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Photo: @bettiniphoto

#4 Tour de France

SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, 2020

Author: Simon Nessler @tastasol

Tour de France 2020 - The clash of the titans

It’s here, it’s actually here. Many of us have had doubts about the Tour de France actually happening this year, but standing here, just a few hours before the start in Nice, it seems guaranteed that the race at least will start.

The Tour de France is a big highlight on the cycling calendar every year, and possibly even more so this year. So highly anticipated and also so important for the sport of cycling itself. And it also looks to be a great race. Can Ineos, with seven victories the last eight editions, keep their perch, or will Jumbo-Visma knock them off it? It’s a battle that has been brewing more or less since Tom Dumoulin was presented as a Jumbo-Visma rider last year. Unfortunately, it will be without some of the stars, but we can expect a great fight between two great teams. And of course, the French, the Colombians and so on. I at least expect a great race.

Due to the season restarting a month ago, we haven’t seen the favourites race as much as normal before the Tour de France. But we have seen some great racing, especially in Critérium du Dauphiné. Four days with great racing and a day full of fireworks to finish it off. I spoke to Carl Fredrik Hagen about that final day, and he said he went all in on trying to be in the break, but after keeping 450 watts for nine minutes, he didn’t manage to stay on. The level seems to be sky high at the moment. It was a great race, but we also left the race with a bunch of questions. Some of them were answered when Ineos decided to keep Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home, with a selection set out to back Egan Bernal fully in his attempt to winning the Tour for the second time. But the rather big injury list means that we also have a good amount of uncertainty going into the race. Will Roglic, Bernal, Pinot, Buchmann and Quintana be 100 percent? Only time will show, and the biggest question mark at this time seems to be Roglic. The Slovenian has been the man to beat after the restart and looked to be a level above the rest in Dauphiné. Only time will show what his crash actually did to his chances of winning the Tour, but he will still be the favourite when the riders start in Nice this week.

Not only because he’s a phenomenal rider, but also because Jumbo-Visma has no doubt been miles better than Ineos this season. Even without Steven Kruijwsijk, they start the Tour with an amazing team. Kuss and Bennett will be amongst the best domestiques in the mountains, and Dumoulin showed in Dauphiné that he is on his way towards his best shape again. And then you have the monster that is Wout van Aert. Wow, just wow. Van Aert’s level after the restart has just been truly out of this world, and in the Dauphiné we even saw him climbing with the 20-30 best in the world. With carte blanche he would have had great chances for winning the points jersey, but even with a full focus on Roglic (and Dumoulin) you wouldn’t be surprised to see him winning a stage or two.

He could also be a good shout for the first yellow jersey in the race and with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the course.

The Course

Much has been said already about the route this year. The main thing is that it’s a good course for the climbers, with only 36,2 time trial kilometers (and that is a time trial that finishes with a climb), and it’s a course with very limited chances for the pure sprinters. It’s an edition of the Tour that goes a bit of a new direction, with more of the punchier stuff we know from the Vuelta and plenty of hills/mountains that’s not often used by the Tour. And after last year, with some of the highest climbs possible on the course, it’s only one stage that passes 2000 metres altitude this time around.

After last year, you could say that it’s a perfect course for Julian Alaphilippe, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like he wants to aim for the GC (at least that’s what he’s saying).

Tour de France usually starts in the northern parts of France, so it changes the dynamic in the usual parcours with the Grand Départ in Nice. That being said, we saw something similar in 2009 (Monaco) and 2013 (Corsica, with a TTT in Nice as the first stage back on the mainland). Back then they both moved along the coast towards the Pyrenees. We are headed for the Pyrenees at the end of week one this time as well, but now after a visit to the Alps and not via the coast. That means action more or less from the start, with a couple of tough stages around Nice and the first mountain top finish already on stage four, finishing in Orcières-Merlette (7,1 km à 6,7 %). On the way to the Pyrenees the riders will also finish on Mont Aigoual. The gaps will probably be minimal, but the first stages will give a good indication of who’s in shape.

The first week ends with two stages in the Pyrenees. Tough stages, but again, it’s probably not stages that will give huge gaps. They should though give the opportunity to create gaps for the riders willing to go on the attack, with both stages finishing after a downhill. Especially the steep gradients on the Col de Marie Blanque could be entertaining, but my best guess is that the main favourites will be quite close after the first nine stages. At least if Roglic is in good shape and Jumbo-Visma controls the race like they have done in the races earlier this summer.

Photo: @bettiniphoto

After the first nine stages and the first rest day, the race will change shape with two stages along the Atlantic coast, where the chances for crosswind action will be very much present. Then it’s just a gradual build up towards the big stage of the second week, the 15th stage to Grand Colombier. Both the 12th and 13th stage could give the riders some challenges with a couple of steep climbs, but Grand Colombier is something else. It’s one of the two really tough MTF in the Tour this year, and that’s after two hard climbs around the same mountain. The climb up to Grand Colombier is 17,7 kilometers à 7,1 % and the big riders definitively know what to expect after riding a nearly identical stage in Tour de l’Ain earlier in August. Then Roglic won, four seconds ahead of Bernal and six seconds ahead of Quintana, but it also looked like Roglic had an extra gear that he didn’t have to use back then.

