The riders of the 110th Tour de France were unveiled before an enthusiastic crowd outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum.
But the team’s performances began under gray, misty skies with Bahrain-Victorious, and a period of silence to remember their rider Gino Mader: the Swiss 26-year-old killed two weeks ago in his home race, the Tour de Suisse, descends a mountain at high speed, leaves the road on a left-hand bend and lands on a cliff.
It’s been 12 years since cycling lost a high-profile rider in similar circumstances. And the shock to the teams of Mader’s death still hasn’t subsided.
How is cycling going?
Part of the reason the cloud continues to fall on the sport is the fact that few think there is a solution to stop potentially losing another rider in the same way – and the Tour de France, the sport’s biggest race of some distance, is no more immune to a tragic event than a race like the Tour de Suisse.
“What’s surprising is the intensity of it [at the Tour de France] – every day is full of gas,” said Tom Pidcock of Britain’s Ineos Grenadiers – himself going down very quickly. “I was a bit surprised, to be honest.”
“Descent is something I love, but someone around me died coming down and hit it hard.”
And even the sport’s governing body, the UCI, issued new safety guidelines in collaboration with a number of independent bodies – which will look at the dangers of race routes among many other things – on the eve of first stage can not eliminate the prospect of casualties.
A widely used motto is ‘We Ride For Gino’.
Maybe getting back on the bike is the only real way to deal with grief.
Who will win in yellow?
There are many prizes up for grabs over three weeks, 21 stages and 3,405.6km of riding – the main one being the famous yellow jersey.
Two-time champion from 2020 and 2021 Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates is widely considered the favorite for the yellow – strange in some ways, as the fearsomely talented Slovenian lost last year to Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard Denmark.
Both were very strong in the main disciplines to win the general classification: climbing and time trials. The perceived difference for many is that Pogacar is the more complete rider – and certainly more explosive – but Vingegaard has a more complete team around him, in the high-budget, highly talented Dutch squad.
Last year’s race was very revealing when Pogacar was pinned on a climb on stage 11 by Vingegaard and then his own compatriot Primoz Roglic – also in Vingegaard’s team – who felt the need to chase down the attacking both riders and eventually exhausting himself.
But after winning May’s Giro d’Italia, Roglic is out of this race, leaving Pogacar with just one man to focus on. Can it be decisive? His injury in a race in Belgium in April aside, Pogacar has been unbeatable this year, beating Vingegaard in the Paris-Nice week in March – a mini Tour de France.
How is Ineos not winning these days?
What could change the dynamic at the front of the race is the form of the man who won the Tour before Pogacar’s dominance.
Egan Bernal, winner in 2019, returns for Ineos Grenadiers after a fatal crash last year in which he crashed into the back of a bus in his native Colombia while on a training ride.
Following a period in intensive care and several surgeries and rehabilitation, the amiable 26-year-old will return to the Grand Tour stage.
After some mediocre performances in the warm-up races, Bernal said he just wants to get to Paris, and there are no more complicated expectations from his team.
“I’m not sure if I’ll make it to Paris, to be honest,” he said at the team’s media conference.
“I have to take it day by day. I didn’t prepare for this race 100%. I have a free role in the team, and they will decide what to do depending on the feeling and the legs.
“I’m just thankful that I’m alive and here to begin with.”
But if he can find the kind of form that has seen him dominate the 2021 Giro d’Italia, that could all change.
And Ineos – the other top budget team, along with Jumbo-Visma – may also have other options. Pidcock won brilliantly and unexpectedly on one of the toughest and most iconic climbs of last year’s race on stage 12’s Alpe d’Huez ascent.
He has made no secret of his desire to win the Tour.
“My goal is to try and win the stages and see where I can get in the GC. I think that’s the idea: stay as long as I can. But I want to win the stages, that’s my biggest goal – and have fun in doing so.”
And he’s not the only Briton with big ambitions: Simon Yates is leading the Australian team Jayco-AlUla.
