To say that the inhabitants of Brest, hosting the Grand Départ of the 108th edition of the Tour de France this Saturday, know a thing or two about cycling and its champions, is something of an understatement.

Brittany is a cycling stronghold – a region that claims Bernard Hinault as its most authentic and emblematic child – and this is the fourth time the Grande Boucle kicks off from Brest, after 1952, 1974 and 2008. On the most recent occasion, Alejandro Valverde took the yellow jersey and three future winners of the Tour de France were discovering the event: Andy Schleck, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali.

With Covid-19 restrictions being gradually lifted in France, the Bretons are ready to celebrate the Tour, cheer for their own champions led by the likes of Valentin Madouas and Warren Barguil.

They will see the peloton off on a 3,417km journey to Paris which will include two individual time trials and 60 categorised ascents. Battles will be led over mountain passes higher than 2,000m: Col du Portet, Col du Tourmalet and Port d’Envalira, bringing the Tour to its highest point (2,408m) as the race ventures into Andorra – the only time it leaves France during this year’s edition.

Slovenians and Ineos Grenadiers at the forefront

Ten months after its last edition – held later in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic -, the Tour de France returns to the early summer this year. The overall winner will not only be a champion in his own right, but most likely backed by a very strong team. Following the trends seen in the different stage races of 2021 so far, Slovenians and Ineos Grenadiers are hot favourites to parade victoriously on the Champs-Élysées on 18 July.

The 2020 winner Tadej Pogačar returns to France with increased support within the ranks of UAE Team Emirates. The Slovenian’s  historic victory has been followed by more success in the 2021 UCI WorldTour: he won the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico (ITA), as well as the Belgian Monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Pogačar’s worst result in a UCI WorldTour stage race this season was 3rd in the Itzulia Basque Country, when his compatriot Primoz Roglič powered to a spectacular victory ahead of his Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard (who will be lining up in Brest for his first Tour de France).

Roglič’s crash in Paris-Nice as he was leading the overall standings opened the door for Maximilian Schachmann’s victory. That success slipped from the Slovenian grip. All the other UCI WorldTour stage races have been won by riders from Ineos Grenadiers, who couldn’t fit all their stars into their impressive line-up for the Tour.

While Egan Bernal and Adam Yates remain on the side-line towards their next objectives of the season, Geraint Thomas (winner of the Tour de Romandie), Richie Porte (Critérium du Dauphiné) and Richard Carapaz (Tour de Suisse) all head to France aiming to reconquer the Tour. The British squad, which can also count on 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, have claimed seven overall victories in Paris between 2012 and 2019.

Will the yellow jersey be a three-way battle exclusively held between Pogačar, Roglič and the Ineos Grenadiers? Other powerhouses such as Movistar Team, Bahrain Victorious and Bora-Hansgrohe will try to impose their will on events. And let’s not underestimate how mavericks such as Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) and Nairo Quintana (Team Arkéa Samsic) can dictate the race on their days.

Explosive talents on the line

A similar story goes for the sprinters. Although Sam Bennett (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) will be unable to defend his green jersey due to injury, his replacement Mark Cavendish will be able to draw on his vast experience faced with the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). Each of them has fire in their legs but who will enjoy the best support to put him in prime position and lead him to victory? Alpecin-Fenix will also have cards to play with Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen.

The slightest mistake can be fatal with such a level of opposition and with dangerous riders such as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) willing to make the most of their extended range of talents.

In the field of unique talents, one should never say never when it comes to Mathieu Van der Poel and his abilities, but with the Tokyo Olympic Games in sight, it’s very unlikely that in a month’s time the star from Alpecin-Fenix will join the list of Tour de France winners who discovered the Tour in Brest. But the first explosive days could very well see him power into the Maillot Jaune, the prestigious jersey that always escaped his legendary grandfather Raymond Poulidor.

Many other exciting debutants will line up in Bretagne this weekend: the three-time Individual Time Trial Under 23 UCI World Champion Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates), the holder of the UCI Hour Record timed by Tissot Victor Campenaerts (Team Qhubeka Assos), the winner of the 2020 Giro d’Italia Tao Geoghegan Hart and rising talents such as Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo), Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) and Brent Van Moer (Lotto Soudal). The legend of the Maillot Jaune awaits them. –

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