30 days to the Tour de France: Why this year’s race could be one for the ages

Pogačar vs. Vingegaard, Cavendish's Merckxian challenge, Sagan's long goodbye, US stage-hunters: Here are five story lines that will make the 2023 Tour stand out.

Photo: Gruber Images/Velo

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The Giro d’Italia is in the rearview mirror. The spring classics are already gathering dust in the history books.

It’s showtime, and the 2023 Tour de France is only one month away.

Riders and teams are putting the finishing touches of their months-long quest to be “Tour thin,” and are bracing for elite men’s cycling’s biggest and most prestigious stage race.

Every-day sports fans know it. The yellow jersey brings the mystique and prestige to engage the world’s media once each summer. Every July, the sporting world turns its gaze to France.

Teams’ fortunes ride on being at the start line, riders sacrifice for months to be at the razor-thin line in the quest for elusive form, and a stage win, a spell in the yellow jersey, or a spot on the top-three final podium on the Champs-Élysées can catapult anyone into the stratosphere.

There’s no road race like the Tour.

The 2023 Tour starts July 1 in Bilbao, and ends July 23 in Paris.

Here are five story lines that will make the 2023 Tour stand out:

1. Questions about Pogačar: Which version will show up?

Pogačar’s been unbeatable this season until injury cut his spring campaign short. (Photo: DAVID PINTENS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

On paper, this Tour de France looks like UAE Team Emirates might have had a hand in designing the course. The route, on paper at least is tailor-made for the two-time winner.

Yet one month out of the Tour, there are major question marks on which version of Pogačar will show up in Spain’s Basque Country. It’s all but certain Pogačar will race, but doubts linger both about how his broken hand and wrist suffered at Liège-Bastogne-Liège will impact his ability to race, and of his overall fitness.

Pogačar is back on the road for training, and team trainers told Velo’s Jim Cotton that they expect the Slovenian, still only 24, to be able to bounce back from the injury.

The biggest question mark is whether or not he can handle the punishing stresses of racing. Doctors will be cautious not to put Pogačar in a dangerous position, but the steep and rough Basque Country hill country is far from an ideal way to start the Tour. Steering, climbing, descending, and braking put tremendous pressure on the hand and wrist, and the lumpy first week will quickly reveal if Pogačar will have any race-threatening difficulties.

Perhaps less worrisome but still a concern will be Pogačar’s form at arrival. Though he’s never far from top fitness, and even though the forced training break due to injury came at a time when he was going to have some down time after lighting up the classics anyway, any injury stop can have some unforeseen implications.

One or two percentage points off peak form is often the difference between victory and the top-5. The climb-heavy course also favors Jonas Vingegaard.

Pogačar will also be racing into the unknown during this Tour. Up until now, luckily he’s never seriously been injured, and no one knows how a rider will react on the comeback trail. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

2. Last dance: Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, Thibaut Pinot, Greg Van Avermaet

This season’s been a long goodbye for Peter Sagan. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Some of the peloton’s biggest names will be racing their final edition of the “grand boucle,” and the race will serve as a three-week-long parade for riders who marked a generation.

Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, and Thibaut Pinot are all expected to race their final Tour. All three were central characters in every narrative of the Tour over the past decade or more.

Each will be chasing one last hurrah on cycling’s biggest stage.

Cavendish, of course, is racing for history. Tied with Eddy Merckx at 34 stage victories, the 38-year-old sprinter needs one more stage win to set an all-time Tour stage-win mark. Granted, Merckx also won mountain stages, time trials, and a record-tying five yellow jerseys, yet Cavendish’s track record even if his Tour wins all came in bunch sprints cannot be discounted.

Cavendish victory during the Giro d’Italia last month is a preview of what he’s likely going to face during the Tour de France. Throughout the Giro, he was forced to freelance the sprints and even counted on former teammate Geraint Thomas from Ineos Grenadiers to lead him out in Rome in the Giro’s final stage. Without the “Wolfpack” leading him out, Cavendish will have a rough go, but as everyone agrees, never count out Cavendish.

Sagan, too, will be angling for one final coup at the Tour. The Slovakian was the superstar of his generation, but a string of illnesses and injuries has seen him leave the Tour without a stage win since 2020. Ever proud, Sagan will be racing for glory.

Other big names riding in their final Tour will be Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) and likely Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). The French climber fell short of winning stage at the Giro, but brought home the best climber’s jersey.

3. Hardest opening day ever

Adios to opening prologues, and the sprinters won’t even have a have a prayer to win the first yellow jersey in 2023.

