The 2023 Tour de France begins with a Grand Depart in the Basque Country, and a start line beside Bilbao’s iconic Guggenheim Museum. From there the peloton faces a 182km hilly route, with 3,000m of climbing featuring five categorised ascents, of which the final two are sharp and testing.
So often in recent years the Tour has begun with an individual time trial, which for my money is much more exciting on stage 20 (see the dramatic 2020 finale) than stage one, with little yet to play for. That’s why this day looks so intriguing: the yellow jersey is up for grabs and it won’t be won against the clock but in a fight on the road, and the route – punchy but not mountainous – is one that just about anyone could win, bar the pure sprinters and the pure climbers.
Might the deposed Tadej Pogacar try to land an early blow on reigning champion Jonas Vingegaard? The Dane prefers the highest peaks and will have to be wary. Vingegaard may need the protection of his teammates to stay out of trouble and out of the wind, particularly when the peloton faces potential crosswinds along the Bay of Biscay coastline that could split the pack.
There are a whole host of candidates to take the first yellow jersey. Among the fastest finishers, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are the most likely to get quickly over the climbs – if either come down the penultimate hill, the Cote de Vivero (4.2km at 7.3 per cent), near the front of the race then they will be a strong favourite to win. Van Aert will need permission from his team to leave team leader Vingegaard behind, but Van der Poel has no such distractions.
Then there are those puncheurs who can really climb: two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe is the most obvious candidate, and he has a history of grabbing hold of the yellow jersey at the start of the Tour and keeping it. Comfortable climbers like Giro winner Richard Carapaz, Britain’s Simon and Adam Yates, Danish debutant Matthias Skjelmose and Spain’s Pello Bilbao (as the name suggests, this is his home race) all have the legs to attack when the road hurts most.
And don’t rule out Tom Pidcock. No one descends as quickly as the Yorkshireman and he can take advantage of the downhill sections to be up near the front when it matters.
Stage 1 route map and profile
It really is wide open. Pogacar, Van Aert and Alaphilippe are all tempting picks, but let’s go with Mathieu van der Poel, a supreme all-rounder with the legs to clear the climbs and the speed to beat anyone in a sprint to the line. The Dutchman came into last year’s Tour exhausted and overcooked, and he abandoned halfway through. This time he has measured his season to perfection, picked up several wins already and looks set to show his best self on the biggest stage.