A Beginner’s Guide to the 2021 Tour de France

The wait is over. The biggest race of the year is days away so it’s high time we get up to speed with the route, the riders to watch and which days you’re going to need to get off work to capture the best of the 2021 Tour de France.

The Tour de France is the pinnacle of the road cycling season, not just for fans of the sport but for the riders themselves. Millions of people tune in from all around the world, many even taking to the roadsides in France to cheer on their heroes in person. But of the roadside experts and the couch peloton, how many actually know exactly what’s going on? Stage racing can be complicated, Grand Tours especially, and it’s easy to be flummoxed by all the little intricacies of this great and baffling race.

Why is the Tour de France so famous?

Before we dive into the route and the favourites that are expected to light up the 2021 edition, let’s get into just why the Tour de France carries such prestige.

The Tour has a long and illustrious history going all the way back to 1903 when Henri Desgrange, L’Équipe’s head sports journalist, was tasked with reviving the failing newspaper. His solution was the Tour de France. It took a few years to catch on, but before long, the race became the go-to event for masochists across Europe and then the world. From the first winner, Maurice Garin (affectionately nicknamed ‘The Little Chimney-sweep’) to the latest winner, Tadej Pogačar, every Tour de France champion has shed blood, sweat and tears on their way to victory.

Perhaps the Tour’s prestige comes from the fact that it’s so damn tough. The 23-day long, 21-stage event (yes, the riders get two well-deserved days of rest) climbs over some of the most fabled and feared mountain passes in the world, including the Col du Tourmalet, the Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, just to name a terrible three. This is no Sunday club ride, this is the most gruelling race on the cycling calendar and only the strongest rider can emerge victorious.

Toms Skujinš, professional rider for Trek-Segafredo and wearer of the King of the Mountains jersey during the 2018 Tour de France, summed up the race’s uniqueness when we spoke with him in 2018:

“If there is one race that the average Joe knows, it’s the Tour de France. As a professional, until you can reply, ‘yes I have’ to their question, ‘oh, so have you ridden the Tour de France?’, you can never really feel like a proper professional cyclist.”

Who wears what?

It’s often difficult to distinguish who’s who in the already multi-coloured peloton of 184 riders, but the Tour has its own distinctive jerseys to look out for…

Yellow jersey: the leader of the general classification is the rider with the fastest cumulative time across all 21 stages. There are two types of yellow jersey wearer: early stage winners whose victory hands them the yellow jersey for a few glorious days, and the riders whose number one goal is to take the jersey all the way to Paris, sometimes without winning a stage along the way.

Green jersey: the leader of the points classification. Points are accumulated during each stage finish, with different quantities available for different types of stage (e.g. there are more points available on a sprint stage) so it’s like a consistency prize. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has won this jersey a record-breaking seven times, but in 2014 and 2015 he managed it without taking an individual stage, scoring 23 top 10s across the two Tours.

Polka-dot jersey: the mountains classification, or ‘King of the Mountains’, is awarded to the rider who crests the most and largest climbs in first place, day after day. Points are scored in a similar way to the green jersey competition, only here the points are collected on classified climbs. It’s also arguably the most glamorous jersey and very highly regarded among French fans in particular.

White jersey: like the yellow but for youngsters. Put simply, white jerseys are for under-25s, but the rule can get a little complicated depending on where a rider’s birthday falls in the year – one to take up with the UCI. It’s our understanding that a rider 25 and under qualifies so long as they do not turn 26 in the year of the race. This competition has lost a bit of its charm in the past couple of years with winners Egan Bernal (aged 22) and Tadej Pogačar (21) also taking the overall title. The winners just keep getting younger…

The key stages

The 2021 edition of the Tour de France was slated to start in Copenhagen, but the Danish Grand Départ has been pushed to 2022, so this year’s race kicks off in Brittany, France. The Tour stays in Brittany for four days, taking in some punchy terrain including the Mur de Bretagne on stage 2, before cutting through the country on the way to the Alps.

The first critical stage, at least as far as the GC is concerned, comes on stage 9 (Sunday 4th July) with a tricky 145km stage to Tignes. This mountain test comes the day before the first rest day, which usually means we can expect some exciting racing. That said, while the final climb is long, it’s not especially steep, so anyone losing touch there will have serious questions to answer later in the race.

After the rest day, the second week gets underway with a stage for the fast men on valley roads. Then comes stage 11 (Wednesday 7th July), with not one but two ascents of Mont Ventoux, taking two different routes to the summit. This isn’t an uphill finish though – after cresting the ‘Giant of Provence’ for the second time, the peloton plummets down the 22km descent to Malaucène. You don’t want to miss this stage.

A handful of tantalising flatter and more rolling stages carry the race into the Pyrenees where the third week is staged. But before we get to the final week, the next day to mark in your calendar comes on stage 15 (Sunday 11th July). Four classified climbs await the weary peloton on this stage, the last 50km of which take place in Andorra. It finishes with a descent off the top of the first-category Col de Beixalis, and with a rest day to look forward to on Monday 12th, there will be time to be made up on this classic Pyrenean mountain stage.

