Tour de France: From Tadej Pogačar to Peter Sagan, five stories to watch

Who will emerge as the Tour's underdog? Can Ineos Grenadiers be stopped again? Every Tour de France starts with a clean slate.

Photo: Jure Makovec / AFP

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The 108th Tour de France clicks into gear on June 26 in Brest.

Like every Tour, the race starts with a clean slate. No one knows who will win, yet every Tour comes with a guarantee of drama.

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Three weeks of racing will deliver winners, disappointments, and surprises. Like a book with blank pages, each stage will fill out the narrative with heroes, underdogs, and perhaps even a villain or two.

Here are five storylines we’ll be following over the next few weeks:

Can Tadej Pogačar do it again?

Tadej Pogacar won the 2020 Tour de France
Tadej Pogacar won the 2020 Tour de France. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

There hasn’t been a more exciting rider to arrive to the peloton in years.

And the fact that Tadej Pogačar isn’t wearing Ineos Grenadiers colors makes it even better. That means we’ve got a real race on our hands.

Last year’s Tour delivered the biggest surprise finale since Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon and his flopping ponytail in 1989. Pogačar’s uphill TT reversal against Primož Roglič ranks right up there with some of the all-time greatest Tour moments.

Also read: Pogačar flips the Tour de France script

It’s hard to imagine a repeat of the penultimate-stage collapse for the 2021 Tour, but it still should be a delight to watch the young Slovenian ride with all the pressure of defending champion.

It’s one thing to race the Tour without any responsibility — just look how Egan Bernal struggled in 2020 as defending champ — yet it seems that nothing can shake Pogačar’s resolve.

There’s no rider as dynamic and prolific as Pogačar, and he seems poised to be even better during this Tour.

Backed by a stronger team than in 2020, Pogačar could prove unstoppable in the coming years if someone doesn’t step up and stop him in 2021.

Get the popcorn ready — the battle for yellow should be the most hotly contested since, well, last year.

Will Peter Sagan reclaim green?

Pity the fool who writes off Peter Sagan.

The Sagan saga will see a new chapter written in 2021, but we still don’t know how it ends.

Last week, I wrote how Caleb Ewan could keep Sagan out of green. That all depends on the first week. The lumpy stages are ideal for Sagan, who typically distances the sprinters on more challenging terrain and puts a stranglehold on the points competition.

If Sagan comes roaring out the gate, perhaps even win a stage early and gap the likes of Ewan on a few select days, then Sagan could be back in green.

Also read: Peter Sagan learning to win in new ways

Ewan should be in the mix. With Sam Bennett looking off top form and Mathieu van der Poel eyeing Tokyo, the Australian pocket rocket could be in with a chance.

The way the points are allocated now, however, it’s a bigger story if Sagan doesn’t win green than if he does. Personally, I liked the former points allocation — with fewer points per sprint but with more intermediate sprints along each — that kept the green jersey fight in suspense all the way until Paris.

Either way, I’m looking forward to watching a back-in-form (and off-contract) Sagan race in this Tour.

No rider delivered as many thrills and delights over much of the past decade as Sagan.

One more shot at green should see one of the more compelling stories in this year’s Tour.

Will COVID stay beaten down?

Mikel Landa getting a temperature check
Riders were subjected to temperature checks throughout 2020. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

COVID-19, remember that?

Oh, that pesky bug isn’t done yet, and the world pandemic will continue to mark this year’s Tour de France.

The good news is that Europe is catching up in the vaccine game, and some of the most severe COVID restrictions could be relaxed soon across France.

This year’s Tour will still look and feel like the COVID Tour 2020, however, with most of the protocol and mitigation measures of 2020 remaining in place. Riders will be masked up, and health controls will monitor the peloton.

Social distancing rules will largely remain in place, and crowds will be limited at starts and finishes, but fans watching at home probably won’t notice the difference. After all, last year was one of the most thrilling editions of the Tour ever, and despite a few COVID hiccups, the race made it to Paris.

Also read: Inside the bubble at the 2020 Tour de France

The hope is that by 2022, the COVID genie will be back in the bottle, or at least tapped down enough to allow fans to return to the roadside and finish lines.

Professional racing revealed its best side in 2020 rising to the COVID challenge, and delivering some of the most exciting racing in years just as cycling was one of the few major sports to be contested without major disruption.

The sport is positioned to capitalize on what happened in 2020, and another top Tour will do just that.

Can anyone derail the Ineos Grenadiers train?

Ineos Grenadiers, shown here racing Sunday at the Volta a Catalunya, swept the final podium in the Spanish WorldTour race. Photo: Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The British team that won seven of eight yellow jerseys on a trot seemed like yesterday’s news in last year’s Tour de France.

By all indications, 2020 was a hiccup and not some sort of signal that the team had lost its mojo.

Funded by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos Grenadiers today has more money than anyone in the WorldTour by a wide margin. And the team used that blank checkbook to sign up even more talent, and Dave Brailsford’s squad look stronger than ever.

Also read: Ineos Grenadiers oddly an underdog despite strong lineup

Ineos Grenadiers will field a team packed with potential winners, ranging from 2018 champion Geraint Thomas to 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart. Richard Carapaz, a Giro winner in 2019, and Richie Porte fill out its “Fab Four” lineup. Any one of those co-leaders could win.

Some people don’t like Ineos Grenadiers, yet the high-profile makeover in the post-Froome era is putting the team’s best face forward. Its ability to field multiple leaders brings a new layer to the team’s dynamics.

Ineos Grenadiers promises to race in an aggressive, forward stance, and that might be true so long as it’s not in yellow. If and when the team grabs the yellow tunic, expect the “Sky Train” to come throttling back.

Who will emerge as the underdog favorite?

TOURMALET BARÈGES, FRANCE - JULY 20: David Gaudu of France and Team Groupama-FDJ / Col de Tourmalet (2115m)/ Fans / Public / Mountains / during the 106th Tour de France 2019, Stage 14 a 117km stage from Tarbes to Tourmalet Barèges 2115m - Souvenir Jacques Goddet / TDF / #TDF2019 / @LeTour / on July 20, 2019 in Tourmalet Barèges, France. (Photo by )
David Gaudu, shown here at the 2019 Tour, could surprise. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Every Tour de France has one — that scrappy rider or team that over-performs.

Remember Thomas Voeckler? He made a career at wagging his tongue at the favorites, and nearly finished on the Tour podium one year.

Also read: Julian Alaphilippe and David Gaudu shoulder the burden of French expectations at Tour de France

Who will be the Taco van der Hoorn of this year’s Tour?

There are a few candidates. David Gaudu will be hunting for a stage win to salve the home fans. Sergio Higuita will be a scrapper in the GC, and Kasper Asgreen will crush at some point during the Tour.

Also read: ‘Project Froome’ falls short for 2021 Tour de France

Ben O’Connor, set to lead at Ag2r-Citroën, could be the Cinderella story on GC if he can hang into the top-10. How far can Michael Woods go in his debut as a protected rider in the Tour?

And who would have ever thought Chris Froome an underdog? Considering his comeback from his 2019 crash, Froome’s presence in the Tour de France is a victory in many ways, but for a rider of his class, just starting won’t be enough.

If Froome somehow wrangles his way into the top-10, his 2021 spring campaign will go down as one of the greatest bluffs in cycling history.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.