The 2021 Tour de France leaves the quayside in Brest at lunchtime on Saturday, a race in transition, changed by the Covid-19 pandemic and changed by the expectations of a world increasingly seeking to foster greater diversity and renewable lifestyles.
In essence the Tour, first run in 1903, is an anachronism – yet the French tradition of picnicking at the roadside, applauding the weary peloton, remains intact, as does the appeal of such a gladiatorial race set against dramatic landscapes. For all the marginal gains, the sports science and the increased influence of technology, the brutal culture of sacrifice and suffering remains intact. In other areas, however, change is afoot.
First, the rebirth of the women’s Tour de France has finally been confirmed and will start in July 2022. It is long overdue. Meanwhile, in 2020 the Tour was criticised by several French mayors for its carbon footprint, its lack of sensitivity towards green issues and a “boys and their toys” culture that ensured it would remain persona non grata in some French cities for the foreseeable future.
So now, a race that used to leave a sea of plastic waste and litter in its wake, and clog up the high pasture of the Alps and Pyrenees with diesel fumes, is working hard to green up its act. The recycling programme in the convoy and the flotilla of plug-in hybrids parked outside the media centre is testimony to that, although how many of those cars will in fact tackle the route du Tour on electricity, rather than petrol, remains to be seen.
In other areas, world cycling is still dragging its feet and while the launch of the 2022 women’s Tour has been widely welcomed, the lack of any further initiatives on racial diversity is painful. Tao Geoghegan Hart, a rare voice in the peloton that has called for greater diversity, repeated on Thursday his support for increased social awareness.
“Across the wider sporting landscape, you’re seeing a generation with a greater level of social awareness,” the Londoner said, “and [awareness] of the platform that they have the privilege of access to … When I look at Dina Asher Smith or Marcus Rashford, that resonates with society as a whole. There’s a lot of strength to be taken from that.”
There is change in the hierarchy within the peloton, too. The Tour leaves Brest with its first Slovenian defending champion, Tadej Pogacar. His most likely rival is compatriot Primoz Roglic, whose tenure on the yellow jersey ultimately proved so feeble in last year’s final time trial, in which Pogacar humiliated him.
By that point last year, Ineos Grenadiers, once so dominant as Team Sky, were left scrabbling for stage wins after Egan Bernal’s bad form and aching back ruled him out of contention.
Dave Brailsford’s all-star team is now back to its steamrollering best, but even so, the rivalry between “Pog” and “Rog” is expected to continue. However, Roglic may be hampered by a weaker team than in 2020 and also by the experience of blowing his lead on the final day of yet another prestigious French race, Paris-Nice, last March.
There are others however, aside from the Slovenians and the Ineos Grenadiers quartet of Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz, Richie Porte and Geoghegan Hart, with an eye on the podium in Paris on 18 July.
The world road race champion, Julian Alaphilippe, will be keen to light up the race, as he did in 2019, particularly as he has now pulled out of the French Olympic squad for the Tokyo Games. The Colombian climber Miguel Ángel López, somewhat prone to first-weekend mishaps, will be hoping he can stay upright, and with the leaders, as far as the double ascent of Mont Ventoux, on stage 11, where he recently took a solo win in a one-day race.
His compatriot, the veteran Rigoberto Urán, is back on everyone’s watch list also after a spectacular time trial win in the Tour of Switzerland. Urán, second overall to Chris Froome in the 2017 Tour de France, is canny enough to race into contention, but at 34 his chances of winning the Tour may now have slipped away.
As for Froome himself, now riding for the Israel Start-Up Nation team and making his return to a race in which he last competed three years ago, he is one of several veterans, such as Mark Cavendish and the former Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, enjoying what may prove to be a final hurrah.
Whether selected out of obligation, for past achievements or for his mentoring skills, it seems certain to be a gruelling experience for the four-time Tour winner. Many are wondering too if his decision to race in the three-week Tour, while he is still struggling to finish inside the top 50 in week-long races, was entirely wise.
The much-heralded comeback from the serious injuries he sustained in June 2019 looks increasingly unlikely to materialise. At any rate, his former team boss Brailsford, blessed with a complement of experienced and youthful Grand Tour champions at Ineos Grenadiers, is unlikely to miss him.
Leadership conundrums aside, if Pogacar is in the same climbing form as he was in the final week of last year’s Tour, it’s hard to see who of his rivals will be able to contain him. But Ineos, with their quartet of stage race experts, have a better chance than most.
“We’ve a fantastic team with a lot of momentum,” Geoghegan Hart said of his Ineos colleagues. “For me personally, this is the pinnacle of cycling and the race from which most riders can trace the origins of their passion for cycling.
“It’s a first Tour for me with one of the most, if not the most, experienced group you will find in cycling. The whole team has so much experience, not only of riding the Tour, but of delivering the yellow jersey to Paris.”