The final week of the Tour de France carries a certain amount of prestige (and horror) in the world of cycling. This is where the sprinters struggle through the last mountain stages desperate to get to Paris, and the GC favourites attempt to hide the fatigue of hard racing while trying to win the whole damn thing…

The final mountain showdown of the 2021 Tour is a double-bill of summit finishes on stages 17 and 18. The first finishes atop the infamous Col du Portet, which at 16km and an average gradient of 8.7% is a very challenging climb. The following day pays homage to two of the most famous climbs in cycling, the Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden, at the top of which the stage finishes. After last year’s drama in the stage 20 time trial, the GC favourites will want to have things as close to tied up as possible before they get there, so stages 17 and 18 are not to be missed.

Last year, one day before the ceremonial sprint on the Champs-Elysées, the race was blown apart by the young Slovenian Tadej Pogačar, who robbed his compatriot Primož Roglič of the yellow jersey with an explosive time trial, winning the Tour de France in the process. The organisers clearly enjoyed the drama and have put another ITT on stage 20. This year’s test to Saint-Émilion is different in profile to the mountainous terrain of last year’s finale, but 30.8km is not short, so there will be gaps. There’s a good chance that the GC race will not be over until the evening of Saturday 17th July.

Fans and followers of the Tour de France have become accustomed to the now traditional finale on the Champs-Elysées. This year, like 2020 and many years before that, stage 21 is left up to the sprinters who consider this day something of a world championship. Win on the Champs-Elysées and you earn a place in history.

Riders to watch

The top favourites for yellow this year are 2020 runner-up Primož Roglič and, of course, 2020 champion Tadej Pogačar. Both have had an interesting run-up to the Tour de France, Pogačar coming off the back of victory at the Tour of Slovenia and Roglič fresh from…no racing at all, at least not since Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Few would bet against a Slovenian taking the title, but there is promise elsewhere in the startlist.

British hopes rest on the shoulders of 2018 winner and recent Tour de Romandie champion, Geraint Thomas, who heads to Brittany with the strongest team at the race. The Ineos Grenadiers have said the Welshman is number one, but there are two other Grand Tour winners in the lineup in Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richard Carapaz, winners of this year’s Tour of the Alps and Tour de Suisse respectively, not to mention Richie Porte who was flying at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour warm-up event that he won overall.

Simon Yates also heads to France, but his chances at the overall title are in question after his hard-fought third place at the Giro d’Italia. His team BikeExchange squad also features Esteban Chaves and the young Australian Lucas Hamilton, so they’re very climb-oriented and could surprise a few people.

Jakob Fuglsang has long been a key player in GC battles on French soil. The Danish rider for Astana-Premier Tech has won the Dauphiné twice, and though he’s not had much luck at the Tour in recent years, it’s always a major target. He rides alongside Alexey Lutsenko who is not often considered among the favourites for the overall title, but after finishing second at the Dauphiné, he will be watched closely by rival teams.

Team Movistar always come with a stacked team of climbers and GC leaders, and this year is no different. Veteran Alejandro Valverde makes his 15th appearance at the Tour where he will be supporting team leaders Miguel Ángel López and Enric Mas. Both are among the world’s best climbers, but their time trial abilities fall a little short of the mark, so they will have to be very aggressive in the mountains if they’re to climb onto the podium in Paris.

The French are still waiting for the next great home champion, but they do have plenty of heroes to cheer for. With Thibaut Pinot sidelined by persistent injury, the home nation looks to Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) in the overall competition. They also have Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), who surprised everyone in 2019 by carrying the yellow jersey deep into the final week when it was finally wrested from his grip by Egan Bernal. Now in the rainbow jersey of world champion, Alaphilippe heads to France searching for stage wins.

The yellow jersey isn’t the only prize up for grabs this July – a fierce fight is already brewing for the sprinter’s green jersey. Peter Sagan will hope to reclaim the title after missing out last year, but he’ll face fierce competition. Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), 2017 winner Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and the triple threat of Alpecin-Fenix riders, Mathieu van der Poel, Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, not to mention the Frenchman Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) can all be expected to push Sagan to his limits.

Sam Bennett was the best of the sprinters last year, but the Irishman was forced to withdraw last minute with a knee injury, and teammate Mark Cavendish takes his place. Cav has enjoyed something of a renaissance so far this season, taking five victories since the beginning of April and looking much happier as a result. Can the Manx Missile roll back the years and add to his 30 Tour stage wins?

All this Tour talk has got us very excited about the upcoming race, and hopefully it’s had the same effect on you. Maybe it’s even planted the seed of a cycling trip in your head? If you are planning a cycling holiday later this year then hopefully it’s more feasible, make sure you check out our travel insurance policies right here before you go!

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