguingly, the first mountain top finish showdown of this year’s Tour will be on the same climb of Pogačar and Roglič most dramatic and memorable battle to date: La Super Planche des Belles Filles.
It was here where Pogačar stunned his compatriot to overturn a 57 second deficit and take the yellow jersey from him on the penultimate time trial stage of the 2020 Tour de France, on what many had expected to be essentially a victory procession for Roglič.
Now, its hosting of the finish of stage seven will be the first sign of which of the two Slovenians is climbing better this year, and the earliest indication of which rider is the front runner for the yellow jersey.
Since its first inclusion at the 2012 Tour, when Chris Froome won the stage and Bradley Wiggins went into yellow, it’s set the tone at all the Tours its featured in as a harbinger of what’s to come, with Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome each laying the foundations for their successful yellow jersey bids here in 2014 and 2017 respectively.
With the recent addition of a gravelled surface at the top which ramps up to 24 percent, it’s become an even harder climb, and one sure to draw Pogačar and Roglič into battle.
But it won't be the only battleground between them this week. There’s another mountainous day featuring two category one climbs on stage nine as the riders enter the Alps, albeit one lacking a summit finish. The uphill finishes on stage six (1.6km at 5.8%) and stage eight (4.8km at 4.6% could also conceivably see them compete for a stage win, while the cobblestones of stage five will pose a whole different challenge.
Other GC contenders needing to answer questions during eventful opening stages
With La Super Planche des Belles Filles, the first excursion into the Alps, and a number of other potentially selective uphill finishes, there is enough on the menu during the first week for a tentative GC hierarchy to be formed.
One of the key questions surrounding many top teams is which rider, if any, will emerge as the outright leader, with the situation at Ineos Grenadiers being particularly wide open.
Geraint Thomas is the most in-form rider, but has a history of coming into trouble during the opening week of a Grand Tour. Might Dani Martínez recapture the form that saw him win Itzulia Basque Country earlier this season, or Adam Yates alternatively emerge as their best bet for a GC challenge?
Similar dilemmas at Bahrain-Victorious (between Damiano Caruso and Jack Haig) and Groupama-FDJ (David Gaudu and Thibaut Pinot) might become clearer, while journalists will be casting an eagle eye for even the mildest hint of tension at Jumbo-Visma between their star duo of Roglič and Vingegaard.
For other GC candidates, this week will be a vital test of their form and fitness. Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) was absolutely flying before being struck down by Covid at the Tour de Suisse; will he be able to get back up speed?
An injured Enric Mas (Movistar) pulled out of the Critérium du Dauphiné having looked out of sorts, while injuries have prevented Romain Bardet (DSM) and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) from racing much since strong starts to the season.
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