The prestigious cycling event starts one week earlier than usual so as to not clash with the Olympic Games
Not so long ago, Tadej Pogacar was a just a promising outsider still learning the ropes of cycling’s biggest race.
His rise to become the second-youngest winner of the Tour de France in September last year has changed everything: the 22-year-old returns to the three-week event as the odds-on favourite to defend his title.
Going from an ambitious Tour rookie to defending champion in such a short time could have been an unsettling experience.
But Pogacar has perfectly dealt with his sudden rise to stardom, linking his Tour triumph with victories this season at the UAE Tour, Tirenno-Adriatico and the prestigious one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Since his remarkable feat on the slopes of the Planche des Belles Filles where he snatched the coveted race leader’s yellow jersey in a high-drama time trial, Pogacar has kept improving. He looks even stronger this year, backed by a powerful squad entirely at his service.
Pogacar’s biggest rival last year was another rider from Slovenia, Primoz Roglic. The Jumbo-Visma team leader wore the yellow jersey for 11 days on last year’s Tour and had victory in sight only to crack on the eve of the final stage in a spectacular reversal of fortunes.
Such a turnaround could have undone his morale for good. But Roglic has recovered in style, very quickly, and is once again among the top contenders.
Right after the Tour last year, he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Spanish Vuelta. In April he was stronger than Pogacar at the Itzulia Basque Country and has privileged training at altitude in recent weeks in order to arrive fresh on the starting line, ready to tackle the 3,414 kilometres of three-week odyssey across France.
Delayed by a few months last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tour starts one week earlier than usual so as not to clash with the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The race was initially set to start from Copenhagen, with Denmark hosting its first-ever start. But Copenhagen has been pushed back to 2022 because of the pandemic.
The route is less mountainous than last year and features two long individual time trials totalling 58 kilometres.
However, some extremely tough ascents in both the Alps and the Pyrenees are on the program, notably on Stage 17 featuring the Col de Peyresourde and another tough climb on Val Louron-Azet before ending up Col du Portet — a 16-kilometre slog with a gradient close to 9%.
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