Pedal Punditry #9 - João Almeida and Adam Yates, the dark horses to win the 2024 Tour de France?

Only 9 days remaining to the Tour de France and we are set for a very exciting edition. This year none of the big favourites for the yellow jersey come with a traditional run-up to the race; and the truth is we have got a list of dark horses who can seize the opportunity to win the Tour such as João Almeida and Adam Yates.

This is a point that I stick by quite a lot actually. A long story, but one that deserves to be explored. Subjectively I see Tadej Pogacar as the biggest favourite to win the Tour at this point. Currently in Isola 2000 training at altitude, he and his UAE Team Emirates teammates have also been exploring a few Tour stages - with special focus on the final ones, where the race may be decided.

He will go into the race after winning most of the races he took part in early in the season, and the Giro d'Italia. A relaxed approach, a very successful and incident-free race where he won with almost 10 minutes of lead, it certainly wouldn't have drained the Slovenian. He becomes the biggest favourite to win the Giro-Tour double since the likes of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. A rider in his prime, with great confidence and ability to recover, he is set for greatness but the key element here is the less than ideal preparation from his main rival Jonas Vingegaard.

Vingegaard crashed in early April at Itzulia Basque Country, fracturing a collarbone, several ribs and suffering a punctured lung. Injuries that are terrifying and definitely marking. The Tour was even at risk for the two-time defending champion who overthrew Pogacar directly on both previous editions of the Tour. Pogacar had five weeks of training on the road last year before racing the Tour and arrived with very good form, but lacked legs on one key day in the final week.

Vingegaard comes with two more weeks of training (this taking into consideration the earlier start of the Tour as well) but having spent a longer amount of time off the bike. Whilst Pogacar managed to ride indoors last year with a fracture in the wrist, the Dane spent a month completely away from the bike, and almost two weeks in a hospital in the Basque Country. For that reason Vingegaard will have no competition whatsoever before the Tour, unlike Pogacar who raced the national championships last year.

Vingegaard travelled to Tignes in the final days of May and is currently in an ongoing three-week altitude camp. Joined by Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte at first; and in the meantime by the likes of Vuelta a España winner Sepp Kuss and Criterium du Dauphiné runner-up Matteo Jorgenson as well. Visma must be said has had a very unlucky season, with virtually all leaders except for Jorgenson to suffer crashes or illnesses at key moments of the season. We cannot forget Van Aert's absence from the cobbled monuments and Giro d'Italia, Christophe Laporte from Milano-Sanremo and Tour of Flanders... The team is going to the Tour with several plan B's (this wordplay is too good not to explain it myself) as both Dylan van Baarle and Steven Kruijswijk crashed out of the Dauphiné. They will be replaced, certainly, by Jan Tratnik and Wilco Kelderman. Great riders, but a change of plans for a team who prepares for the Tour so meticulously. Van Aert's presence was also not in the plans until just a few months ago, and both his and Vingegaard's presence can't even be confirmed at this point - despite all signs hinting at them making the trip to Florence.

Pedal Punditry #9 - João Almeida and Adam Yates, the dark horses to win the 2024 Tour de France?
Adam Yates leading the 2023 Tour de France alongside Tadej Pogacar. @Sirotti

Safe to say Visma is coming into the Tour with less than ideal preparation. This will not mean they are likely to disappoint or be no match for UAE, but UAE Team Emirates are pulling out all the guns for this one Tour and Visma can't be anything but perfect in order to match them. UAE in fact set their plans for the Grand Tours right at the start of the year and there haven't been any changes to the Tour's plans. Experienced and very strong classics riders in Tim Wellens and Nils Politt to support on the flat and gravel stages; Marc Soler and Pavel Sivakov as dedicated mountain domestiques (with lot of offensive and breakaway experience) and no less than four leaders, who can put Visma and other teams under pressure in any mountain stage.

Among these we have Juan Ayuso. Only 21 years old but already with two Vuelta a España GC runs under his belt, finishing third and fourth (being the best non-Visma rider last year). The Spaniard was second to Vingegaard at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year, won Itzulia Basque Country, but is perhaps the least good option of all four having crashed out of the Dauphiné. But he is still incredibly dangerous and a wildcard, besides being a rider with a lot of ambition who has never said that he would be racing the Tour as a second option. Confidence is high with the Spaniard, and the team will race aggressively which should not prevent him.

We've got Tadej Pogacar of course, who is expected to be as offensive as ever, and from whom I expect attacks right from the start of the race as the team know Jonas Vingegaard may need some time to get to his best level. The tactic seems clear for UAE, they have the men and they have to hit the ground running at the Tour, throwing everything they can at Visma. In the high mountains and altitude Vingegaard may have the upper hand and perhaps his best form back, but if he has to attack UAE with Ayuso, Pogacar, Yates and Almeida, it may not be as easy of a mission to gain time on Pogacar as it has been in 2022 and 2023 on one specific day. Consistency is Vingegaard's specialty, but if Pogacar finds it too, then gaining time will be difficult - and after a fractured collarbone, he cannot expect another shocking time-trial performance such as last year's.

