Pogacar favourite as Tour de France embarks from Florence

Tadej Pogacar (C) in action. File photo

The Tour de France embarks from the Italian city of Florence on Saturday with Tadej Pogacar gunning for a historic Giro-Tour double, while champion Jonas Vingegaard seeks a third straight title with the battle set to go down to the wire in three weeks time in Nice.

Team UAE’s Pogacar goes into cycling’s  21-day showcase after winning the Giro d’Italia in May, but only a fortnight since coming down with a bout of covid.

As for Visma’s Vingegaard, the two-time defending champion from Denmark hasn’t raced since suffering multiple fractures in a fall. “I honestly don’t know what form I’m in” he conceded.

The 176-strong peloton heads out of Florence in sizzling heat for an opening stage packed with hills.

Ahead is a gruelling 3,498 kilometre-route that crosses the Alps twice and ends exceptionally on the French Riviera rather than the Champs-Elysees on July 21 due to the upcoming Paris Olympics.

The 2024 Tour is billed as a four-way struggle.

Behind Vingegaard and 2020-2021 champion Pogacar lurk former Vuelta and Giro champion Primoz Roglic (Red Bull) and Tour newcomer Remco Evenepoel of Soudal Quick-Step.

Evenepoel, who won both the Vuelta and the world championships in 2022, has described Pogacar as “untouchable if he stays safe and sound” even though the Slovenian revealed on arrival in Florence that he was recovering from a dose of Covid.

The big four all predicted the first two days would feature a scrap for the yellow jersey between Visma’s Wout Van Aert and his eternal rival Mathieu Van der Poel.

Van Aert deflected the attention by moaning that he was in “the worst form for a Tour de France of my life” and insisting his role at the Grand Boucle was simply to help Vingegaard.

Both men suffered bad falls in the build up to the Tour.

World champion Van Der Poel also shrugged off the expectation.

“The first two days look too hard for me and (teammate) Jasper (Philipsen),” he said.

Italian job

Day one takes the riders over seven climbs as it crosses Italy to the Adriatic seaside resort of Rimini with its pretty beaches and lidos.

Director Christian Prudhomme has promised a brawl from day one, and a Team UAE attack would seem as likely a scenario as any, given they did just that on last year’s opening stage.

Adam Yates is one of four UAE riders described by team leader Pogacar as “superstars”, and he would seem equipped to take the yellow jersey again after beating his twin brother Simon to the line on day one last year.

Another Briton, Tom Pidcock, Roglic and even Pogacar himself are also worth keeping an eye on Saturday.

Of the Italians gunning for the yellow in Italy, Alberto Bettiol of EF Education First is nailed on to make a bid as the American team have a history of gunning for a day one yellow jersey.

The seven climbs are all short and average out at around 6.5 percent incline, making for some explosive racing.

Cavendish hunts Merckx

Ageing British sprinter Mark Cavendish, 39, is back at the Tour de France as the subject of his own Netflix documentary on his personal quest for one last stage win before riding off into the sunset.

The Manx Missile, who was given a knighthood this month by King Charles III, has 34 Tour de France stage wins over his career, the same as Eddy Merckx.

“I have won 34 stages, along with the great Eddy Merckx, and that’s the most,” said Cavendish.

“Here, I’m just trying to win more,” he said on the eve of the race.

Giro-Tour double

Winner of the 2020 and 2021 Tour de France, Pogacar won the Giro d’Italia with supreme ease in May and is gunning to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 — the year Pogacar was born — to win the rare combination of a Tour-Giro double.

His Giro campaign was a parade through Italy in pink, and if his form is unaffected by a bout of Covid 11 days ago this could well happen again in France.

One thing in his favour might be the sheer length of the time-trials.

Stage seven takes in a flat 25km through the vineyards from Nuits-Saint-Georges to Gevrey-Chambertin while the final stage will provide a jaw-dropping 35km chase along the Riviera from Monaco to Nice.

Both will suit Pogacar but as the Slovenian knows only too well, a lot can happen over 21 days and 3,498km of road.

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