"I'm just a kid from Slovenia, watching television all day and then riding afterwards," said Tadej Pogacar, after winning the 2020 Tour de France.

Then just 21, he required a 57-second swing to overtake his compatriot Primoz Roglic on the final time trial.

He went on to win the grandest of the Grand Tours by 59 seconds, writing his name forever into cycling history as he won Le Tour on his debut.

There was less drama in 2021, as Pogacar easily retained the three jerseys he won in 2020 (the yellow for the general classification, polka dot for the mountains and white for the best young rider).

While Olympic glory went to Roglic, Pogacar is out to match the great Eddy Merckx in the record books as he returns to Grand Tour action after skipping the Giro d'Italia.

The race starts in Copenhagen on Friday, with the opening three stages winding their way through Denmark – the 10th nation other than France to host the Grand Depart.

Can anyone hope to stop Pogacar in the 109th edition of Le Tour, or is there just no matching the kid from Slovenia?

 

Pogacar has Merckx in his sights

Only Merckx has managed to win the Tour de France on each of his first three appearances in the race (the Belgian went on to win his first five in a row, remarkably), but a place in history is there for the taking for Pogacar.

He is already the youngest rider to win multiple yellow jerseys, at the age of 22 years and 301 days at the culmination of the 2021 Tour, while he has led the young rider classification for the last 30 stages in total, since stage 13 in 2020, which is the longest run since the white jersey was first awarded in 1975.

Pogacar is also aiming to become the first rider to win the king of the mountains jersey in three successive editions of the Tour de France since popular French rider Richard Virenque between 1994 and 1997.

"The Tour de France is the jewel in the crown. It's the one that the road cyclists do all want to win," Chris Hoy, one of the United Kingdom's greatest Olympians, told Stats Perform.

"As such, it's quite hard to predict. But Pogacar is one of these young phenomenal athletes who have shown such maturity, despite their years."

 

Roglic out for revenge

Roglic won the Criterium du Dauphine earlier in June, and looks well placed to push for what would be his fourth Grand Tour success, albeit his first outside of Spain.

The chance was cruelly snatched away in 2020, while Roglic was forced to abandon ahead of stage nine last year following a crash six stages prior.

Roglic is aiming to become the oldest rider to win the Tour de France since Cadel Evans in 2011 (34 years and 162 days).

He will be 32 years old and 268 days on the last day of this year's race, but is the prime contender from a strong Jumbo-Visma team.

Their line-up includes six-time Tour de France stage winner Wout van Aert, Jonas Vingegaard, who finished second overall in 2021, and Sepp Kuss, an exceptional climber who last year became the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France since Tyler Farrar in 2011, while Steven Kruijswijk is one of three riders in the squad to have finished on the GC podium before.

Van Aert is the pick of the supporting cast, with his six stage wins between 2019 and 2021 the joint-highest in that period alongside Pogacar.

Indeed, the Belgian won the final two stages last year and could become the first rider to win three successive individual stages (not including time trials) at Le Tour since Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi in 2003.

No Bernal, but INEOS looking strong

Egan Bernal has not yet fully recovered from a serious crash he suffered earlier this year, meaning INEOS Grenadiers are without one of the best in the business.

Yet their team is still one to be reckoned with. Captain Geraint Thomas is one of just three riders in the provisional start list to have won Le Tour (along with Pogacar and Chris Froome), with the Welshman heading to France on the back of his sole victory of 2022 so far, in the Tour de Suisse.

Only Merckx (in 1974) and Bernal (2019) have won both the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France in the same season, and while a Thomas push for GC glory looks unlikely, INEOS have real depth.

Tom Pidcock is one of the brightest prospects in cycling, having triumphed in the Tokyo Olympic Games mountain biking and the World Championships (cyclo-cross).

He is riding alongside Adam Yates, the winner of the white jersey in 2016, and time trial world champion Filippo Ganna.

Stage 20 between Lacapelle-Marival and Rocamadour (40.7km) will be the longest individual time trial in the Tour de France since 2014, and Ganna, a six-time stage winner at the Giro d'Italia, will be looking to come to the fore there.

Cavendish denied a shot at history

Despite Pogacar's dominance, Mark Cavendish provided the most remarkable story at the 2021 Tour de France. His comeback was one for the ages.

Cavendish had not featured at the Tour de France in 2016, but last year he won four stages to match the overall record of Merckx (34 stage victories) that had stood since 1975.

