Tour de France storylines to watch

Imagine speeding down a winding mountain road going 60 mph, protected by little more than carbon, spandex and a helmet, surrounded by nearly 200 competitors as thousands of stunned onlookers shout and jeer. 

Now, imagine doing that for six hours a day for three weeks, with just two rest days to gather enough strength and wits to keep going.

Welcome to the Tour de France, the most elite bicycle race in the world and perhaps the most grueling endurance challenge undertaken by professional athletes.

For the first time in the race’s 111-year history, the Tour de France will begin in Italy and end somewhere other than in Paris, which is hosting the Summer Olympics. Cyclists will traverse nearly 2,200 miles of stunning European landscapes, departing from Florence on Saturday and snaking up to the Pyrenees Mountains, through the Alps and down to the Mediterranean Sea. It will conclude in Nice on July 21. 

It’s no secret that while the Tour de France draws tens of millions of viewers worldwide every year, American audiences have largely overlooked professional cycling after Lance Armstrong’s very public professional demise. 

In 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused Armstrong’s seemingly untouchable team of running “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Armstrong, who won seven Tours after having cancer, vehemently denied the allegations for years until he confessed in a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey. His downfall culminated when the Union Cycliste Internationale, professional cycling’s governing body, stripped him of all seven Tour de France victories. 

After years of disinterest, American viewership may be on the rebound, thanks, in part, to the release of “Unchained,” a Netflix show by the production team behind the blockbuster “Drive to Survive” docuseries, which focuses on Formula 1 racing. “Unchained” goes behind the scenes of cycling’s biggest rivalries, capturing in vivid detail the commitment, sacrifice and zeal needed to conquer the Tour de France. Think violent crashes, uncontrollable sobbing and inter-team mudslinging.  

With so much drama surrounding professional cycling’s biggest race, here are a few storylines to watch in the coming Tour de France.

Jonas v. Tadej 

This year’s biggest showdown will be a tiebreaker for the ages. Jonas Vingegaard, the Danish superpower leading team Visma-Lease a Bike, will return to defend the yellow jersey after he won the Tour de France in 2022 and last year. But Tadej Pogačar, a Slovenian wunderkind riding for UAE Team Emirates, has a score to settle. He took home the yellow jersey in 2020 and 2021, and this year he obliterated competitors in the spring classics and in Italy’s grand tour, the Giro d’Italia. 

Vingegaard heads to Florence with a major disadvantage after he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks with a collapsed lung, a broken collarbone and broken ribs in April during the Tour of Basque Country. He spent much of the spring recovering from the horrific crash and training at altitude with teammate Wout Van Aert, who was injured in a separate crash. 

Complicating matters is the recently announced departure of American cyclist Sepp Kuss from Visma’s Tour de France lineup. He shepherded team Visma to three grand tour victories last year. But Tuesday, Visma announced Kuss has Covid and won’t ride in the Tour. 

Setting a Tour record 

Will Mark Cavendish beat the record for most stage wins at the Tour de France? With 34 victories behind him, Cavendish, the Astana Qazaqstan Team sprinter, remains tied with the great Eddy Merckx. He planned to smash that record last year and retire from professional cycling, but he crashed out of the Tour before he achieved his dream. Now 39 years old, Cavendish will head to Florence with that one goal in mind.

But he has fierce competition by the name of Jasper Philipsen of team Alpecin-Deceuninck. Philipsen, of Belgium, emerged last year as the peloton’s top sprinter, winning four stages with the help of teammate Mathieu van der Poel, also known as the Flying Dutchman. 

Combined, Philipsen and van der Poel are perhaps the most formidable pair and perhaps the most controversial. Philipsen’s aggressive tactics, including trying to block other riders, repeatedly came under question last year, triggering reviews by race officials and drawing criticism from viewers and pundits alike. Race officials ultimately ruled in favor of Philipsen, but his reputation had been sullied by the end of the Tour.

Evenepoel debut 

Soudal Quick-Step’s Remco Evenepoel will chase a podium finish in his Tour de France debut. But at 24 years old, Evenepoel remains untested at the grand Tour, and he has suffered several setbacks in recent months. 

Evenepoel, the two-time world champion from Belgium, broke his collarbone and a shoulder blade at the Tour of Basque Country in the crash that took out Vingegaard. He crashed again this month at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He quickly recovered and went on to conquer the time trial, but he ultimately lost the top spot to Slovenian cyclist Primož Roglič, who is also gunning for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. 

In his latest setback, Evenepoel was forced to bow out of the Belgian National Championships after he came down with a cold. He has less than a week to recover before he tackles the Tour de France.

Roglič vengeance 

Whether Roglič can beat former teammate Vingegaard and win his first Tour de France will be one of the best storylines to watch. 

Roglič, who rode on team Visma for five seasons, is no stranger to first place. He won the Vuelta a España three years in a row, from 2019 to 2021, and he took first at the Giro d’Italia last year. In 2020, he came in second at the Tour de France but lost to fellow Slovenian Pogačar. 

Last year, Roglič sought a second win at the Vuelta a España, but he was pressured to back up his then-teammate Kuss. The unexpected change frustrated the already ornery Roglič, and soon afterward he announced he would leave Visma. Now with team BORA-hansgrohe, Roglič will face off against both Vingegaard and Pogačar at the Tour.

Doping problems

Professional cycling can’t seem to shake the shadow of doping more than a decade after Armstrong confessed to cheating.

Vingegaard’s jaw-dropping time trial last year, when he beat Pogačar by 98 seconds, set tongues wagging. His performance was almost too good, triggering rumblings inside and outside the peloton that he might have used performance-enhancing drugs. Vingegaard, who tested negative several times throughout the 2023 season, denied cheating and said he welcomed the tests to help prove his innocence.

This year, two cyclists have been disciplined for using prohibited substances. In May, Colombian cyclist Miguel Ángel López was banned for four years in an investigation led by Spanish authorities concerning a doctor who worked in the sport. The UCI anti-doping tribunal found him guilty of using and possessing menotropins, a female fertility drug that can stimulate production of testosterone in men. 

Last week, Italian cyclist Andrea Piccolo was dropped by his team, EF Education-EasyPost, on suspicion of transporting human growth hormone. His dismissal was all the more shocking given that his team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, had confessed to doping during his tenure as a professional cyclist riding on Armstrong’s team. 

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