This year’s Tour is a climber’s race, filled with steep mountains and offering only a single time trial, which should also be won by a climber. There are other excellent ascenders in the Tour but only the two favourites appear to possess the stamina and the ability to recover from strenuous efforts day after day over three weeks that are necessary to win a Tour de France. The ability to give everything one day and bounce back strong the next distinguishes a Tour de France GC winner from an also-ran. Weakness in a single stage is usually enough to lose the winner’s yellow jersey as Pogačar showed in last year’s stage 11 when he lost some 3 minutes to Vingegaard and never challenged again.
I think the key to this year’s Tour is how well Pogačar has recovered from the broken wrist he suffered in a crash in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and how much the lack of racing since April has affected his racing fitness. Until the crash, the 24-year-old Slovenian had a brilliant season, winning the Vuelta a Andalucia, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders, the Amstel Gold Race and the Flèche Wallonne.
He did ride in the recent Slovenian national championships, winning the time trial by more than 5 minutes. Afterwards, he said, “My hand no longer hinders me but I have to be careful not to hit my wrist.” If that’s true, it’s a worry because I don’t see how you can race on a bike for three weeks, over different terrains and in different weather conditions, and not bang your wrist now and then. When healthy and fit, Pogačar can do more things on a bike better than anyone else in the world. The only question is if he will be racing this Tour at the peak of his powers.
21 stages. 21 battles. It begins Saturday.
21 étapes. 21 batailles. Début des hostilités samedi.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) June 26, 2023
On the other hand, Vingegaard seems to be a stronger and more mature rider this year than he was when he won the Tour last year. He demolished his rivals in the Critérium du Dauphiné, winning the GC by the biggest margin of victory in 30 years. Sure, Adam Yates, who finished second, is no Pogačar but he is a strong climber and a very good time trial rider and the 2 min 23 sec that separated him from Vingegaard revealed an enormous gulf.
I also think teams will again play a vital part in the race outcome this year, as they did in 2022. Unfortunately for Jumbo-Visma, the excellent domestique Steven Kruijswijk suffered serious injuries in a crash in the Dauphiné and will miss the Tour. Still, that leaves Sepp Kuss, the best mountain domestique in the world, the indomitable Wout van Aert, Wilco Kelderman, Nathan Van Hooydonck, Tiesj Benoot, Dylan van Baarle and Christophe Laporte, an astonishing lineup of very strong riders. Pogačar will have Adam Yates, Marc Soler, Rafał Majka and Felix Großschartner supporting him, all strong riders, but I think Vingegaard has more firepower on his side. The GC victory may eventually just come down to luck – a puncture halfway up the Grand Colombier, waking up with a cold, one day without strong legs…)
The only reason to talk about other riders winning the Tour is for the unlikely case that both favourites suffer bad luck or are forced to abandon. Should that come to pass, I think Adam Yates would have a fair chance to ride away with the yellow jersey, based on his performance in the Dauphiné; or perhaps the always promising but rarely delivering Enric Mas (Movistar); or France’s David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), former Giro winner Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) or even (why not?) Wout van Aert (with plenty of help from his team on the climbs); or perhaps Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost) has one more good race in his legs. But the truth is, beyond the Big Two, you just throw the dice and wait for them to stop rolling.
One interesting rider in the race is Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Mathieu van der Poel who has started the last two Tours winning one stage but never finishing a race. He could be the first wearer of the yellow jersey, as the hilly stage 1, run in and around the city of Bilbao, fits him like a custom-tailored suit. If he sticks it out for the entire three weeks, don’t be surprised to see him ride as a lead-out for the team’s excellent sprinter Jasper Pedersen. Otherwise, expect to watch an exciting duel between the two strongest Grand Tour riders in the world, which will probably be won by Vingegaard.
You can also expect a lot of conversation during this year’s Tour about rider safety, for the race will be run in the long shadow cast by the death of the popular Swiss rider Gino Mäder who died at age 26 from injuries sustained in a crash on a high-speed descent in this year’s Tour de Suisse. According to The Guardian, new safety proposals will likely be announced before the Tour starts on July 1. The new head of the riders’ union the CPA, Adam Hansen, told the paper that a special meeting was to take place on July 28 with the Tour organizers, the ASO, the participating teams, the UCI and Hansen, to discuss what action to take with certain downhill finishes in the race.
One promising suggestion, Hansen said, was to deploy safety netting, as used in downhill skiing, on the most dangerous descents, particularly when long, fast straights are followed by tight turns. This idea was first put forward by EF Education-EasyPost’s general manager Jonathan Vaughters immediately after Mäder’s death. Hansen said that the Tour’s organizers are open to doing everything possible to ensure the race is as safe as can be. “Our goal should be to minimize danger as much as possible,” he added.