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Pogacar favourite at a Tour de France that lacks of Afr...

Sport

CYCLING

Pogacar is favourite at a Tour de France that lacks of African flavour

Slovenian rider Tadej Pogacar (then of the UAE's Team Emirates) celebrates on the podium with the overall leader's yellow jersey after the 21st stage of the Tour de France 2021 over 108.4 km from Chatou to Paris, France, 18 July 2021. (Photo: Guillaume Horcajuelo)
By Craig Ray
30 Jun 2022 1

The 2022 Tour de France appears to be a race for second with the formidable Slovenian Tadej Pogacar on course for a third straight title.

The 2022 Tour de France has an unfamiliar starting point but sadly a familiar subplot as the Grand Boucle prepared for its 109th edition.

The race begins in Denmark on 1 July — the northernmost start in its history. That is the new. But the familiar was a raid by police on the homes of members of the Bahrain-Victorious team in search of illegal drugs.

French prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into doping allegations against Bahrain Victorious after police searched the team’s hotel late in last year’s race, when they won three stages.

At the time, the prosecutor’s office in Marseille said the investigation was into “acquisition, transport, possession, import of a prohibited substance or prohibited method for use by an athlete without medical justification.”

The Tour has been down this road before. Most infamously with 1998’s Festina affair, where the team that gave the name to the scandal, was ejected from the race en masse. That was after police literally found a boot full of banned substances designated to sustain the riders through the three-week trek across France.

Since then, there was the Lance Armstrong lie, the Alberto Contador ‘contaminated meat’ excuse for high levels of testosterone and Floyd Landis’ bizarre ‘drinking Jack Daniels’ defence to doping.

The Tour de France is synonymous with doping, but for the past decade, it has been relatively free of scandal, compared to the wild years of the 1990s and 2000s. So, this week’s raids were a reminder that despite cycling’s improved recent image, doping remains a threat.

Winds and cobbles

The small scandal, at this stage at least, doesn’t appear to have derailed the Grand Depart from Copenhagen, which is a 13km time trial around the old city.

A hot spot for spectators will be at Dronning Louises Bro, a bridge connecting downtown Copenhagen with the Norrebro neighbourhood. Around 40,000 cyclists cross the bridge every day, making it the world’s busiest bicycle track.

Two more days in Scandinavia follow where high winds on the relatively flat terrain could break the race open early on. A 202km second stage between Roskilde and Nyborg, with stage three a 182km trek between Vejle and Sonderborg, sets the tone.

Riders will cross the 18km wide Great Belt Bridge and the relatively flat countryside of Denmark, where the highest point is just 171 metres above sea level. It’s in these crossings where high winds could be a factor

The entire caravan then transfers to mainland France on 4 July in preparation for stage four from Dunkirk to Calais and a couple of days on the cobbles of northern France where calamity is always close.

Can they catch Pogacar?

It’s in these opening five or so stages where the pack can perhaps gain time on the supremely strong and confident defending champion Tadej Pogacar.

The opening time trial will set the stage for what is expected to be an epic battle between the collective power of the Dutch Jumbo-Visma team and the generational brilliance of Slovenia’s Pogacar.

The 23-year-old Pogacar is in search of his third straight Tour de France title. His surprising 2020 win, claimed on the penultimate stage in a dramatic time trial success on the road to La Planche des Belles Filles, was replaced by an emphatically dominant performance in the 2021 edition.

The young Slovenian has been dubbed “Baby Cannibal”, a homage to the great Belgian Eddy Merckx — the original ‘Cannibal”. Like Merckx, Pogacar is an all-rounder who climbs, time trials and sprints with the best riders in each discipline.

Jumbo-Visma have an armada of class riders with two general classification contenders in Slovenian Primož Roglič (from whom Pogacar snatched the Maillot Jaune at the death) and Dane Jonas Vingegaard, set on collectively trying to isolate and break Pogacar’s will.

Jumbo-Visma’s attempts in 2021 were almost met with contempt by the increasingly powerful Pogacar, who has not only become a physically stronger rider since 2020, but a mentally tougher competitor too.

Pogacar has already won the UAE Tour, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Slovenia stage races this season as well as the Strade Bianche one-day classic. He appears indestructible.

Besides the cobbles and winds of the opening week, the Tour also returns to some famous climbs in the Alps, most notably, the 21 hairpin bends up the mythical L’Alpe d’Huez.

Other challengers

Britain’s Ineos Grenadiers, who won seven out of eight Tour titles from 2012 before Pogacar seized power, will have chances with Adam Yates, Dani Martinez and Geraint Thomas in the team, but none of them individually are a match for the formidable Slovenian all-rounder.

France, meanwhile, is still waiting for its first Tour de France winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, and there is little indication that he will have a successor this year.

Thibaut Pinot, who came agonisingly close in 2019 before retiring injured in the final week, is back to a decent level of performance but he is not expected to be a serious contender.

