COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Primoz Roglic must find a way to stop his Slovenian rival Tadej Pogacar from winning the Tour de France for the third straight time.
Pogacar is firm favorite to win the three-week race, which starts in Denmark on Friday and ends in Paris on July 24.
Pogacar won Tirreno-Adriatico and the UAE Tour this year, and showed his class with an unprecedented long-distance solo attack to win the Strade Bianche in March — despite being involved in a crash early on in the one-day race.
“I think my shape is good, not too much different compared to last year,” Pogacar said Thursday. “I feel more confident, I also feel stronger, but we’ll see in the race if it’s true or not.”
Roglic was brilliantly aided at the Dauphine by his Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard, a climbing ace who is also quick. Vingegaard was visibly moved when Danish fans chanted his name at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen on Wednesday. They will cheer him again in Friday's opening time trial around Denmark's capital city.
“As long as we work together, we believe we can beat (Pogacar),” Roglic said. “We are a strong team and we have a lot of qualities.”
Jumbo-Visma has Vingegaard, last year's Tour runner-up, as a co-leader in case Roglic fades, while Pogacar remains the outright No. 1 on the UAE Team Emirates lineup.
“It’s a big difference having two compared to one. A lot can happen in the Tour, there's so much stress," Vingegaard said. "We really want to go with two leaders and we believe we can challenge Pogacar.”
They bonded at the Dauphine by sharing beers after stages on the hotel balcony.
“Jonas is super strong, we’re strong individually, and so the whole team is strong,” Roglic insisted. “We’re super good friends."
Dutch rider Steven Kruijswijk and American Sepp Kuss will help Roglic in the mountains. He will need it against Pogacar, who also twice won the polka-dot jersey for best climber.
Meanwhile, teammate Wout van Aert eyes the green jersey for best sprinter. But the one-day classics specialist and former cyclo-cross world champion is nursing a sore kneecap.
Another threat is Australian rider Ben O’Connor, who finished fourth in 2021.
The race features the return of Paris-Roubaix's cobblestones and six mountain stages with five summit finishes, including the famed Alpe d’Huez ascent with its 21 hairpins.
Before reaching the heights, the peloton discovers Copenhagen's Little Mermaid during Friday's 13-kilometer (eight-mile) clock race.
“We have decided that I’ll be the third rider from the team to start. This is the most comfortable way,” Pogacar said. “I don’t think I can win it, but I’ll give the maximum and it’s not too long.”
The second stage is for sprinters, 202 kilometers (125 miles) from the port city of Roskilde to Nyborg in central Denmark.
It could be windy, like Stage 3, which starts from Vejle on the Jutland Peninsula and ends in Sonderborg in southern Denmark after 182 kilometers (113 miles) of flats.
After a travel day, riders tackle on Tuesday five small climbs on the route from the French coastal city of Dunkerque to Calais.
Treacherous cobbles follow on Stage 5 and then a mountaintop finish at the Planche des Belles Filles awaits on Stage 7. Pogacar grabbed the yellow jersey there in 2020 by crushing Roglic in a dramatic time trial on the eve of the finish.
“There’s a tricky first week with possible crosswinds on the flat, bridges and cobbles," Pogacar said. "If we manage to remain united as a team, we don’t need to ride aggressively. We just have to fight for positions. We’re ready for that.”
The Pyrenees have daunting climbs to Peyragudes ski resort and Hautacam.
The penultimate stage is an exciting 41-kilometer (25-mile) time trial to the clifftop village of Rocamadour in south-central France.
The women’s Tour starts from the Eiffel Tower on July 24 and has eight stages, including a prestigious finish at Planche des Belles Filles.
Annemiek van Vleuten of the Movistar team will be among the contenders. She has three world championships and an Olympic gold medal in time trial, along with many one-day titles.
COVID-19 caused chaos at the Tour de Suisse two weeks ago with three teams and about 30 riders pulling out.
Among them was British rider Adam Yates, the Ineos Grenadiers team leader. He's racing here but still regaining his strength.
“I had a proper fever and chills," he said.
Riders and staff had to show a negative antigen test two days before the start and must take an antigen test on rest days.
In a tough blow for Pogacar's team, Matteo Trentin — who has won at least one stage on each of the three Grand Tours — tested positive. He was replaced by Marc Hirschi.
Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) and Daryl Impey (Israel Premier Tech) will miss the race after testing positive for COVID-19, but Bob Jungels (AG2R Citroen) got the green light after it was deemed he was no longer contagious.
Two or more positive tests no longer lead to automatic team exclusion.
“Teams will be less stressed," 2018 Tour champion Geraint Thomas said. "Imagine having the (yellow) jersey, two go positive, and you all have to go home.”
The QuickStep-AlphaVinyl team replaced Tim Declercq after he tested positive. French champion Florian Senechal took his slot over Mark Cavendish.
Although Fabio Jakobsen already had the sprinting slot, it seemed a snub for Cavendish, who won four stages and the green jersey last year. He needed one more win to move past Eddy Merckx and set an all-time record of 35 Tour stage wins.
QuickStep will also be without two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe, but that's because he has not fully recovered since his horrific crash at Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Meanwhile, the Bahrain Victorious team was raided by police for the second time this week on Thursday. After two hours of searches in hotel rooms and vehicles no items were seized.
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