But Pogacar does have a Grand Tour under his belt already, and as we've seen last year at the Vuelta, a team with overwhelming numbers may actually decide amongst themselves who wins the race. With all due respect to the amazing climbers such as Carlos Rodríguez, Primoz Roglic, Remco Evenepoel and others... But honestly, Pogacar and Vingegaard are a whole level above when it comes to the mountains. Behind them I would say are both Yates and Almeida who put on equally impressive performances at the Dauphiné. Don't make the "the Tour contenders were at the Dauphiné" argument, because trustworthy sources estimate the duo's climbing performances in Switzerland to be absolutely world-class level.

The truth is Yates and Almeida did in Switzerland what Pogacar did at the Giro. Sure, you can argue that Mattias Skjelmose and Egan Bernal were not the sort of competition they will face at the Tour, but both put on incredibly strong climbing performances in five consecutive days. And dare I say, on all five days they were the two strongest climbers, without exception. A show of consistency that is just incredible actually, I don't need to phrase it in any other way. Yates won two stages (could've been three but Torstein Traeen won from the breakaway on stage 4) and the overall classification whilst Almeida also won two stages. The first of which one where he worked for Yates, the second was the final mountain time-trial.

At the Dauphiné Ayuso was given sole leadership but abandoned the race and showed no results. In Suisse, Yates and Almeida wiped the floor with their competitors. In a one-week race, Yates won the GC with 22 seconds over Almeida. Third place Mattias Skjelmose was a whole 3:02 minutes behind. I don't usually believe Suisse is the best approach to the Tour but at the same time I am definitely not a scientist, a coach or anyone who has the say on how cyclists should prepare for a Grand Tour. They know what they are doing, and if that wasn't clear before the race, then certainly one has to be convinced after UAE rode it in such a dominating way.

Pedal Punditry #9 - João Almeida and Adam Yates, the dark horses to win the 2024 Tour de France?
João Almeida beats Geraint Thomas and Primoz Roglic atop Monte Bondone, 2023 Giro d'Italia. @Sirotti

So UAE enter the Tour with an '8' that has enough cards to put Visma under pressure in any mountain day. As we've seen last year, even the hilly days and hilly starts may provide a launchpad for attacks, as Tadej Pogacar twice tried to get in a breakaway and the race exploded right from the start in seemingly calm days. He can do that again, and if UAE don't make enough damage on the first days I recon that will be the plan. A rider with so many allies and friends in the peloton can certainly make alliances as Alberto Contador did in the past to raid Grand Tours; but UAE have strong enough riders that they don't actually just have to hope for allies in other teams. Classics specialists, top climbing domestiques and plenty leaders make for a deadly combo if they use it right.

And one important aspect may be the anticipation. Adam Yates won the first stage of the race last year and took on the yellow jersey. The team lost it to Jai Hindley a few days later, but in this position Pogacar would not attack him. Certainly not this year where Pogacar has already raced a Grand Tour and all three of his teammates are proven Grand Tour specialists. If one of the UAE riders gets the yellow jersey, he may not be attacked by his teammates, who may instead cover all attacks or even pace in some days to protect it. Visma last year at the Vuelta had this situation from early on and could just play with the competition.

Pogacar is the kind of rider who it would not be unthinkable to ease a little in order to not break a teammate's heart. He's won two Tours in the past, a Grand Tour already this season and honestly finishing second to a teammate like Yates or Almeida, who have supported him to big wins in the past, certainly wouldn't be shocking for the Slovenian who is just about the most popular figure in the peloton. So in UAE there may be a race for the yellow jersey, and whoever gets it first may be the 'lucky' one. Sepp Kuss' breakaway and Vuelta win of last year makes it possible to visualize a clear path to this.

Because although Pogacar is an amazing climber, you cannot say Yates and Almeida aren't as well, and both at their best level should be able to withstand the offensive of virtually every rider with the exception of Vingegaard perhaps... But the Dane is such a wildcard at this point that we do not know what to expect of him too much.

It will be an interesting Tour, I do not see a victory outside of UAE and Visma simply because of the level we race at nowadays, but I do think there is a way for these two outsiders to win the Tour. They both finished on the podium and won stages last year at the Grand Tours they focused on respectively. Yates, third last year at the Tour, looks to be at the same level whilst Almeida has never climbed as strongly outside of Grand Tours as he's done in Suisse now.

Pedal Punditry #9 - João Almeida and Adam Yates, the dark horses to win the 2024 Tour de France?
João Almeida on his way to his second stage win at the Tour de Suisse final time-trial. Yates would go on to win the overall classification. @Sirotti

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