The riders will get another rest day after Grand Colombier, and then it’s full throttle towards Paris. They start off with three mountain stages in the Alps, and the first one should be a good chance for those a bit off the pace in GC. Then we have the only stage going over 2000 metres altitude on stage 17, climbing up to 2000 meters at Col de la Madeleine and then up to the finish at Col de la Loze above Meribel at 2302 meters. The road is built to connect Meribel and Courchevel and opened up in May last year. It was used in Tour de l’Avenir last year, a stage consisting of just the climb and nothing else.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t shown on TV last year, but it will definitely be shown this year, and it certainly has the looks of a great climb. We then move on to possibly the toughest stage in the Tour this year, a stage with over 5000 meters of climbing over 175 kilometres. The 18th stage does lack that hard finishing climb to really stand out as the queen stage, but this could very well be the stage to watch. The organisers will hope for a similar scenario to what we saw on the last stage in Dauphiné, and with many riders needing to get time before the TT, we will hopefully get attacks early on. Only this time with TV coverage from the start!

The final puzzle in the fight for the GC will be the ITT to La Planche des Belles Filles, a 36,2 kilometer long homage to the local favourite Thibaut Pinot. The stage will finish on top of the “normal finish”, not the added kilometre they did last year. And then Paris!

All in all, it’s a hard course, but my best guess is that it will be quite close amongst the top 10 going into the Grand Colombier stage. From that point on, it will be some truly brutal stages and probably a very deserved winner in Paris.

The favourites

But who will take the win? This summer has been all about Ineos (Grenadiers) vs Jumbo-Visma, and my oh my, the bees have undoubtedly been the better team. That also gave us a surprising Ineos squad for the Tour, and they will all be behind Bernal. Jumbo-Visma have two of their three leaders still available, with Roglic looking like the strongest. Not only the strongest between him and Dumoulin, but also the strongest in general. And to top it off, a ridiculously good set of helpers. George Bennett and Sepp Kuss rode out of this world earlier in August and at the moment looks like the two strongest domestiques for the mountains. That being said, this is the first time for Kuss in the Tour. It’s just a bigger race than the Vuelta and the Giro normally, but with the current Covid-19 restrictions, the pressure might not be that big after all.

The FDJ team will be a doubt around Thibaut Pinot. His shape is looking good, but he ended up exposed in Dauphiné. Groupama-FDJ have added David Gaudu to the lineup in the Tour, but the young Frenchman is a bit off the pace compared to last year. That being said, it’s only in the last half of the race that Pinot really could need his help. The team itself is, to be honest, quite good, but they just lack that little bit extra in the mountains to be up there with Jumbo-Visma and possibly Ineos. I’ve always had a soft spot for Pinot, and he was, in my opinion, on his way to yellow before the injury last year. This is another good route for him, and he will like to race in September instead of July. It’s a potential fairytale story, with the ITT passing by his hometown, aiming for the first French win since Hinault in 1985. It’s time to do it again, but he needs to be smart to beat Roglic and Bernal. With Küng in the team he has a good chance of surviving the stages with crosswinds, but he also needs to beat them in the mountains. Roglic has looked untouchable going upwards this summer and with the Vuelta win last year, he also showed that he can deliver over three weeks. One thing is certain though, Pinot will not give up without a fight.

Daniel Martínez took the win in Dauphiné, but I don’t really see him holding it all three weeks to be able to fight for a good place in the GC. EF will be an interesting team to follow though, with Martínez, Urán and Higuita, a trio that could set up some highly interesting stages.

Buchmann impressed with his fourth place in the Tour last year, and the German looked very impressive before his crash in the Dauphiné. If he is back at his best, he is a strong podium contender. That’s something you wouldn’t have guessed a few years ago, but he really took a step up last year and has continued to impress ever since. Nairo Quintana is also a bit uncertain card going into the Tour. Many, myself included, thought his best days were behind him when he decided to leave Movistar last season. It seems like the move to Arkéa-Samsic was good for him, and what he delivered before the lockdown was simply very impressive. He hasn’t been at that level since the restart, with the crash he had in training as a potential explanation. If he can find his shape from the spring, he could very well end up on the podium in the Tour again. And what about Tadej Pogacar? Super impressive in the Vuelta last year and now one of the favourites for the Tour. Yes, UAE have been trying to play it down by saying Fabio Aru is their leader/co-leader (like they did at the Vuelta last year), but Pogacar is the man. He has full support, but can he deliver. He will like this course, and is not a rider that is afraid to go on the attack. It could very well be an all or nothing kind of race for him, but I think it’s a year or two too early for him to take the win.

Let’s sum it up with some predictions

Most stage wins: Sam Bennett (3 and the yellow in Nice)
Green jersey: Peter Sagan
KoM: Julian Alaphilippe
Youth: Tadej Pogacar
GC: Primoz Roglic

Star rating Tour de France 2020

***** Primoz Roglic
**** Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot
*** Tadej Pogacar, Emanuel Buchmann, Nairo Quintana
** Tom Dumoulin, Mikel Landa, Miguel Ángel López, Romain Bardet
* Adam Yates, Bauke Mollema, Richard Carapaz, Daniel Martínez, Julian Alaphilippe