The Groupama-FDJ rider will go for stage wins and possibly the polka-dot jersey for the mountains classification in a likely duel with fellow Frenchman Romain Bardet, a surprise participant after he withdrew ill from the Giro d’Italia.

World champion Julian Alaphilippe was not picked by his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team as he has only just returned to racing following a freak crash in April.

Also absent from the Belgian team’s roster is Mark Cavendish, meaning the British rider will miss out on a chance to beat Merckx’s record of 34 Tour stage wins, having matched that record at last year’s race.

Dlamini calls for more diversity

Although several South Africans will take part — Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Daryl Impey and Louis Meintjes — and Africa’s Team Qhubeka will not be on the starting line for the first time in a decade. Qhubeka missed out owing to their relegation from the elite league of pro cycling in 2021 after failing to secure the required financial backing.

There are also no black riders in the peloton for the first time in years, which is a step backwards for a sport synonymous with white European teams.

Nic Dlamini, South Africa’s leading black rider who took part in the 2021 edition, penned a heartfelt open letter this week, imploring the sport to do more for diversity.

Nicholas Dlamini
Nicholas Dlamini, the only Black professional cyclist at the 2021 Tour de France. (Image: Supplied)

Reflecting on his appearance last year Dlamini wrote:

“South Africa had never had a black person ride the Tour de France before and in that moment my story transcended the usual chatter of rugby, soccer and cricket among sports fans.

“My journey was one that cut through, that drew in people beyond the technical aspects of a “foreign sport” and enabled people to dream that bike racing is a sport for everyone from anywhere, to believe in hope. The messages of support, of inspiration and of thanks, I will cherish forever.

“On the eve of the Grand Depart in Bretagne and the general rush of final preparations, I received a video call from the inspirational captain of the Springboks, Siya Kolisi.

“He is someone I look up to, someone who together with his World Cup-winning teammates epitomise not only what strength in unity is but importantly diversity, means to the world.

“In 2021 I was the only black rider at the Tour de France in a peloton of over 170, in 2022 there will be none.

“This year has seen some brilliant performances from some of my African colleagues. In Biniam Girmay the continent has a genuine superstar – and the world’s at his feet.

“We’ve seen great rides from former Team Qhubeka teammates in Natnael Tesfatsion and Henok Mulubrhan among others, and there’s a fine crop of youngsters here in Lucca with me — Negasi Haylu Abreha, Nahom Zeray Araya, Efrem Gebrehiwet Araya, Ghebrehiwet Birhane and Travis Stedman; so the talent is there and it’s rising.

“There are more and more pathways being established to reach the very highest level for African cycling, which is great, but let’s not let go of the fact that cycling generally still has an enormous way to go in order to be a sport for all.” DM

The route of the 2022 Tour de France, which starts from Copenhagen on Friday:

July 1. Stage 1 – Copenhagen – Copenhagen, individual time trial 13.2km

July 2. Stage 2 – Roskilde (Denmark) – Nyborg (Denmark), 202.5km

July 3. Stage 3 – Vejle (Denmark) – Sonderborg (Denmark), 182km

July 4. Transfer to France

July 5. Stage 4 – Dunkirk – Calais, 171.5km

July 6. Stage 5 – Lille – Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 154km

July 7. Stage 6 – Binche (Belgium) – Longwy, 220km

July 8. Stage 7 – Tomblaine – La Super Planche des Belles Filles, 176.5km

July 9. Stage 8 – Dole – Lausanne (Switzerland), 186.5km

July 10. Stage 9 – Aigle (Switzerland) – Chatel Les Portes du Soleil, 193km

July 11. Rest day

July 12. Stage 10 – Morzine – Megeve, 148.5km

July 13. Stage 11 – Albertville – Col du Granon, 152km

July 14. Stage 12 – Briancon – L’Alpe d’Huez, 165.5km

July 15. Stage 13 – Bourg d’Oisans – St Etienne, 193km

July 16. Stage 14 – St Etienne – Mende, 192.5km

July 17. Stage 15 – Rodez – Carcassonne, 202.5km

July 18. Rest day

July 19. Stage 16 – Carcassonne – Foix, 178.5km

July 20. Stage 17 – St Gaudens – Peyragudes, 130km

July 21. Stage 18 – Lourdes – Hautacam, 143.5km

July 22. Stage 19 – Castelnau-Magnoac – Cahors, 188.5km

July 23. Stage 20 – Lacapelle Marival – Rocamadour, individual time trial, 40.7km

July 24. Stage 21 – Paris La Defense Arena – Paris Champs Elysees, 116km

Additional reporting by Reuters

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  • OK – pray tell, what are the obstacles to participation by African athletes in the Tour de France? As far as I’m aware, if you qualify you are in. If you don’t have the budget, well, that’s another matter. You are then simply in the 90% majority of the world’s population that cannot afford the budget for this sport. What makes you more special than say a dirt poor Patagonian Indian or a Mumbai Untouchable or a poor white kid living in a trailer in Iowa? They don’t have the budget either.

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