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Vingegaard, Pogacar meet for next chapter of rivalry

AP – One rider, two-time Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar, was so strong at the start of the season that he was compared to the great Eddy Merckx before an injury stopped his seemingly unstoppable rise.

The other, defending champion Jonas Vingegaard, dethroned Pogacar last year and arrives in top form to defend his title next month.

The two have already gone head-to-head twice at the Tour, and are building one of the greatest rivalries in the storied history of cycling’s most famous race.

Add to this fierce rivalry four mountain-top finishes and a Tour record 30 difficult climbs, and you’ve got the ingredients for a mouth-watering three-week duel in the scorching heat of July.

And as if the script wasn’t exciting enough, there are more storylines in store to spice up the 110th edition of the grueling race that starts this weekend from the Spanish city of Bilbao.

Former champion Egan Bernal is returning into the fray at the Tour for the first time since his life-threatening crash, while veteran sprinter Mark Cavendish tries to become the most decorated stage winner in the history of the race.

Tadej Pogacar tries to break away from Jonas Vingegaard. PHOTO: AP
Spectators wave flags as the pack rides during the Tour de France cycling race last year. PHOTO: AP

Pogacar was in a class of his own a bit earlier this year, triumphing nearly everywhere he showed up. Following his wins at the Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne, he aimed for a hat trick of the Ardennes one-day classics when he suddenly found himself down on the ground, forced to abandon Liege-Bastogne-Liege because of a crash that left him with a broken wrist requiring surgery. Before the accident two months ago, Pogacar had been untouchable on all sorts of terrain, also dominating the field at the Tour of Flanders and the weeklong Paris-Nice.

His setback has reshuffled the cards.

Pogacar still had a decent amount of time to prepare for the Tour with training camps at altitude, and proved last week at the Slovenian national championships that he his back in form by winning both the time trial and the road race.

In addition to his own skills, and since you can’t win the Tour alone, the UAE Team Emirates leader will be supported by a squad made of excellent climbers and all-around riders, including the experienced Rafal Majka, Mikkel Bjerg, Matteo Trentin and Adam Yates.

“As a team, we have worked so hard to prepare and everything is where it needs to be, we have a very good group,” Pogacar said. “There will be some serious competitors but that will always be the case in the biggest races. We are going there to put on a good show and of course with the aim of victory.”

To cover the 3,405-kilometre featuring eight mountain stages across five mountain ranges, Vingegaard, too, can count on awe-inspiring teammates, the “super domestiques” who dedicate themselves to their leaders’ glory. Wout van Aert, Dylan van Baarle, Sepp Kuss, Tiesj Benoot, Christophe Laporte, Nathan Van Hooydonck and Wilco Kelderman will be supporting him.

The former fish factory worker from Denmark was runner-up to Pogacar in his first Tour two years ago then came out on top in a thrilling battle with his Slovenian rival last year, building his triumph on two big rides in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Starting in the Basque Country in northern Spain, the mountainous nature of this year’s course, which features only one time trial, could well give Vingegaard an edge again, as his recent win at the Criterium du Dauphine – a tough stage race serving as a rehearsal for the Tour – suggested.

Behind the two, other contenders include Jai Hindley, who last year won the Giro d’Italia, Ben O’Connor, Enric Mas, and French riders David Gaudu and Romain Bardet. The Ineos-Grenadiers team will have various cards to play with Bernal, Tom Pidcock and Daniel Martinez.

Bernal, who won the 2019 Tour, was very close to becoming paralysed after an accident involving a bus at the start of last year in Colombia during training. He is returning to the Tour for the first time since the crash.

Competing in his last Tour before retiring, Cavendish will try to win at least one more sprint in his attempt to break the record for most stage wins. Cavendish matched Merckx’s mark of 34 stage wins at the 2021 Tour but was left off Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s roster for the race the following year. He now rides for the Astana Qazaqstan Team.

Known as “The Manx Missile” because he comes from the Isle of Man, Cavendish also won the Tour de France’s best sprinter’s green jersey twice. He has won stages at all three Grands Tours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Spanish Vuelta – and became a world champion in 2011.