 

The Manxman was unable to surpass it on the Champs-Elysees, however, and his chance of becoming the outright record holder may well have gone, after Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl went with Fabio Jakobsen (who has 10 sprint wins this season) as their sprinter.

Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team riders have led the points classification in the Tour de France in each of the last 33 stages of the race, with three of their riders winning the green jersey in that time. Julian Alaphilippe is one of them, but like Cavendish he has missed out.

France out of luck?

Alaphilippe has won six of the last nine stages won by a French rider in the Tour de France, and would have been aiming to become the first home rider to win a stage at five consecutive editions since Bernard Hinault (1978-1982).

As it is, Alaphilippe will have to watch on, and with that France's slim hopes of a home success seem to have dwindled further still.

Romain Bardet has achieved five top-10 finishes in the GC standings. That is the most for a French rider since Virenque (six between 1994 and 2000), yet Bardet has finished only two of his last four Grand Tours and it would be a shock if the Team DSM man challenged.

Pierre Rolland will participate in his 13th Tour de France, the joint-highest tally among all riders on the provisional start list, alongside Imanol Erviti, while Thibaut Pinot will make his first Grand Tour start since the 2020 Vuelta a Espana, when he abandoned after two stages. This will be his ninth appearance in La Grande Boucle, but he has finished only four times.

The last time a Frenchman did not win a stage was in 1999 – since then, 59 stages have been won by French riders – but you might not bet against that run ending this year.

Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl duo Mark Cavendish and Julian Alaphilippe have missed out on selection for the Tour de France.

Cavendish equalled the all-time record for stage wins at the Tour last year, matching Eddy Merckx's tally of 34 victories - which had stood since 1975.

The Manxman looked to have boosted his hopes of making the eight-man team by triumphing at the British National Road Championship on Sunday, having featured at the Giro d'Italia for the first time in nine years.

But Fabio Jakobsen has a superior record in sprints this season, with 10 wins compared to Cavendish's five, and the Dutchman has got the nod for Le Tour, which starts in Copenhagen on Friday.

Kasper Asgreen, Andrea Bagioli, Mattia Cattaneo, Tim Declercq, Mikkel Honore, Yves Lampaert and Michael Morkov are the other seven riders to be picked.

Cavendish and Florian Senechal were named as first-reserve riders on Monday, while Alaphilippe was not included.

"Over 3,300 kilometres and more than 55,000 meters of elevation promise to make for a tough race," Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sports director Tom Steels said. 

"After the first ITT, we have two other days in Denmark, which should be for the sprinters, that is if we won't have any echelons.

"The cobblestones stage will be a very tricky stage, as everyone will want to be at the front, and after this we'll have a lot of climbing, with many iconic ascents of the Tour de France.

"The climbers will get plenty of opportunities at this edition, unlike the sprinters, who'll have to fight in many of the stages against the time limit.

"Overall, the race has something for everyone, and that's why we are going there with a balanced team."

Alaphilippe was widely expected to be picked after racing in the French National Championships two months after his Liege–Bastogne–Liege crash, but there is no place for the popular 30-year-old.

"Concerning our reserves, we must stress out that they showed a lot of professionalism, continued to train and remained focused in these past couple of weeks, and even brought two victories at the Nationals," Steels added.

"The decision to leave Julian home was a very difficult one, as he is one of the team's most emblematic riders and we wrote so many great moments together at the Tour.

"Julian worked hard to get back into shape after what happened to him in Liege, but it is felt that for a rider like him it's always important to be on top of his game and be able to compete with the best riders of the peloton in a race like Le Tour.

"That's why we decided to give him more time to recover and build back his condition, so that he can be at 100 per cent for the second part of the season."

Julian Alaphilippe will remain in hospital for a further period of observation after suffering serious injuries when he crashed during the Liege–Bastogne–Liege.

The world champion was involved in a huge pile-up in the middle of the peloton 62 kilometres from the end of the race on Sunday.

Alaphilippe sustained two broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade and a collapsed lung.

Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team on Tuesday revealed that the Frenchman will continue to be monitored in a hospital in the Belgian city of Herentals.

The 29-year-old's team said in a statement: "As previously reported, Julian sustained two broken ribs, a broken scapula and a haemopneumothorax [collapsed lung].

"The complexity of his condition means that a period of further observation will be required before a recovery pathway will be decided. He will remain in the hospital in Herentals for the time being."

Alaphilippe's team-mate Ilan Van Wilder broke his jaw when he crashed in the same incident, but the Belgian has been discharged from hospital following surgery

Van Wilder, however, has been ruled out of the Giro d'Italia.

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