With the season now in full swing, the Tour de France timer is ticking fast.
From Paris-Nice through Itzulia Basque Country, Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz have banked a block of racing to shake out the winter cobwebs.
Roglič took the champagne in the Basque race following a late-race disaster in Paris-Nice. Pogačar started the season red-hot only to be denied a sweep of three stage race victories by rivals Jumbo-Visma at the Itzulia. And Ineos Grenadiers has been on a slow boil – until it all of a sudden it swept the podium at Volta a Catalunya.
Which of the Tour’s key players have come out of the spring racing block with its foot on the accelerator? And which have left the handbrake on?
VeloNews‘ editors pick apart the early indications of Tour de France form.
Sadhbh O’Shea: UAE has some work to do
One thing is for certain, Tadej Pogačar has not lost any of his form or flare since becoming the youngest Tour de France champion in modern cycling.
Comfortable on all terrain, the young Slovenian has hardly put a foot wrong since he started his season in February.
During his opening stage races at the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, Pogačar dispatched his rivals with such ease he rarely had to rely on his team to do anything other than keep him out of trouble. Last week’s Itzulia Basque Country would ultimately prove to be the first major test of the Tour champion and the team behind him.
Related: Itzulia Basque Country: Did UAE-Emirates blow it or did Jumbo-Visma boss it?
Following Pogačar’s surprise grand tour success in 2020, UAE Team Emirates has sought to bolster its roster to support the Slovenian. Rafał Majka, a former grand tour podium finisher, and Marc Hirschi, a Tour de France stage winner, were brought in over the winter the add more manpower in the mountains.
Brandon McNulty switched to a key support role for some of the early season races, but he won’t be at the Tour de France. The US rider proved a valuable asset to Pogačar in the Basque Country, despite his faltering on the final day, but he is currently scheduled to go to the Giro d’Italia.
McNulty aside, the overall team performance at Itzulia Basque Country left many questions about its strength. Though Hirschi was able to play a small role during the final day raid instigated by Astana, Pogačar and McNulty were ultimately isolated and exposed to attacks when the race broke down.
Majka, Diego Ulissi, and Jan Polanc, who are all penciled in for Tour spots, were nowhere to be seen once the shake-out happened. Hirschi eventually dropped back from the breakaway to lend a hand but his efforts made little difference to the gaping hole that opened up between Primož Roglič.
The team’s tactics Saturday were also questionable. With the desire to protect McNulty’s yellow jersey, the team ultimately hamstrung Pogačar until it was too late.
It may have been different had the team managed to get at least one more rider into the mix, allowing Pogačar to do his own thing while leaving a rider to shepherd McNulty.
Practice makes perfect in cycling, and the misfire in the Basque Country is an opportunity to learn lessons ahead of the Tour de France. The team is new to being at the pointy end of a GC competition, and there is still a lot to learn.
There is also time for the likes of Majka, Hirschi, Ulissi, and Polanc to up their game before July, but Pogačar may need to rely on his own wits and talent when it comes to the crunch.
🎙️@TamauPogi : “It was one of the most demanding stages both mentally and physically that I have ever done in my career.”
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) April 10, 2021
Jim Cotton: Ineos Grenadiers needs to rethink its roster
Ineos Grenadiers could be backing the wrong horses for the Tour de France.
After the first block of racing this season, both the team as a whole and its three Tour captains – Thomas, Carapaz, and Tao Geoghegan Hart – have been unimpressive.
Ineos Grenadiers may have dominated Volta a Catalunya to put Adam Yates on the top step of the podium, but there are two big elephants in that room. Perhaps most importantly, Yates isn’t even scheduled for the Tour! And after that, the two riders that really count when talking Tour de France – Pog and Rog – weren’t racing in Catalunya.
Related: Adam Yates comes out swinging in fight for supremacy at Ineos Grenadiers
Thomas took the bottom step of the Spanish podium sweep last month in what makes for a symbol of his season so far.
