Tadej Pogacar will start the Tour de France as the overwhelming favourite to wear yellow in Paris once again.
This, it seems, is the age of Pogacar. Since that day, 21 months ago, when he wrestled yellow away from his fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic on the penultimate day of the 2020 Tour, he has carried the air of the unbeatable.
Laid-back, affable, yet indefatigable, Pogacar has won seven of the eight stage races he has entered since, only settling for a podium finish in last year’s Tour of the Basque Country, and made securing his second consecutive Tour title 12 months ago look like a breeze.
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He has also proven his one-day credentials with victories in Il Lombardia and Strade-Bianche, and top-five finishes at the Olympics, Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders.
Now he returns to France – via the Grand Depart in Copenhagen – looking to join the elite club of riders with three or more Tour crowns. Only eight men have done it before. Pogacar, aged just 23, aims to make it nine.
Joining company which includes five-time winners Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain, plus Philippe Thys, Louison Bobet, Greg LeMond and Chris Froome, would put Pogacar in rarefied air.
Yet it would still feel like just the beginning for a rider who remains eligible for the young riders’ classification for another two years.
Such has been Pogacar’s dominance, it is easy to forget how new all this is, how small the sample size.
The feeling was that Roglic lost, as much as Pogacar won, the 2020 Tour. Roglic bossed the race for 11 days, only for it to fall apart on that desperate time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles.
Since then Pogacar has seemed on a different level, but Roglic has twice won the Vuelta a Espana, and we have only seen the two go head to head in stage races twice – Roglic beat Pogacar in the Basque Country last year while his Tour de France bid was curtailed by an early crash.
So how much does separate the two Slovenians? Can Roglic, 32, regain the upper hand on a rider he seemed to act like the big brother to in 2020 before being upstaged at the last?
And is he the only rider in the pack capable of challenging Pogacar? For years the Ineos Grenadiers, first as Team Sky then Team Ineos, bossed this race, winning seven out of eight editions between 2012 and 2019, but they have had no answer since the Slovenians took over.
They head into this race with three named leaders – sometimes a bonus, sometimes a cause of confusion.
Dani Martinez, super-domestique to Egan Bernal in last year’s Giro d’Italia, will be afforded his chance, though a Tour with plenty of time trial kilometres and the cobbles of northern France should suit Geraint Thomas.
The 2018 winner is now 36 but showed his form with victory in the Tour de Suisse and will be determined to have another crack at yellow, while Adam Yates is still seeking a Grand Tour result to match the potential the 29-year-old showed as a youngster.
The battle for yellow seems certain to dominate even more than usual in a Tour which has only a handful of sprint opportunities, and which has no Mark Cavendish to boot.
The Manxman, 37, missed out on selection for QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl, meaning there will no breaking Merckx’s record of 35 stage wins this summer. Fabio Jakobsen, who got the nod ahead of Cavendish, may well feel pressure to justify the team’s decision.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe, the great showman and darling of France, is also missing after his horror crash at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, another reason all eyes will be on the fight to prove Pogacar is not infallible.