The 182km opening stage up and down the steep climbs in and around Bilbao is the hardest opening stage the Tour de France peloton has ever faced.

The rollercoaster stage hits five officially rated climbs, but there’s barely a flat road on tap. The stage opens with a climb in the opening 15km, and after packing in three more climbs, the course hits the decisive Côte de Pike and summits with about 10km to go. The climb is about 2000m long and averages with peloton-splitting 10-percent grades.

The road plunges to Bilbao, only to hit the flamme rouge and a 5 percent gradient to the line.

The course favors a rider who is explosive enough to attack over the climbs, and then save some horsepower for a reduced bunch sprint. The stage will pit GC favorites like Pogačar and Vingegaard against Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock.

With the Jaizkibel on tap the following day in stage 2 into San Sebastián, and the opening weekend could see significant GC differences even before crossing back into French territory.

The Basque Country “gran départ” will set the tone for this Tour that should see plenty of plot twists and turns.

4. North Americans rising: Powless, Jorgenson looking to leave mark

Matteo Jorgenson, back for his second Tour de France, is committed to winning a stage. (Photo: Alex Broadway/Getty Images)

North American riders will play a starring role during this Tour de France, with several top names expected to return with ambitions of making their presence felt.

Mike Woods and stage-winner Hugo Houle are expected to race for Canada with Israel-Premier Tech, and another stage victory will be their paramount goal.

The number of U.S. riders is still unconfirmed one month out, but Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) are expected to be the headliners.

Both will be chasing a breakthrough stage win. Both came close last year, and Powless will also be testing his GC legs, and try to stay in the hunt for the top-10 going into the final week. Jorgenson, who rode into three winning breakaways in 2022, is putting everything on a stage victory.

Other likely starters could include Lawson Craddock (Jayco-AlUla), who will be at the service of Simon Yates and the team’s sprinters, as well as possible returns of Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), hot off pacing Primož Roglič to victory at the Giro, Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), and possibly Joe Dombrowski (Astana-Qazaqstan) and Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates), who also raced the Giro. Magnus Sheffield could be tapped for his Tour debut at Ineos Grenadiers.

Kuss in 2021 is the last U.S. Tour stage-winner. The current generation seems poised to increase that number.

5. Year of the outsider: Can someone deliver a stunner?

Could Carapaz play spoiler? He will need luck to turn his way. (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

On paper, this Tour is poised to see a repeat of the Vingegaard-Pogačar clash of 2022.

At first glance, it’s very likely the pair will dominate the conversation for the yellow jersey.

Pogačar seemed poised to rattle off a string of yellow jerseys until his stunning loss last year to the power play executed by Jumbo-Visma on the Col du Galibier and Vingegaard’s superior climbing legs.

Pogačar’s been on a revenge rampage since then, but his Liège crash and subsequent injury stop could throw up hurdles for the otherwise seamless Slovenian.

This Tour will be one of confirmation for Vingegaard. Any first-time winner is inevitably under pressure to defend their title, and with the backing of the very deep Jumbo-Visma lineup, the determined Dane starts as the pre-race favorite.

Almost no one behind the pair brings legitimate Tour de France credentials.

The only other former winners who be racing could be Chris Froome and Egan Bernal. Froome’s best days are well in the rear-view mirror, while Bernal is still battling back from his devastating crash and remains firmly on the bubble on whether or not he’ll race. And both start, neither are expected to be racing for yellow by the third week if they make that long.

The other contenders are on a second tier. Simon Yates (Jayco-AlUla), Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost), and Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be the only other former grand tour winners in Bilbao.

The climb-heavy course, however, could open the way for a surprise winner.

The Tour’s history is laden with one-off winners, especially in periods between the emergence of dominating riders. Pogačar and potentially Vingegaard both could be well on the way to more yellow jerseys, so surprise might require seeing both of them suffer a significant setback.

Carapaz won his 2019 Giro in large part playing the role of the spoiler. The opportunistic EF Education-EasyPost team always races with unconventional playbook. Hindley and Yates both should thrive in this climb-heavy Tour profile.

Hometown hero Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) will likely be racing conservatively with an eye on the final podium, while it’s unlikely Enric Mas (Movistar) will be trying anything too crazy as he is also setting his sites on the final podium.

Who could play the role of script-breaker?

There are rumors that Giro winner Primož Roglič could race, and he’d line up with no pressure with the ability to follow in the wake of the leaders to ride into the third week to give the team a second ace in the hole. If anyone could do it, Roglič might just be the one.

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.

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