Pogacar started as Tour de France unmasked prepares to roll
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Brest (France) (AFP)
The biggest cycling race in the world embarks on Saturday from the Atlantic port of Brest with the lifting of the French curfew of Covid and millions of unmasked fans expected along the 3,414 km course where the fit champion Tadej Pogacar is the man to beat.
The peloton starts from the windswept western tip of France in Brittany on June 26, crossing the peaks and plains of the most beautiful corners of the country, passing through the Alps and the Pyrenees before culminating with a stage 21 on the Champs Elysees in Paris on July 18.
The Tour will climb the emblematic mountain of Mont Ventoux, nicknamed “the Giant of Provence”, twice in one day, offering a mythical setting for a confrontation between Pogacar and his challengers in his title.
The race was originally scheduled to start in Copenhagen, but due to the global pandemic and a clash with the delayed Euro 2020 matches, Brittany moved forward a year and replaced the Danish capital.
Brittany is the home of the world-wide popular snack, the pancake. Its fiercely independent people inspired the Asterix le Gaulois comic strip. This year, the region with the omnipresent black and white flag, is also hosting four stages of the Tour.
Much of the initial drama is likely to be caused by wind, short steep climbs, and narrow country roads where gaps can suddenly open up in the peloton.
“People say it’s a traditional start,” Thierry Gouvenou, Tour de France course designer, told AFP on Wednesday. “But it’s not traditional at all.
“We’ve made the flat stages shortened or sometimes a lot more to make them faster or harder, and we’ve got all kinds of surprises in store with the hills and everything, you’ll find that traditional beacon is hopefully wrong before you even know than us in the mountains, âhe said.
The Tour passed through Brittany in 2018 when Welshman Geraint Thomas won, and he is the named leader of the Ineos (formerly Sky) team which has won seven of the last nine Tours.
Tour Ineos rookie and 2020 Giro champion Tao Geoghegan Hart said the team was “spoiled for wealth”.
“For us it’s about staying together and winning as a collective,” the Londoner said last week.
– Not a surprise, a shock –
He also revealed a particular interest in the mountainous stage 15 which ends in the tax haven of Andorra, where he resides.
“I know all the roads, it is certainly as much a home stage as I will ever have on the Tour,” he said.
Ineos will face the formidable 2020 champion Pogacar of the UAE Emirates team. The 22-year-old has already won two prestigious races this year and appears to have the talent to dig deeper.
He finished third in the Vuelta in 2019, won the Tour in 2020 on the penultimate day and already has two big wins to his name in 2021.
Another returning Brit is the all-time great sprinter of the Tour, Mark Cavendish, winner of 30 stages, the last of which was in 2016. He was recruited at the last minute to replace an injury by his team Deceuninck.
âI would be lying if I said it wasn’t a surprise,â said Manxman, 36. “Surprise is not the right word, I was shocked.”
His team boss Patrick Lefevere described him as “like a fantastic footballer who is always on the bench but who comes to score the winning goal”.
A pure sprinter, Cavendish will have up to eight chances to win the four he needs to equal the great Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage victories.
Chris Froome is also back, but in a supporting role, and he said it will be a close race this year.
âTadej Pogacar isn’t slowing down, is he? Froome said of the defending champion.
“Primoz Roglic is really strong and has a good team around him while Ineos has several leaders,” said Froome.
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