The Welshman is renowned for being a bit of a diesel, and it looks like he’s left the handbrake on. Thomas had been cast as a top contender for the time trial-heavy Tour, but so far this year, his performances against the clock have been sluggish, clocking in 16 seconds down on Pogačar at Tirreno and finishing down on three of his teammates at Catalunya. The 34-year-old rode well on the uphill finishes in Spain, but couldn’t follow the key moves – even in the absence of key players Pogačar and Roglič.
Giro champ Geoghegan Hart has fared even worse, crashing out of Paris-Nice and consequently losing valuable training time. A month later, he abandoned the final stage of Itzulia. He’s now hoping to ride himself back up to speed at the Ardennes, where he’ll not only be competing against Pogačar and Roglič, but racing for a slot on his Tour team.
And Carapaz and Egan Bernal, the two riders with the firecracker aggression to match the two Slovenians?
Bernal has shown signs of a comeback from his back issues with strong rides through February and March. However, the 2019 yellow jersey will be battling for GC at the Giro d’Italia next month and still hasn’t booked a slot on the Tour roster. Even if he gets Dave Brailsford’s backing for France, will he have the legs to race for the overall in July after three weeks in Italy? Unlikely.
There is equal uncertainty over Carapaz. The Ecuadorian ace has been his usual offensive self, yet has failed to string results together, and most recently saw his efforts in the Basque Country derailed by an uphill crash on the second stage. Carapaz now heads to the Ardennes, and from there, all roads lead to France, with Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour next on his schedule. He still has much to prove.
Big boss Brailsford may have some sleepless nights in the next few months. Does his Tour roster need a reshuffle? Could well do. Yates and Bernal could prove to be aces in the hole for Ineos Grenadiers – if they get Brailsford’s backing.
The young Brit was forced to abandon following a crash in the closing kilometres.
He will now head to hospital for further assessment. Medical update to follow later. pic.twitter.com/O8TaXk6rvu
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) March 10, 2021
Andrew Hood: Jumbo Visma, Primož Roglič need to prioritize
Maybe the road to the Tour de France goes through Spain’s Basque Country. But maybe not.
I get the feeling that if Jumbo-Visma isn’t careful, the team could run too hot, too soon, and run out of gas when it really counts this summer.
That’s what happened in 2020. Of course, COVID-19 threw everyone for a loop, but the Jumbo-Visma Yellow Jackets drove everyone into the ground so much in last year’s Tour that the elastic broke for Primož Roglič at the worst possible time.
Also read: Why Roglič is the best cyclist in the world
The only race that matters right now for Roglič should be the Tour.
Sure, it’s great that he won Itzulia Basque Country again, and it was an impressive tactical play to take one back against arch-rival Tadej Pogačar. Momentum, confidence, and teamwork all count. Yet Roglič has absolutely nothing to prove, but everything to lose.
Right now, Roglič is the king of stage racing. I did a breakdown of the numbers — click here to read it — and since the 2018 Itzulia, Roglič has won 10 of 15 stage races he’s started. And he hit the podium on two other occasions. That means he has an insane winning/podium percentage at stage racing of 88 percent nearly three years running.
Those statistics also confirm that Roglič races to win every time he toes up to the line.
Yet he has not won the Tour.
Is that the only mark of a rider’s value? Of course not. But like it or not, the Tour is the ultimate measuring stick for elite men’s road racing.
Until he wins the Tour, stuffing his trophy case full of prizes from races like Itzulia or the Tour de Romandie or even the Vuelta a España won’t count for much if he never wins at least one yellow jersey.
Also read: Primož Roglič and his stunning Tour de France loss
At 31, how many more chances will he have? Yes, he came to the sport late, and yes, careers are lasting longer. This season is perhaps Roglič’s best chance to punch onto the highest step at the Tour. The old-school style route will favor him against riders such as Pogačar or any of the South American climbers.
You get the feeling that Roglič and everyone inside the organization already realize all of this. Where did Roglič go the day after winning Itzulia? He dipped into France to scout the stage 5 time trial course he’ll race in July. After the Ardennes, he will likely only race the Critérium du Dauphiné before the Tour.
Roglič came into 2021 intent on sending a message. He’s done that with an exclamation point. Now he needs to tone it down a notch, hunker down at altitude, and come into the Tour at the absolute peak of his powers.
Racing to win every race might mean he might never win the race that really counts.