The 109th Tour de France begins in Copenhagen on Friday, but as far as the bookmakers are concerned it is as good as over already.
Tadej Pogacar, the young Slovenian phenom who has won the last two editions of La Grande Boucle, is such a heavy favourite for the race the bookies have the 23-year-old odds-on to serve up a hat-trick of yellow jerseys over the coming weeks.
It is a status with which few in the sport would quibble. “Oh, Pogacar is by far the odds-on favourite,” admits Jonathan Vaaughters, general manager for EF Education–EasyPost. “He shows a versatility and an ability to race in any sort of conditions that very few riders have done since Bernard Hinault. He’ll be good on the cobblestones, he’ll be good in the time trials, he’ll be good in the mountains…it’s tough to know how to beat him.”
Tough but not impossible. No one is unbeatable over 21 stages of crosswinds, cobbles, bunch gallops and hors categorie climbs. There are simply too many variables. But if Pogacar is to be beaten, who is the most likely candidate? And how will they do it?
The stiffest resistance, by common consent, is likely to come from Jumbo-Visma. The Dutch team not only have serious firepower - Wout van Aert is the type of rider who can pull his GC guys up a climb one day before sprinting for victory the next - they also have the two next favourites for the yellow jersey after Pogacar.
Neither Primoz Roglic nor Jonas Vingegaard is seen as a match for Pogacar on his own. Roglic is 32 and the manner of his dethroning at the hands of Pogacar on La Planche des Belles Filles two years ago felt seminal. Vingegaard, meanwhile, is still callow. But with two big cards to play and arguably the strongest team all round, they have the numbers and plan to use them.
“Our main strength is not trying to fight Pogacar head-to-head on the last climb,” Jumbo-Visma performance director Mathieu Heijboer told VeloNews last week. “That is going to be very difficult for us and for any rider in the Tour de France. But we have the strength of our team. And that is something we plan to use.”
Vaughters thinks Vingegaard is the more likely to Jumbo’s riders to spring a surprise. “Roglic I don’t know,” he says. “That one is a harder read for me. I honestly feel that in the Jumbo-Visma team Vingegaard is the stronger option. Their problem, though, is that Pogacar is like a hybrid of Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador. A once-in-a-generation talent. I mean, there are lots of riders with talent - Roglic, Remco Evenepoel, Mathiu van der Poel, van Aert - but Pogacar is like, if he turns up at a race he wants to win, he wins it.
“His versatility is extraordinary. I have not seen anything like it in my 30 years as a racer or team manager. Even Lance Armstrong, if you forget about the doping and consider he won his Tours fair and square, couldn’t do what he does... Pogacar wins races like Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the same year as the Tour! I honestly feel like he could show up at Paris-Roubaix, amongst all the Paris-Roubaix specialists, and be a threat to win.
“The last guy to win Paris-Roubaix and the Tour in the same year was Bernard Hinault and that was in 1980. So you’re looking back 45 years to when cycling last had a rider like this kicking around the peloton.”
Vaughters does spy one potential weakness. “He doesn’t necessarily love extremely hot weather,” he points out. “That’s not to say he will lose if it’s extremely hot but if he has a weak spot then that’s his. And it has been pretty damn hot this summer.” But on the whole he reckons the rest of the peloton are fighting for second place, or more likely a podium.
Ineos Grenadiers are expected to feature Adam Yates, Dani Martinez and a newly-confident Geraint Thomas - fresh from his surprise win in Switzerland last weekend - in their ranks. There is the usual assortment of home favourites such as Romain Bardet [Team DSM], or young thrusters such as Alexsandr Vlasov [Bora-Hansgrohe] or Ben O’Connor [AG2R Citroën]. But the truth is they are all likely to need Pogacar to slip up on the cobbles of northern France or get caught out in some other way to stand a chance.
“Yeah, I mean, our guy Ruben [Guerreiro] has as much of an outside chance as any of those other guys you mentioned,” Vaughters says. “Ruben recently climbed Ventoux faster than Chris Froome and Lance Armstrong ever did. But the fact that we’re talking about fighting for third place says it all.”