There are no fewer than seven favourites for the points qualification of this year’s Tour de France. They are Sagan, Sagan, Sagan, Sagan, Sagan, Sagan and Sagan. Coincidentally, seven is also the record number of times the 30-year-old Slovak – who is considered by many the best competitive cyclist in the world – has won the ŠKODA Green Jersey. As a measure of his success, Sagan has two Wikipedia entries, one of which is devoted entirely to his career achievements. Even Michelangelo doesn’t possess that.
Can anyone beat him this year? Probably not but Belgian Wout van Aert (as Sagan has already stated publicly) may give him a good run for his money. The 25-year-old three-time UCI Cyclo Cross world champion has all the tools: he’s an excellent sprinter and excels at time trials, having won this year’s Belgian individual time-trial championship and the ITT of the 2019 and 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné. He also won the points classification in both races. In addition, his Team Jumbo-Visma won the team time trial at last year’s Tour.
This year, van Aert won the 2020 Strade Bianche and the following week was victorious in the one-day Milan–San Remo after outsprinting defending champion Julian Alaphilippe to the finish line. However, Jumbo-Visma will undoubtedly be concentrating on winning the big prize with Primož Roglič or Tom Dumoulin and van Aert may have to sacrifice individual ambitions for the greater good, i.e., the yellow jersey.
Frenchman Alaphilippe shouldn’t be counted out either. He had a wonderful Tour last year, holding the yellow jersey for 14 stages, but came away with nothing more than a pat on the back by being called “the most competitive rider” of the Tour. The 28-year-old Deceuninck–Quick-Step co-captain will want something more substantial this year.
Though he’s a very good climber, he’s not good enough to keep up (as demonstrated in last year’s 19th stage) with the likes of Bernal, Roglič and Dumoulin. And he is not a good enough sprinter to match Sagan or van Aert, which leaves him in a kind of competitive limbo. Interestingly, the team’s directeur sportif, Tom Steels, has said that people should not expect the same bravura performance from Alaphilippe this year.
“For Julian, it will be very difficult to repeat last year’s Tour but, at the same time, it’s not necessary to do it. We will take it with him day by day and see what happens,” Steels said. “There are some nice opportunities for him but I can tell you we aren’t thinking of a scenario similar to that of the previous Tour.” Alaphilippe has said that he is not aiming for the general classification title this year. So what is he aiming for, a few stage wins? He has been there and done that. Beating Sagan would turn him into a national hero overnight.
You always have to cite a sprinter or two for the ŠKODA Green Jersey, but it’s impossible to pick out a dominant sprinter after this year’s truncated season. So how about Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan? Deceuninck–Quick-Step seems to have high hopes for the 29-year-old Bennett, team co-captain with Alaphilippe. Though the Belgium-born Irishman has yet to make an impact on the Tour, which he skipped for the past three years, he appears to have matured into a true Grand Tour sprinter. He won two sprint stages in last year’s Vuelta and finished third in the points classification, behind this year’s Tour title favourite Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar, a sure-fire future Grand Tour winner.
Caleb Ewan was the most successful sprinter in last year’s Tour, winning three stages and finishing second in the final ŠKODA Green Jersey standings. The Australian Lotto-Soudal rider is only 26 and continues to improve. But he finished 68 points behind Sagan in the final standings, which is a lot to make up in one year. He will need a severe loss of form in Sagan or something else just as unusual to occur to have any chance.
Speaking of unusual, the joker card in the Tour deck this year is Covid-19, which can scramble the race at any point, because race organizers have ruled that any team with two members, riders or staff, who test positive for the illness or show symptoms will be withdrawn from the race. So we can expect a Tour de France of big surprises.