What to look out for in the 2021 Tour de France
After coming so close to being canceled in 2020, the difficulties the riders had preparing and achieving form during lockdowns, then the restrictions and compromises of last year’s Tour, the 2021 edition seems to be celebrating almost a pre-pandemic level of freedom and return to normality. What a relief!
Schedule of the 2021 Tour de France
- This edition of the Tour de France sets out from Brest, in Brittany, on Saturday, June 26th.
- The race includes 21 stages and 2 rest days, concluding in Paris on July 18th.
The 2021 Tour de France Route – an intriguing mix of stages
This year’s Grand Depart was planned for Denmark, but had to be changed to accommodate the pandemic-adjusted Olympics and European Soccer Championships. The Tour will now start in the very scenic, and cycling-mad, Brittany region of France; Denmark will wait for the 2022 edition.
The first few days of racing will be a showcase for the sprinters and puncheurs. Expect the Yellow Jersey of race leader to change hands a few times through these stages. The route becomes more mountainous heading into the second week, in the center of the country, and this presents a chance for a strong rider with climbing ability to gain an advantage that can be defended through the later high mountains.
The race will follow the fairly usual format of more flat and rolling stages in the early part of the race, with higher mountain stages later on. This year however, the almost traditional sequence is mixed up a little, by reversing the Alpine and Pyrenean stages, and with fewer mountain top finishes than we are used to. The route heads into the Alps in week 2, with fewer days there but two ascents of the iconic Mont Ventoux. The strategically crucial stages of week 3 will be in the Pyrenees.
Overall, the 2021 Tour de France route puts less emphasis on climbing. There will be fewer opportunities to create big time differences with late attacks on key climbs, more chances to gain advantages early in stages, and more stages where crosswinds can turn the standings upside down. Look for more successful breakaways, led by puncheurs who may have a chance to hold on through the mountains for once.
There are 2 individual time trials this year, one early and one very late in the race. These can cause big swings in the fortunes of race leaders, so they will be worth watching closely.
All in all, the route sets the stage for a lot of potential drama all the way through the race, and gives us the usual feast of beautiful French landscapes.
Essential Stages to Watch
There are a lot of stages this year where the outcome could be unpredictable for a variety of reasons, which makes any of them potentially interesting. However, for guaranteed drama and knock-your-socks-off scenery, the high mountain stages are hard to beat. The early time trial will certainly mix things up, but the later one toward the end of the race may once again decide the winner with a reversal of hard won advantage. The time trial format can be less interesting to watch, but the suspense can be intense, so it’s still well worth paying attention to this stage.
Stage 1: June 26, Brest to Landerneau, 197.8km
There’s always a bit of pageantry to enjoy with the Grand Depart, but this opening stage should also be a day of real road racing, with a course made to highlight both the puncheurs and the sprinters as they battle for the first taste of glory.
Stage 8: July 3, Oyonnax to Le Grand Bornard, 151km
With the first day of real climbing, this stage will mark an opening for strategic moves, so it should be a good stage to focus on.
Stage 11: July 7, Sorgues to Malaucène, 199km
There will be some great climbing stages heading into the Alps, but the stage where riders will crest Mont Ventoux twice in one day will be one of the most dramatic and intense. That makes a definite must-watch for TDF fans.
Stage 18: July 15, Pau to Luz Ardiden, 127.7km
The main contenders for the podium should be clear by the time the race enters the Pyrenees. There are several stages with prodigious climbing against stunning Pyrenean backdrops, any of which will be great to watch and could be key stages strategically. If I had to pick one highlight stage I would choose this one, as the last chance for the climbers to turn the race to their advantage, featuring an iconic TDF venue, the Col du Tourmalet.
Stage 20: July 17, Libourne to Saint Emilion, 30.8km
Placing an individual time trial as the penultimate stage leaves the possibility that the race will be upended at the last moment. There’s so much pressure on the riders, and their efforts to overcome the physical and mental toll of three weeks of racing one last time, with everything at stake, makes for guaranteed drama.