Yates, 30, looked relaxed and in great mood at the teams’ presentation, and was more decorated than twin brother Adam – who also features, but as super domestique supporting Pogacar in UAE-Team Emirates – who won in the Vuelta a Espana in 2018 and 10 stages of the Grand Tour.
But for now he lacks a big race, and his team will be distracted by taking care of their Dutch sprinter Dylan Groenewegen on eight flat stages.
The only other realistic GC contender could be Australia’s Bora-Hansgrohe’s Jai Hindley, who was convincing last year at the Giro, but may lack the numbers in his team to carry him to the top mountain.
All the contenders, however, will be happy to see fewer time-trial distances this year – with only one short stage dedicated to a discipline where Pogacar reigns supreme.
Changing of the guard
There’s more to the Tour than just yellow, though. Mark Cavendish will attempt one last fervent bid for greatness, as the 38-year-old sprinter battles his final Tour with eight flat-stage bunch-sprint attempts to win a record-breaking 35th Tour-stage victory for the unknown Astana Qazaqstan team.
It’s a record he shares with the all-time greatest: Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, but one that doesn’t motivate him much – more, the desire to win at the moment.
And after what has to have been the longest pause in the history of sporting event media conferences on Thursday, he simply said with shrugged shoulders: “I don’t know. I just try to win as much as I can. Sorry.”
Reflecting that records and experiences can be brought back later, the Manxman said: “I still have to try and do the work and I know I’ll regret not living in the moment.
“The Tour de France gives me the most incredible emotions you can’t really analyze and appreciate until after. I know it’s late, but I still have work to do. I’ll definitely appreciate them later.”
One of the memories he doesn’t like is a horrific sprinting crash in 2017 that left him hospitalized and Peter Sagan thrown out of the race.
The 33-year-old is also contesting his final Tour of the year, bowing out earlier than most – but after winning no fewer than seven green points jerseys during his career, the laconic Slovakian’s fridge looks full that.
The future is, though, already here, in the form of true cycling innovation. Eritrea’s sensational 23-year-old sprinter Biniam Girmay could make history as the first black African rider to win a stage of the Tour. And stage 18 in particular seems like the perfect parcours for this.
He will have his work cut out for him to beat the aforementioned bunch sprinters, including the cream of the rest of the talent in Caleb Ewan, Wout van Aert and Fabio Jakobsen. But even without victory, the incomparable cheer that follows him from the traveling Eritreans is special enough – from a country that one fan said this writer “is known for war, but can finally be proud of” .
A legend of the sport could have retired if not by accident – four-time winner Chris Froome. Still recovering from his own life-threatening crash in 2019, and now with Israel-Premier Tech, he has been completely left out of this year’s race – not even making the squad.
The 38-year-old accepted the decision with the good grace he always does – but the clue is in his quotes. He wants to work to ensure he can be with the team for 2024, but added that he is “physically ready” for this year. So what else does his team think he can add a year later, and a year closer to 40?
If we see the last of Froome at the Tour, it’s an unworthy way to bow out.
The Netflix effect
Whether Netflix will be there next season for a new edition of Unchained – the Drive to Survive-style documentary of the great race – is also uncertain.
But filming has already started and Tour organizers ASO have confirmed there will be a second series on Friday.
The current eight-part series about last year’s race sometimes goes to parts that other cycling media can’t, with behind-the-scenes moments on team buses and hotel rooms. riders. It’s just a shame that many of the fake voiceovers sound like an episode of the 90s TV program Eurotrash.
But with good editing and almost complete access – apart from the Pogacar-led UAE-Team Emirates and Bahrain-Victorious, surprisingly – the series gives a good account of the dangers and needs of cycling that many do not know about.
Following Mader’s tragic passing, however, the world now knows that cycling is far from the joyous pursuit through the sunflower fields of France in the summer that we’d all like to believe.
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