Tour de France ‘Class of 2021’ could be best rookie field ever

Otto I. Eovaldi

Every Tour de France sees its rookie field, a class of debutants who leave their mark on the race.

Last year’s “class of 2020” saw a winner with Tadej Pogačar, who became the first rider to win in their first try was Laurent Fignon in 1983. Others might start the Tour once, and never race it again.

The “class of 2021” is a special group, featuring confirmed superstar Mathieu van der Poel, 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, and rising U.S. GC prospect Brandon McNulty.

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There are about 25 riders expected to debut in the 2021 Tour. Though the final start list will not be confirmed until a few days before the June 26 start in Brest, most teams have already indicated which riders will be heading to the Tour.

The youngest is expected to be Hungarian rider Barnabás Peák, just 22, on Team BikeExchange. The oldest will be Victor de la Parte, a journeyman Spanish rider of 35 who’s already raced the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. He’s expected to punch his Tour ticket with Total-Direct Énergie.

In between, there is some exceptional talent heading to Brittany. This could be one of the deepest and talented rookie classes ever, with a few future potential Tour de France winners in the field.

A decade after Cadel Evans won Australia’s first — and so far only — yellow jersey, four Australians are expected to debut, including Robert Stannard and Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange), Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën), and Miles Scotson (Groupama-FDJ).

Also read: Cadel Evans reflects on his 2011 Tour victory a decade later

Mark Padun (Bahrain-Victorious), the 24-year-old Ukrainian who lit up the mountains with two stage wins at the Critérium du Dauphiné, will be hoping to keep that momentum going in France.

Two rising Italian talents Davide Ballerini, winner at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and a revived Mattia Cattaneo are both expected to start for Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

A bundle of six Belgians, including top sprinter Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) and Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka-Assos), lead the nation with the most Tour rookies in 2021.

Three-time U23 world champion Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Emirates) and Spanish sprinter Alex Aranburu (Astana-Premier Tech), who won his first WorldTour race at the Itzulia Basque Country in April, also punch their tickets.

For several riders, including Nils Eekhoff (Team DSM), van der Poel, Jonas Rickaert (Alpecin-Fenix), and Barnabás, this Tour will be their first grand tour. All the other Tour rookies have raced at the Giro d’Italia and/or Vuelta a España.

Standouts in the Tour de France rookie ‘Class of 2021’

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), 26

No introduction needed.

Van der Poel’s presence will pump up the already-hyped Tour, and add some spark to the long-running rivalry with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).

Van der Poel will be in the running for stage wins and perhaps the yellow jersey in the opening week of the Tour, with all eyes on seeing him square off against Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).

The multi-discipline superstar confirmed he’s ready for his Tour de France debut with a pair of stylish, sprint victories on Monday and Tuesday at the Tour de Suisse.

With the Tokyo Olympic Games mountain bike event at the center of his ambitions, van der Poel isn’t expected to arrive at Paris.

Grand tour experience: The 2021 Tour will mark his grand tour debut.

Role: Van der Poel is always the center of the Alpecin-Fenix universe. The team will have options in the sprint with Tim Merlier, so van der Poel won’t see as many chances as he’d like.

Expectations: The Mur de Bretagne uphill finale in stage 2 could be his best chance to win a stage and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, to claim the yellow jersey. The first two weeks will see a few chances for van der Poel, who will be wanting to win at least one stage before pulling the parachute a the Tour ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Brandon McNulty (UAE-Team Emirates), 23

Brandon McNulty is one of the most promising U.S. grand tour talents in a generation. His 15th overall at the 2020 Giro d’Italia was the best grand tour debut by a U.S. rider since Levi Leipheimer was third in the 2001 Vuelta a España.

McNulty was expected to headline the team’s Giro effort with the hopes of punching into the top-10 overall. A strong spring, however, convinced team brass that they could use his motor at the Tour to bolster the defenses for defending champion Tadej Pogačar.

With five top-5’s so far in 2021 in WorldTour stages as well as a stint in the leader’s jersey at Itzulia Basque Country has served as confirmation that McNulty is the real deal in his sophomore WorldTour campaign.

