2022 Tour de France: COVID concerns and the dominant Slovenian superstars will test the riders

Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, passes the Arc de Triomphe last year. AP Photo/Daniel Cole

The Tour de France has evolved over the years, but since its inception in 1903, it has always been a race of survival and attrition. That may just prove more true than ever this time around, after a peloton of 176 riders has traversed 2,081 miles around Western Europe.

When the biggest names in professional cycling line up for the start of the Tour de France on July 1 in Copenhagen, they'll be staring down a pair of ominous threats. The first is Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar, the affable 23-year-old defending champion, whose reign began in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The second is the virus itself, which has run rampant throughout the pro peloton in recent weeks and threatens to remove not just riders, but possibly entire teams, from the race before it reaches Paris on July 24.

No rider is more aware of these tandem threats than Pogacar's compatriot, friend and fierce rival Primoz Roglic.

The 32-year-old Roglic led the COVID-delayed 2020 Tour for 11 straight days during the second half of the race before losing the hallowed yellow jersey to Pogacar on the penultimate stage time trial. At age 21, Pogacar became the youngest Tour champion in 110 years and the first Slovenian to win cycling's most prestigious race. It was the most stunning turn of events at the Tour since American Greg LeMond snatched victory from Frenchman Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989, just a few months before Roglic was born.

Last year's anticipated rematch between the Slovenian superstars fizzled out quickly. The only former ski jumper to have won one of cycling's three Grand Tours, Roglic crashed out in the first week, opening the door for Pogacar's uncontested second consecutive victory. Roglic returned a few weeks later to win the Olympic gold medal in the time trial, and went on to win the three-week Vuelta a España in September.

While either of those results would amount to a career-defining moment for most professional riders, they were, in effect, consolation prizes for Roglic, whose Jumbo-Visma team has invested heavily in his elusive bid for a Tour victory. Instead, that investment has collided squarely with the ascendancy of Pogacar, the crown prince of professional cycling who has drawn comparisons to Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, the undisputed greatest male cyclist in history.

On paper, the calm-and-calculated Roglic looks poised to mount perhaps his last, best challenge to Pogacar. He recently won the eight-day Critérium du Dauphiné, a Tour de France warm-up event, where Jumbo-Visma won three stages with two different riders and finished first and second overall. However, that result doesn't tell the full story. For one thing, Pogacar wasn't there; also, Roglic didn't win a stage, and at moments appeared to struggle with the pace set by his younger teammate Jonas Vingegaard, the 25-year-old Dane who finished a distant second to Pogacar in Roglic's absence at last year's Tour.

Vingegaard finished second to Roglic at the Dauphiné -- they crossed the finish line of the final stage together, arm-in-arm -- and on July 1, he will take the Tour start on home soil in Copenhagen in a shared leadership role at Jumbo-Visma. Not only is Roglic no longer the pre-race favorite to wear yellow in Paris as he was two years ago, he may not end up as the leader within his own team.

"[The rivalry with Pogacar] is pushing each other to be better," Roglic told Eurosport. "And definitely it's also something special for all the spectators and everyone around it."

As for his relationship with Vingegaard, a rider who would be an undisputed leader on any other team, Roglic was predictably diplomatic. "He doesn't need to prove anything, [he was] second last year. Super strong rider, and with him we are also stronger as a team."

Just a few days after Jumbo-Visma's dominant performance at the Dauphiné, a different formation of the team was forced to withdraw from the Tour de Suisse due to a reported four positive COVID infections. Among those riders that pulled out was American climbing ace Sepp Kuss, a stage winner at last year's Tour and a key teammate to Roglic and Vingegaard when the race hits the high mountains. However Kuss made the Tour team selection when Jumbo-Visma announced its eight-man roster on June 21.

More than a quarter of the field abandoned the Tour de Suisse due to COVID-19, including race leader Aleksandr Vlasov, Olympic mountain-bike champion Tom Pidcock, and three-time world champion Peter Sagan. The eventual winner was Welshman Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion, who heads to Copenhagen as an outside podium contender at age 36. Thomas finished second overall in 2019 to teammate Egan Bernal, who has not raced this season due to serious injuries sustained in a January training crash in his native Colombia.

And while it remains uncertain how riders who were infected with COVID in Switzerland will fare over three weeks of intense racing, the fate of those who might contract the virus in France may (or may not) be even worse from a competition standpoint.

On Tuesday, the sport's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), updated its COVID protocols, seemingly leaving the door open for an asymptomatic rider who tests positive during the Tour to remain in the race subject to review by a committee consisting of doctors from the race organizer, the UCI and the rider's team.

It's an opaque modification that appears prompted by the mass abandonment at the Tour de Suisse and made just in time for pro cycling's showcase event. How the Tour peloton might react to certain riders being allowed to remain while others are sent home is anyone's guess, but what is clear is that the UCI has dropped the rule authorizing race organizers to exclude any team that had two or more riders returning positive COVID tests within seven days.

Pogacar, who had COVID in January, recently claimed to be both lighter and stronger than he's ever been -- a scary proposition for the rest of the field -- reinforcing his status as the overwhelming pre-race favorite. Still, this year's Tour could end up a lottery of sorts, with the last of the overall contenders still standing in Paris declared the winner.

"It's quite stressful, but there's nothing we can do," Pogacar told a Slovenian TV crew at the Tour of Slovenia last week, which he won easily. "We try to isolate and survive without further infection."

There will be other unique stressors as well. Stage 5 takes the peloton across the treacherous cobblestone roads used at Paris-Roubaix, the hardest of the spring classics, where crashes and punctures are commonplace; it will be a day where the race cannot be won, but it can certainly be lost. Stage 7 marks a return to Super Planche Des Belles Filles, the short, steep climb where Pogacar stunned the cycling world and took the yellow jersey off Roglic's shoulders in 2020. There are five summit finishes across the Alps and Pyrenees, and once again there will be a penultimate-stage time trial which could decide everything.

And in a new twist, an armada of Netflix camera crews will be on hand, embedded with eight teams to film a documentary series. Among those teams are Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, but not UAE Team Emirates. Given the cumulative effect of the daily toll of racing the Tour, the avoidance of a film crew appears to be yet one more advantage for Pogacar.

Five riders to watch at the 2022 Tour de France

+ Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates): The two-time defending champion, with no discernible weaknesses. It's going to take an incident of some kind -- a crash, an untimely mechanical, or an illness -- to beat the Slovenian superstar.

+ Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma): A cagey veteran who seemingly has all the ingredients needed to win, but also comes with an unfortunate history of late-race stumbles. He's on the strongest team, but carries the additional pressure of sharing his protected leadership role with a younger teammate.

+ Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma): The future is now. Vingegaard finished second overall last year after Roglic abandoned due to injury. It was a distant second behind Pogacar, but he's a year older, wiser and stronger, and can ride without pressure as all eyes are on Roglic.

+ Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers): The 2018 Tour champion may be past his prime, but his overall victory at the Tour de Suisse shows there's still some fight in his legs. The Welsh hero can't go toe-to-toe with Pogacar and Roglic, but if he stays close, and healthy, anything could happen in the final week.

+ Daniel Martinez (Ineos Grenadiers): Traditionally found in a support role, the 26-year-old Colombian climber is riding into his own in 2022. He finished on the podium at three weeklong stage races this year, including taking the overall win at the Tour of the Basque Country. He may well be one of the only riders able to match Pogacar and Roglic in the mountains.

Neal Rogers has reported from every major race in professional cycling, and has covered the Tour de France for over 20 years.