Under the Radar: Riders to watch at the Tour de France

Some of the riders that may not immediately spring to mind ahead of the 2021 Tour de France, but could have a serious impact…

All the talk has been around the two Slovenians ahead of the 2021 Tour de France. Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar went head-to-head last year, with Pogacar coming out on top to win the yellow jersey in his first attempt. Ahead of the 2021 edition, their rematch is taking the headlines, and deservedly so.

However, there will be 182 other riders that depart from Brest, and although few others have a genuine chance of riding through Champs-Élysées in the yellow jersey, many could have a substantial impact on the Tour and could be going under the radar.

Tour de France 2021 Guide
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Alex Aranburu

Image credit: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Alex Aranburu has three Grand Tour starts to his name, but all three have been at his home Vuelta Espana. The Spaniard first displayed his attributes at WorldTour level with Caja Rural at the 2019 Vuelta, when he was second on two occasions.

Aranburu joined Astana in 2020 and after numerous near misses, he broke his duck at the Itzulia Basque Country Tour in 2021. Aranburu attacked late on stage 2 and was never seen again before crossing the finish line in Sestao.

Aranburu is a very well-rounded rider, who can sprint capably and get over climbs both long and short. He already has two top 10s to his name at Milan San Remo and was in the top 10 on four of the eight stages at the recent Criterium du Dauphine. Despite that, Aranburu wasn’t able to win a stage in France, and that seems to be Aranburu’s only issue right now. His all-terrain ability usually puts him in a great position and means he could be a serial winner in his career. However, he has often struggled to convert opportunities into victories — he has 18 top 10s with Astana already, but just one victory.

Aranburu will almost certainly get chances either from the breakaway or on punchy finishes which lie somewhere between the pure sprinters and punchers. Can he increase his strike rate?

Jonas Vingegaard

Jonas Vingegaard wins atop Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

A late call-up to Jumbo-Visma’s TDF lineup. Jonas Vingegaard joined the Dutch outfit in 2019, and his standout result was a stage win at the Tour of Poland until this season. Vingegaard has elevated his game to a whole new level in 2021. He won on Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour, before winning two stages and the overall classification at Coppi e Bartali in March. The Italian five-day stage race isn’t WorldTour level, but Vingegaard defeated a plethora of talented riders including Mikkel Honore, Ethan Hayer and Mauri Vansevenant.

Vingegaard’s impressive run only continued at the Itzulia Basque Country Tour. He was third in the opening time trial and although he didn’t win a stage, he claimed second overall behind his leader Primoz Roglic. As Roglic attacked up the road on the final stage to Arrate, Vingegaard sat behind and marked Pogacar’s every move. This is no mean feat by any stretch, but Vingegaard made it look easy.

Still just 24 years of age, Vingegaard has demonstrated that he could be a GC challenger for years to come at Grand Tours — he is adept on uphill terrain and is a very good time trialist. However, entering his first Tour de France and only his second Grand Tour, it will be too soon for him to have his own ambitions in the GC. Instead, he’ll act as one of Primoz Roglic’s top domestiques.

Mikkel Bjerg

Mikkel Bjerg heads the pack at the Criterium du Dauphine (Image credit: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Mikkel Bjerg is just 22 years old and has only been a WorldTour rider since the beginning of the 2020 season. However, the Dane has consistently proven that he is a threat on a variety of terrains.

Bjerg joined UAE Team Emirates as a time-trialist, and it remains his strongest discipline. He was third on the opening time-trial at the UAE Tour where he was only beaten by Filippo Ganna and Stefan Bissegger. However, Bjerg had a solid cobble classics campaign in Belgium, and he was a noteworthy third on stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia last year. He was only beaten by Ruben Guerreiro and Jonathan Castroviejo on a stage which featured over 4,500 metres of climbing and finished on the Roccaraso.

This all means that he will be a crucial domestique for Tadej Pogacar yellow jersey defence, particularly on the flatter terrain in a team which boasts an array of strong climbers such as Rafal Majka and David de la Cruz. Look out for Bjerg in the stage 5 and stage 20 time-trials where he could spring a surprise.

