As we continue on into the early stages of the 2024 season, Cyclingnews looks ahead at some of the key storylines that will define the coming year in cycling.
We’re only just emerging from the depths of the winter off-season after the WorldTour’s restart with the Tour Down Under. However, even if the race lies almost seven months in the future, the Tour de France – as ever – hangs heavy over the peloton as teams and riders make their way into the 2024 season.
There may still be 91 days of WorldTour competition lying between now and the Grand Départ in Tuscany, but it’s already the most hotly anticipated in years.
Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard face off once again, while Primož Roglič’s move to Bora-Hansgrohe widens the field of top-level contenders further still. And there’s another storyline – another contender – too, with Soudal-QuickStep phenom Remco Evenepoel poised to make his Tour de France debut.
The Belgian, who turns 24 next month, may well have been co-leading Visma-Lease a Bike with Vingegaard next season had those blockbuster merger talks not broken down. But alas, the long-running Belgian team remains as one, led by Evenepoel into the new season.
The 2024 Tour is set to be the biggest mêlée over the maillot jaune for some time as Evenepoel goes head-to-head with the winners of the past four editions in Vingegaard and Pogačar as well as triple Vuelta winner Roglič.
The trio of rivals the Belgian will be facing this summer have racked up eight Grand Tour wins between them – a number that may stretch to nine with Pogačar competing at May’s Giro d’Italia. Evenepoel, the youngest of the quartet born 21 months after Pogačar, has the 2022 Vuelta to his name and has yet to come up against either of the two Tour winners at a Grand Tour.
He did have the better of Roglič in 2022, at least until the Slovenian was forced out of the race following a finishing straight crash on stage 16 in Tomares. 2023 saw him lead Roglič once again, this time at the Giro d’Italia, as he time trialled into the maglia rosa despite suffering from COVID-19 that would take him out of the race the next day.
All that history, together with that infamous collapse over the Aubisque, Spandelles, and Tourmalet on stage 13 of this year’s Vuelta, sees Evenepoel head towards his Tour de France debut as something of an underdog among the superstar class aiming at the yellow jersey.
Most onlookers, pundits, and betting sites list him as the fourth favourite among the four, just behind Roglič but ahead of the domestiques de luxe of UAE and Visma – Juan Ayuso and Sepp Kuss.
His own team boss, the ever-outspoken Patrick Lefevere, has also questioned whether is quite at the level of Vingegaard and Pogačar just yet.
Speaking to La Dernière Heure in November, he said that Evenepoel’s testing times at the Giro and Vuelta – the latter likely taken on without 100% optimal preparation following his COVID-19 infection – make it hard to gauge his potential for July.
“As a result, we still have doubts about the exact level he can reach in the Tour de France against guys like Vingegaard and Pogačar,” Lefevere said.
“We would have preferred if he could have enjoyed the Giro for three weeks before discovering the Tour de France. But because of all those setbacks this year, he immediately has to discover himself in the Tour.”
Evenepoel himself has tempered expectations of heading to France and coming away with the win after his first three weeks there. After winning the Belgian Sportsman of the Year title in December, he said that a place in the top five and a stage win is his goal – for the moment, at least.
“Then there’s the Tour. It’ll be a voyage of discovery,” he said. “With Jonas Vingegaard, Tadej Pogačar, and Primož Roglič, the gods of Grand Tour racing are at the start. The top five is the ambition – it would be a dream come true to perform better than any of them.
“A stage win is also the goal, so then I would have achieved the beautiful trilogy of a stage win in each Grand Tour. The Tour and the Olympic Games in July. The most important month of my life so far – and perhaps forever – is coming.”
With the Tour and Olympics on his mind next summer, and with Pogačar racing the Giro in May in a Grand Tour double attempt nobody has achieved since Marco Pantani in 1998, there’s the sense that both men could be at a slight disadvantage at the Tour.
Vingegaard and Roglič, meanwhile, are laser-focussed on the Tour and the Tour only with the Dane having said he wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even make his nation’s selection for Paris.
There won’t be many chances to gauge the quartet against each other ahead of July, either. Evenepoel and Pogačar, who have spent just 25 race days in the same peloton (10 of them wins for one or the other), will make it 26 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and… that’s it.
Evenepoel has seen Roglič three times as often, Vingegaard twice as much. The trio will do battle at Itzulia Basque Country and at the Critérium du Dauphiné, so we’ll have at least some measure of their respective form before July.
Roglič, who has yet to make his debut in Bora-Hansgrohe colours, has faced Evenepoel far more than Vingegaard and Pogačar, but even so, it’s hard to make a judgement in favour of one or the other without bringing up caveats left, right, and centre.
All the talk of form and head-to-head battles also puts to one side the strength of teams around the ‘big four’. Evenepoel will be accompanied by a largely familiar – if relatively underpowered – climbing squad, though one upgraded with Mikel Landa’s presence, a valuable addition in the face of the likes of Sepp Kuss, Juan Ayuso, Aleksandr Vlasov et al.
Landa will be alongside Evenepoel when he kicks off his season in Portugal with the Figueuira Champions Classic on February 10 and the Volta ao Algarve four days later. It’s the earliest season start of the Tour’s ‘big four’, drawing to a close the long wait for the superstars of road cycling to return to competition.
Those early season tests will, of course, tell us little about July or how Evenepoel is shaping up for his first Tour. They will, however, mark the beginning of the long road to Tuscany and Paris, and the start of the build-up to one of the most anticipated Tour de France debuts in recent memory.
“It’s just something that’s exciting – finally, it’s there, it’s coming,” Evenepoel said at his team’s training camp earlier this month. “I’m super motivated to do every training to the detail – not 10 minutes less or 10 minutes more – just everything to the detail. Because I’m so excited to start the Tour.
“It’s a new kind of energy that I haven’t felt for quite a long time. It’s only going to be a good thing knowing that I’ll be racing the Tour this year.”
Everybody – including Evenepoel himself – is excited for him to roll out in Florence, and the anticipation is only set to rise as the Grand Départ. The intervening months, taking in races including Paris-Nice and the Ardennes, will give us some insight into the form of Evenepoel and his trio of rivals.
The Tour is a very long way away, and in any case, it’s always the sun around which the cycling world rotates. Still, Evenepoel’s looming presence, and the prospect of the herculean battle that comes with it, looks set to elevate the 2024 edition even further.