Grand tour experience: 15th overall in the 2020 Giro d’Italia.

Role: McNulty will be a big engine in the UAE Team Emirates arsenal to help Pogačar, with the team expecting to count on his powerful watts on the flats and middle mountains to help keep the Slovenian rider safe until the decisive mountains.

Expectations: McNulty will not have any personal ambitions beyond helping Pogačar, learning the Tour ropes, and arriving in Paris. Time trials in stage 5 and stage 20 will be his chances to ride for a strong result.

Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), 24

Tom Dumoulin’s decision to take a racing hiatus opened the door for the Danish climbing sensation to punch his Tour ticket in 2021. Vingegaard seemed destined for a Tour slot, but it came sooner than expected.

A superb spring campaign, capped by stage wins at the UAE Tour, overall victory at Coppi e Bartali, and second place at Itzulia Basque Country, made the choice easy.

Vingegaard trained with the core Tour group, even sharing a room with Sepp Kuss, and nearly delivered a stage win at the Critérium du Dauphiné on Sunday.

Some view Vingegaard, who can time trial as well as climb with the best, as future GC material, but for right now, he’ll be staying in his lane to help the team’s interests.

Grand tour experience: Vingegaard helped Primož Roglič win last year’s Vuelta in what was his grand tour debut.

Role: Along with Kuss, Vingegaard will provide extra firepower in the mountains for Roglič. The Kuss-Vingegaard combination could make things complicated for teams trying to isolate Roglič in the Tour’s high mountains.

Expectations: It’s all-in for Jumbo-Visma with Roglič, with the team hoping to push their man to the highest step in Paris. Following last year’s deflating loss in the closing, climbing time trial, Jumbo-Visma wants everyone focused on the larger task. Vingegaard will play his role in the key mountain stages and save his legs for when they’re needed.

Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), 26

The defending Giro d’Italia champion will be a key player in the mighty Ineos Grenadiers machine at the Tour.

Some see him as the direct Tour de France heir to Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, but this year isn’t expected to be his summer to shine. Of course, everyone said that last year at the Giro, and look what happened.

Geoghegan Hart has been slow out of the 2021 gate, but a strong Dauphiné confirmed he’s coming onto form just in time.

Grand tour experience: He’s raced two Giro’s and two Vuelta’s so far in his career, marked by the pink jersey in 2020, and 20th in the 2019 Vuelta.

Role: With co-captains Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz leading the way, Geoghegan Hart will slip down the hierarchy for his Tour debut. Richie Porte is expected to take on the role of super-domestique, Geoghegan Hart can be used as a helper in key climbing stages.

Expectations: Ineos Grenadiers brass wants to win the Tour again following the 2020 misfire, and will be trying to keep as many riders packed into the top-10 as long as possible. Geoghegan Hart will be riding to help the team win, and take away some lessons that will pay dividends in the future when he might return as one of the team’s protected riders.

Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), 27

Ackermann’s plans for 2021 included the Tour de France since the start of the season, and he’s expected to finally punch his Tour ticket this month though Bora-Hansgrohe’s final Tour lineup remains far from settled.

Ackermann remains winless in 2021 and has not finished better than third in any of the sprints he’s contested so far this season.

Ackermann’s presence will be a difficult challenge for team brass to square with Peter Sagan, who will be on the hunt for another green jersey as well as stage victories.

There also remain some question marks inside the Bora-Hansgrohe bus about the future of Sagan and where he might race in 2022. There are even whispers that Sagan might not race the Tour if he signs off on a deal to leave the German outfit at the end of the season, though Sagan’s presence in the Tour remains likely.

Grand tour experience: One Giro and one Vuelta, with two stage victories in each.

Role: Ackermann will have to split sprinter duties with Sagan, who will still want to challenge in the bunch sprints to chase green jersey points. Ackermann could work to help set up Sagan, and vice versa on select days.

Expectations: The goal for any sprinter is to win at least one stage at the Tour. So far in 2021, Ackermann hasn’t shown the explosiveness and speed that he brought to the Vuelta and Giro.

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