Brandon McNulty

Another Tour de France debutant, McNulty was drafted into UAE Team Emirates’ squad after a strong ride at Itzulia Tour of the Basque Country earlier this season. The American rider made a real impact on the race, finishing in the top 5 in stages on multiple occasions and wearing the leader’s jersey into the last day. Things went a bit pear shaped on the final stage, with Jumbo-Visma applying to the pressure and McNulty losing the race lead. Still, that experience will have been crucial for the UAE rider, and he will certainly take what he learnt into the Tour this year.

McNulty will be riding in a domestique role for defending champion Pogacar, he has explained that his main goal will be to protect the Sloveinian rider all the way to Paris. However, we all know anything can happen in Grand Tours, so he will need to be ready to step into a leadership role should Pogacar have an unfortunate mishap or crash. McNulty could also be a favourite to grab a stage win in one of the time trials, he finished 3rd in the U23 Time Trial World Championships in 2019 and is vocal about his love for the discipline.

Lucas Hamilton

Image credit: Zac Williams/SWpix.com

If Simon Yates is gunning for stage wins, Lucas Hamilton will be the GC rider for Team BikeExchange. Hamilton is part of an impressive generation of Australian climbing talent, alongside riders like Jai Hindley and Michael Storer. He’s had some formidable results so far this season, finishing 4th in Paris-Nice and 8th in the Tour de Romandie. He was leading the young rider’s classification at the Tour de Suisse until he had to retire with gastroenteritis, but finished in 4th place in the mountainous terrain of stage 5 before that, ahead of experienced climbers like Rigoberto Uran and Max Schachmann.

Hamilton has been with Bike Exchange throughout his whole professional career, and it seems that the Australian squad have taken a steady approach to the development of the young rider which has paid dividends in recent seasons. Hamilton is in a great place to learn with riders like Michael Matthews and Simon Yates also part of his team, so he’ll be well supported in his fight for the GC at the Tour.

Cees Bol

Cees Bol (Photo: John Berry/Getty Images)

Team DSM fast man Cees Bol doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the best sprinters in the Tour this year, but he shouldn’t be counted out. At Paris-Nice earlier this season, the Dutch rider outsprinted the likes of Mads Pedersen, Bryan Coquard, Michael Matthews and Sam Bennett to take a win in stage 2. He did it in impressive style, unleashing a powerful effort which gave him almost a bike length on his rivals when they crossed the line.

Bol has a strong lead-out squad with the likes of Nils Eekhoff and Søren Kragh Andersen and Team DSM are usually well drilled and organised in the faster stages. Bol finished 2nd and 3rd in stages of the Tour last year, so he’s certainly at the level to compete with the best sprinters in the race and will be extremely motivated to secure his first Grand Tour stage win in 2021.

Ben O’Connor

O’Connor has shown he has a huge talent for climbing in the past, winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia last year. However, he has often struggled to maintain the consistency necessary for a rider targeting the general classification.

It seems like the Australian rider has overcome this for the 2021 season, though, finishing 6th in the Tour de Romandie – only 45 seconds down on eventual winner Geraint Thomas – and cementing 8th on GC in the Criterium du Dauphine, after stating his ambitions to finish within the top 10 before the race. His move to AG2R was unexpected, but it looks like he’s thriving in this team, riding one of the best seasons of his career so far. O’Connor will make his debut in the Tour de France this year, so he won’t be sure what to expect. However, looking at the results of last year’s race, where young Tadej Pogacar took victory, we know that lack of experience isn’t always a deal breaker when fighting for yellow.

Perhaps O’Connor will lack some support in the high mountains, with his team being made up mostly of puncheurs and classics specialists like Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, but this may take some of the pressure off his shoulders as the team will also have ambitions for stage wins. If O’Connor can continue building the form he has shown so far this season, it could culminate in a career-changing result for the 25-year-old rider.

Cover image: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

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