Mercier: Looking at this year’s Tour de France and predicting a race winner
Special to The Aspen Times
The 2021 Tour de France will cover 2,102 miles over 21 days of racing. This year’s route features six mountain stages, including three summit finishes, two flat individual time trials, eight flat road stages, and five rolling stages.
It also features one stage of more than 150 miles, which is the longest on the Tour in 20 years. Tadej Pogacar won the 2020 edition with an incredible stage 20 time trial win, where he handily beat the best time trialists in the world. At just 21 years old, he was the youngest Tour winner in a century.
The time trials could once again prove to be decisive. This year, there are nearly 36 miles of relatively flat time trials. The 2021 winner will need to have the support of a strong team, be a great climber, a strong time trialist, and be patient.
The fireworks kick off on Stage 1 with a 115-mile tough and punchy stage. The finish is a 2-mile climb with a 14% ramp at the base. The overall contenders will be near the front, but the first yellow jersey should be taken by Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Michael Matthews, Canadian Michael Woods, Julian Alaphilippe, or Richard Carapaz.
We’ll get a look at who the contenders and pretenders are on the Stage 5 time trial. Look for 2020 runner-up Primoz Roglic to win and be in yellow at the end of the stage. Roglic’s team, Jumbo-Visma, is one of the strongest in the peloton, but they’ll likely let a breakaway go on Stage 6 so they don’t have to defend the yellow jersey and burn matches they’ll need later in the race.
Our next big battle for the overall comes on Stage 9, a relatively short 90-mile day. However, the finish is the first big mountain test and the final climb is over 3,500 vertical feet in 13 miles. Just two days later, on Stage 11, the peloton climbs the famed Mont Ventoux — twice!
The final week of the Tour is where the race will be won. Stage 17 and Stage 18 are back-to-back mountain top finishes. Stage 17 finishes with a 10-mile climb at an average gradient of nearly 9%, while Stage 18 finishes with a steep climb, gaining 2,400 vertical feet in just 6 miles.
The final time trial, on Stage 20, at just over 19 miles, is the longest individual time trial since 2008. The time trial is nearly pancake flat and shouldn’t produce the big gaps we saw on the final time trial from 2020, but it could very well decide the winner of the 2021 Tour. Riders who are powerful and can recover well should do well on this stage.
There are four Americans racing this year: Durango native Sepp Kuss for Jumbo-Visma, and Californians Brandon McNulty for Team UAE, Sean Bennett for Team Qhubeka Assos, and Nielson Powless for Team EF Education. An interesting side note is that Kuss and McNulty will each be shepherding Tour favorites Roglic and Pogacar.
Here are my picks to win:
1. Primoz Roglic — Unless he crashes, I think Primoz has the legs to finish it off this year.
2. Anyone Ineos — Pick one! It’ll be interesting to see who they go with. They have four legitimate contenders with 2019 Giro winner Richard Carapaz, 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas, 2020 Giro winner Teo Geoghegan Hart, and 2020 third-place finisher in the Tour, Ritchie Porte. I think the longer time trials on this year’s route play into Thomas’ strengths and he finishes second for the third time in his career.
3. Julian Alaphilippe — The world champion is French and has worn the yellow jersey on several occasions. He finished a career high fifth in 2019 and will be foregoing the Olympic Games, so his focus is exclusively on the Tour. However, if he gets the yellow jersey on Stage 1, he and his team will burn a lot of matches early to defend it and it might cost him toward the end of the race. He is a fan favorite with his aggressive style of racing.
Another interesting aspect to the 2021 Tour is the return of four-time champion Chris Froome. Froome is recovering from a horrific accident that nearly ended his career two years ago. He’s now racing for the Israel Start-Up Nation team and won’t be a factor for the overall, but if he can stay with the lead group on the climbs near the end of the race, it will bode well for his 2022 ambition. Additionally, Mark Cavendish, one of the fastest men in the history of the sport and a winner of 30 Tour stages, will be racing the Tour for the first time since 2018. He was a late call up for the Belgian Quick-Step team.
While defending champion Tadej Pogacar has a much stronger support crew for the 2021 Tour than he did in 2020, I think the inexperience of the team will ultimately cost him the race. At some point there is bound to be a windy and/or wet day and if Pogacar gets caught out of position, expect the peloton to attack him to put him out of contention. He will be heavily marked and any mistakes will be pounded on by his opponents.
My dark horses for podium positions include Colombian and ultimate cool guy Rigoburto Uran, Australian Ben O’Connor, and Spaniard Enric Mas.
The 108th edition of the Tour promises to provide some exciting racing and is once again a generational battle between the young guns and the veterans of the peloton.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services Cycling teams. He currently works in Aspen and can be reached at email@example.com.
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