Bilbao: Cycling’s Tour de France, with its caravan of teams, media, publicity and security, was visible everywhere around Bilbao on Thursday as two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar chases a third title and champion Jonas Vingegaard prepares defence of his title.
The 22 teams received a loud reception on their parade in downtown Bilbao. Starting in front of the landmark Guggenheim Museum with the tension tangible as riders warmed up beneath low hanging black clouds with the peculiar hills straddling the horizon.
Slovenian Pogacar says he has revised last year’s flawed strategy and admitted his aggressive approach last year, constantly chasing stage wins, proved costly as he finished second behind Vingegaard. “The best thing would be to get the yellow jersey on stage 20,” said the 24-year-old Team UAE rider.
The slightly built, boyish rider went on to describe which part of the race he was focusing on. “I have practised in the Alps and on the time-trial course,” he said of stages that come in the final week.
Cyclists rarely answer questions on strategy and it would be no surprise if Pogacar, despite saying he would be patient, were to spring an attack early. “When you have an opportunity you have to take it,” he said responding to a question about the hilly opening stage in the rolling green Bilbao back-country that would normally suit him.
“But you need to hold your horses,” he said, sounding a note of caution previously absent from his vocabulary.
“You learn every year, this year we will try to do better in how to win the Tour. Last year I was strong enough to do it but maybe didn’t approach it right.”
Team UAE announced this week that the Pogacar would race as co-captain with British rider Adam Yates, recently arrived from Ineos.
Doubts over Pogacar's fitness
UAE team chief Mauro Gianetti said the move was due to doubts over Pogacar’s fitness.
Pogacar was on dazzling form before he broke a wrist in a fall in April and was forced out of the saddle ahead of his bid to claim back the Tour title.
“I have 70 percent mobility in my wrist,” he said. “Two out of the three bones are healed.”
“I haven’t been racing but the legs are good and the mentality is super good,” he said.
But Pogacar said he has mixed feelings going into the first week because of the injury.
“The first week has basically everything,” he said of the sprints, mountains in the Pyrenees and hilly Basque Country.
“I was really excited at first but because of the accident I’m a bit less excited now than before.”
A year ago, Jumbo’s collective strength helped Dane Vingegaard, more resilient on the toughest climbs, outlast the daring Pogacar, who won the previous two editions.
This Tour is being sold as a rematch, or act three of that duel.
Pogacar insisted that Vingegaard was not his chief concern.
“I don’t have their performance in my mind. I have mine in my mind. In cycling you need to focus on yourself,” he said.
Vingegaard feels ready
Meanwhile, Jumbo-Visma rider Vingegaard said he was ready to renew his rivalry with Pogacar and laughed off suggestions that the Slovenian would be hampered by a wrist injury suffered in April. “I feel good, I feel ready, I’m where I want to be,” he said.
“I expect (him) to attack right from stage one, just like he did last year, and I’ll be there to follow him,” said the Dane.
“As champion, you could say I’m the hunted man, but believe me I’ll be hunting too.”
The 110th edition will spend three days in the Basque country, where cycling is hugely popular and the course should provide for a thrilling start.
Stage 1 is a constantly undulating circuit of 182km starting and ending in Bilbao.
“This kind of start here in the Basque Country means the guys trying to win the race can’t relax at all,” said France’s Julian Alaphilippe, one of the attack-minded riders who could find Saturday’s opening stage attractive.
Watch out for Wout van Aert
Jumbo’s Wout van Aert is another rider to watch out for on the first day.
“This is the biggest race in the world and I hope I can start it well because I know how good it feels,” said the Belgian.
Bilbao is decked out with Tour de France images on the sides of buses and flooded with local police wearing the regional red berets.
At Thursday’s reception the riders were given a taster of what is expected along the roadsides of this cycling heartland.
‘In memory of Gino’
Tour director Christian Prudhomme described the region as “the yellow jersey of spectators”.
Local rider Mikel Landa, of the Bahrain Victorious team, who grew up speaking Basque, beamed when asked how he felt ahead of the race.
“There are seven of us (riders) from the region, the excitement and passion for cycling of the Basque people is huge,” said Landa, who finished fourth on the 2021 Tour and could challenge again this year.
His teammate Pello Bilbao, from the Basque town of Guernica, said he, Landa and the six other Bahrain Victorious riders would be doing their best to honour Gino Maeder, who died aged 26 following a fall in the Tour of Switzerland earlier this month.
“Every day we’ll be riding in memory of Gino,” he said of his Swiss former teammate.
The Tour also takes in the neighbouring coastal city of San Sebastian, which hosted the Grand Depart of the 1992 Tour.
Sunday’s second stage embarks from the town of Vitoria and runs to San Sebastian, while stage three starts at Amorebieta-Etxano and takes the peloton away from the Spanish Basque Country across the border with France to Bayonne on a largely flat 185km run.