The Riders to Watch in the 2021 Edition
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) won the Tour de France last year with an astonishing performance in a late race time trial, a feat he was able to pull off partly because he was an underdog and could reserve his strength. He has no such luxury this year, but is in great form and has the natural advantage of the defending winner’s intimidation factor.
Fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), edged out by Pogačar last year, is also a main favorite in 2021. He was very impressive last year, and has been training very purposefully for this year’s Tour. It’s fascinating to see the emergence of Slovenia as a cycling power, perhaps led by perennial crowd-pleaser Peter Sagan?
Don’t rule the once-dominant Brits out completely. Four-time TDF winner Chris Froome is back in the race with a new team, Israel Start-Up Nation. He might not be a favorite this time around, but he certainly has the credentials. The fact that he is in shape to participate at all is remarkable, given the extent of the injuries he suffered in a devastating crash two years ago. His former team mate, Welshman Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) won the Tour more recently, and this year has shown the strength and form to repeat. Thomas’ team mates Australian Richie Porte and Ecuadoran Richard Carapaz, have also shown great form leading up to this year’s Tour, and they both have podium potential in their own right. The team’s depth could be a decisive factor, particularly through those arduous climbing days.
Other riders to watch include Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo), a repeat previous podium finisher who is in good form and well supported. With Thibault Pinot sidelined, French hopes are resting on Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), along with Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep). Alaphillipe wore the Yellow Jersey for much of the race in 2018, but hasn’t shown the same fire since. Gaudu may be the one to keep the closest eye on. Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange), has previous podium finishes and, with the right mix of luck and support, could also be capable of the G.C. win.
For the points race, the battle for the hotly contested Green Jersey, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is a natural choice. He has won it seven times in his nine TDFs, but Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) stole that particular crown last year with amazing sprinting form, and was just cleared to compete in the Tour after earlier injury. It’s sure to be a great contest between these two, but keep an eye on Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), both of whom could dominate the sprints if things go their way.
Speaking of Brits (I am one, so please excuse my detour), it’s disappointing, and a little ironic, to see Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) miss the Tour due to his team mate, Sam Bennet’s return to health. Bennet is the rightful placement as defending Green Jersey holder, but after languishing for two years with a persistent virus, Cavendish has finally returned to the kind of sprinting form that gained him 30 career Tour de France stage wins. It would have been great to see if he could get closer to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins, while he’s still young enough to be in reach.
Tour de France Bikes and Technology for 2021
Teams are constantly looking for ways to gain an edge, and the equipment they use plays a significant part. Certainly no team takes any risks with unproven equipment, so it’s fun to keep an eye on which technologies are being used, both to make it easier for riders to go faster for longer, and to make maintenance and in-race fixes faster. The Tour is a showcase for the best of the best on the road, and gives us mere mortals something to aspire to in our own quests for speed.
The entire peloton has used carbon frames and wheels for some time now, and is evenly split between Shimano Dura Ace and Campagnolo Super Record groupsets, with just one team riding SRAM Red. Perhaps the most significant innovation is the wide use of disc brakes: only one team is still using rim brakes in 2021: Ineos Grenadiers. Keep an eye on mechanical incidents and bike swaps due to brake problems. Riders have said they are happy with disc braking performance wet and dry, but there may still be potential problems with reliability, especially on long mountain descents.
Best Ways to Watch the 2021 Tour de France
The official Tour de France site provides lots of great information on the course, stages, full details on race standings and classification competitions. The site also offers a live feed following each stage, with a nifty graphic presentation of the riders progressing over a profile of the terrain. You can see how the race develops, where the leaders and stragglers are relative to the peloton, and the fluctuations of deficits in real time. There’s a stream of helpful text commentary too. It’s not perfect, but it gets better every year and is a great way to follow along while you’re doing something else, like… working.
The Guardian also offers a live stream, with very well informed commentary that gives quite a bit more detail than the official site. I often switch back and forth between the two for a complete picture of the race.
There’s nothing like watching a live video feed for capturing the excitement of a critical stage, and in the internet age that’s easier than ever. In the US at least, the best option this year is through NBC’s Peacock Premium streaming service. That costs $4.99 a month ($9.99 without ads), and it appears will give you access to live video of the race, and on-demand replays.
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