Tadej Pogačar chasing history as Tour de France begins in Denmark

Cycling’s biggest event rolls out on Friday with a clear race favourite but no Irish competitors this time around.

At precisely five minutes past four Irish time on Friday, Tadej Pogačar will begin a campaign to become the youngest rider ever to win three editions of the Tour de France, with the double champion lining out in the opening time-trial as the big favourite for the race.

A total of eight riders have won three Tours or more; none of those have been as young as the Slovenian rider, who is still just 23 years of age.

Indeed Eddy Merckx, regarded as cycling’s best-ever champion, didn’t take the first of his record-equalling five Tours until he was 24.

Those statistics aside, Pogačar’s rivals have reasons to be worried. He has ridden three stage races this season, and was the overall winner in each of those.

In addition to victories in the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the recent Tour of Slovenia, he also triumphed in the single-day Strade Bianche event, winning with a stunning 50-kilometre solo attack.

His biggest rivals are expected to be the Jumbo-Visma double whammy of Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard, second overall in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Roglic had a dramatic penultimate day slump two years ago while leading the event, and withdrew last year due to injury. The Tour has long been his big career goal and he has staked everything at being at his best this time around, while younger team-mate Vingegaard is also in fine form.

Other contenders include Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën), 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas plus his Ineos Grenadiers’ team-mates Adam Yates and Dani Martinez, as well as Bora-hansgrohe’s Aleksandr Vlasov.

The latter’s tilt at the general classification has had repercussions for Irish cycling. The Russian has been unexpectedly strong this year, winning the Volta à la Comunitat Valenciana and the Tour de Romandie, and was leading the Tour de Suisse until he tested positive with Covid and had to withdraw from the race.

Bora-hansgrohe’s decision to aim for a general classification challenge with him contributed to the shock announcement this week that it would leave both Sam Bennett and key lead-out rider Ryan Mullen off the team, something which is deeply disappointing to Irish fans.

Bennett won two stages plus the green jersey two years ago. He was injured last year and is still trying to return to his previous success rate. He told the team he was sure he’d be ready for the Tour de France, but with Vlasov riding well Bora-hansgrohe decided to prioritise a podium finish in the general classification.

Bennett will be frustrated to miss the Tour for a second year in a row but will likely aim to make a point by clocking up victories in the weeks ahead and, if selected, by adding to his three stage wins in the Vuelta a España.

With Ireland’s other WorldTour professionals Eddie Dunbar (Ineos Grenadiers) and Ben Healy (EF Education-EasyPost) also set to miss the Tour, it will be the first time since 2008 that there will be no Irish riders competing.

The race begins in Copenhagen on Friday with a 13.2-kilometre individual time-trial. Stages two through four look tailor-made for sprinters, while stage five to Wallers-Arenberg will include multiple sectors of cobblestones, à la Paris-Roubaix.

The first mountaintop finish looms next Friday with a race to La Super Planche des Belles Filles. Further summit finishes will be stage nine’s ramp to the line at Châtel les Portes du Soleil, stage 10′s concluder at Mégève, stage 11′s Col du Granon, stage 12′s Alpe d’Huez, stage 17′s Peyragudes and the following day’s race to the top of Hautacam.

Several other days also include testing climbs, heightening the importance for the overall contenders who rely on time-trials to regain ground to make the most of the penultimate day’s 40.7-kilometre solo test to Rocamadour on July 23rd.

The race will end the following day on the Champs Elysees, the scene of Bennett’s second stage win two years ago. He’ll unfortunately miss out this year, but don’t write him off for future Tours. As the old saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent.

If he can shrug off the disappointment and keep working hard, he’ll be back and winning again.

Three key stages

Stage 11, Albertville to Col du Granon

The 149 kilometre stage may be relatively short, but it is ferocious. The riders will dig deep to scale the 2,642 metre-high Col du Galiber, followed by the 2,413 metre high Col du Granon. The high altitudes will almost certainly see some riders crack, and may play to the strengths of some of the Colombian riders who are more used to living, training and racing at such heights.

Stage 12, Briançon to Alpe d’Huez

Bastille day always produces attacks from French riders and they will be particularly motivated to try for the early break on a day finishing atop the famous Alpe d’Huez. It is returning for the first time since Geraint Thomas won in 2018, and the day’s course will be a replica of the stage where Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault went shoulder to shoulder in 1986. They will head up the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix de Fer before the final ascent to the top of Alpe d’Huez.

Stage 17, Saint-Gaudens to Peyragudes

The 130 kilometre mountain stage takes four key climbs, namely the Col d’Aspin, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, the Col de Val Louron-Azet and then an eight kilometre final climb ending with a steep ramp to the line. The finish is on the runway which featured in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.

Tour de France 2022

Stage 1, Friday, July 1st: Copenhagen individual time trial, 13.2km

Stage 2, Saturday, July 2nd: Roskilde to Nyborg, 202.5km

Stage 3, Sunday, July 3rd: Vieje to Sonderborg, 182km

Rest day, Monday, July 4th: Lille

Stage 4, Tuesday, July 5th: Dunkirk to Calais, 171.5km

Stage 5, Wednesday, July 6th: Lille to Wallers-Arenberg, 157km

Stage 6, Thursday, July 7th: Binche to Longwy, 220km

Stage 7, Friday, July 8th: Tomblaine to La Super Planche des Belles Filles, 176.5km

Stage 8, Saturday, July 9th: Dole to Lausanne, 186.5km

Stage 9, Sunday, July 10th: Aigle to Châtel, 193km

Rest day, Monday, July 11th: Morzine

Stage 10, Tuesday, July 12th: Morzine to Mégève, 148.5km

Stage 11, Wednesday, July 13th: Albertville to Col du Granon, 152km

Stage 12, Thursday, July 14th: Briançon to Alpe d’Huez, 165.5km

Stage 13, Friday, July 15th: Bourg d’Oisans to Saint-Etienne, 193km

Stage 14, Saturday, July 16th: Saint-Etienne to Mende, 192.5km

Stage 15, Sunday, July 17th: Rodez to Carcassone, 202.5km

Rest day, Monday, July 18th: Carcassonne

Stage 16, Tuesday, July 19th: Carcassone to Foix, 178.5km

Stage 17, Wednesday, July 20th: Saint-Gaudens to Peyragudes, 130km

Stage 18, Thursday, July 21st: Lourdes to Hautacam, 143.5km

Stage 19, Friday, July 22nd: Castelnau-Magnoac to Cahors, 188.5km

Stage 20, Saturday, July 23rd: Lacapelle-Marivale to Rocamadour individual time-trial, 40.7km

Stage 21, Sunday, July 24th: Paris to Paris, 116km

Shane Stokes

Shane Stokes

Shane Stokes is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about cycling