With July comes cycling’s most celebrated race; the Tour de France. The three-week race has now reached its 102nd edition but is continuing to grow in popularity. The jerseys are the most iconic, the stories the most told and the prize the most prestigious. This year’s race can boast a seriously impressive start list, with a favourite ‘big four’ backed by a hungry field unwilling to be dubbed the supporting cast.
May’s Giro d’Italia hit riders hard and pressed all the right button with the fans. Since then, the World Tour has accelerated through a brilliant Criterium du Dauphine and the unique nine day Tour of Switzerland. These two races saw a mix of tiring Giro stars and Tour hopefuls with form heading in the right direction. Alberto Contador, however, took a deserved rest before heading to last week’s Route de Sud to find his legs remained in good shape. The Dauphine was fantastic with five different leaders across the eight days. Chris Froome usurped Tejay Van Garderen on the last stage and last climb, with the unlucky American cutting a cool and comfortable figure for the majority of the week. His spell in yellow was split by a day for Vincenzo Nibali whose form continues to beguile- more on him later. Switzerland saw a number of lumpy stages test the awareness of the contenders but the race was ultimately settled by a wonderful climb into Solden and a tense time trial finale. Thibaut Pinot took the lead in the mountains, but the time he gained on his rivals proved too small against the clock. Simon Spilak took the win in one of the best recent ITT battles against Geraint Thomas. These races are prestigious in their own right but also play a major part in selection for the Tour de France. Selection for the biggest race of the year can be a rider’s goal for the season, such is its status. However, sometimes selectors’ hands will be forced by the requirements of a team leader. Sky, Astana, Movistar and Tinkoff have picked teams strong in the mountains whilst others have considered their strongest sprint trains. The French teams love to animate the race and as always they will be packed with stage-hunters, for which there are plenty of opportunities in the first week alone. This year’s Tour should be fantastic. Yes we say that every year, but there has rarely been a list of contenders this strong, nor a route with so much potential for mountain showdowns. On the subject of the route, let’s take a look.
Last year I previewed the route after its announcement but a few things have changed since then, most notably a landslide on the Col du Galibier forcing a Stage 20 amendment and a second ascent of the Col de la Croix de Fer. Three weeks before the race reaches that point, it will start in Utrecht, Holland. After a possible sprint in the flatlands, the race enters Belgium and some familiar rolling terrain. Stage 3 ends in Huy and is calling for the Ardennes specialists, it should be a cracker of a stage and may even see some GC action. The profile of the next day is flat, but a profile won’t show the sections of unmerciful cobbles. The devilish pave will split the Peloton- it always does- and the GC riders will be mostly hoping to stay together. However, brave sorts will welcome this as an opportunity to take time as Nibali did in 2014. Colombian Nairo Quintana rode E3 Harelbeke this year to practise his performance on cobbles and he’ll need to have learnt fast to stay in contention prior to reaching his playground, the mountains. The next handful of stages should be governed by the sprint teams, they tend to be more organized than at the Giro and they won’t be in a mood to mess up. However, finishes are not straight forward and we can look forward to an uphill sprint in Le Harve (Stage 6). The Team Time Trial follows, before a rest day marks a changing in the ramps of the race, the second half almost non-stop with climbs. The TTT itself is hilly enough, and Orica GreenEDGE and BMC may make way for the GC teams. Stages 10, 11 and 12 are all summit finishes with the second of the three passing over the Col du Tourmalet and the last unrelenting in 1 and HC category climbs. After the flat-finishing Stage 15 comes rest day 2 before the riders take a mighty assault on the Alps. Nobody likes to see sprinters abandoning the biggest race of them all but you may cut them a little slack as they stand before stages 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20. Stage 16 ends in Gap and allows brave descenders (Bardet, Nibali) to play a hand, before Stage 17 visits the famous Pra Loup climb. Stage 19 tackles the Col de la Croix de Fer plus a summit to La Corbier and the last day features one of the all-time greats in Alpe d’Huez. It is almost impossible to accurately predict what state the race will be in come Paris on July 26th but the rider in yellow will be one fantastic climber.
In any other year an examination of the route would make Contador favourite. Simply put, he climbs like no other and has the experience and bike skills to handle all else that will be thrown his way. However, the Spaniard is attempting a Giro/Tour double and though the first leg was completed in impressive and relatively straight forward fashion, there’s plenty to question about the Tinkoff leader’s credentials. He was unable, or unwilling, to follow some of Mikel Landa’s mountain digs and was dropped in Finestre by both Landa and Fabio Aru. Still, Contador dominated on many other stages and an impressive win in Route de Sud last week suggests his smartly ridden Giro should not impact on his Tour. However, overcoming Nibali, Quintana and Froome will be a much tougher ask and will take Contador to his limit. He’ll be pleased to see his team looks stronger on paper than the one he rode with in May, boosted by the inclusion of Rafal Majka.
The defending champion has taken to his 2014 playbook in preparation for this year’s race. He’s been relatively unsuccessful, played his cards close to his chest, and dug deep intermittently with his Italian national champion’s jersey seen only in flashes. His stage-race performances have flattered to deceive, managing 10th and 12th in Romandie and the Dauphine respectively. There was also a lukewarm Classics campaign culminating in a 13th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege having been dropped by the front group. However, last week he comfortably defended his Italian title and suddenly his curious campaign began to have a very familiar feel. His finishes in Romandie and Dauphine are only slightly lower than last year and those bred the most dominant of Tour performances. Discount Nibali at your own peril, the poker-faced Italian is most definitely in the frame. This is a rider who knows what he is doing, who came seconds away from a Giro/Vuelta double in 2013 and has finished on a Grand Tour podium every year from 2010. Questions will be asked about his climbing on the hardest of stages, but Nibali will be waiting with answers.
Colombian Quintana is another who’s appearance on the World Tour has been intermittent with his last outing in early May. However, unlike Nibali, Quintana has experienced some success (winning the Queen Stage and overall in Tirreno-Adriatico) and has done little to show he is anything but on track for the Tour. Should Contador falter, Quintana should take the battle to Froome in the high mountains and we wait with anticipation to see how the gap between the two has closed since Froome’s Tour win, Quintana’s debut, in 2013. Judging by his win in Tirreno and the ease of which he can kick away, it is possible that the 2014 Giro winner is the best climber in the race. He will be backed by a strong Movistar squad, Alejandro Valverde included. With so much racing to do, the hardest ask for Colombia’s finest will be piecing together his best race over the three week period.
Sky’s Chris Froome was probably hit hardest by the lack of time trials and his comments about the route confirm the disappointment of the Olympic time trial bronze medallist. However, whilst his rivals dance out of their saddles, Froome is his own beast in the mountains. There’s been little to suggest, both this year and last, that Froome should be afraid of what the others can do. Contador won their Vuelta battle but not without Froome dealing blows of his own. This year in Andalucía Froome came out on top, the Spaniard unable to live with his measured applications of pressure, no matter how deviant he and his awkward elbows remain. His cause is, almost obviously, strengthened by the Team Sky line up. In addition to the expected domestiques, Sky have called upon talented stage-racers Konig and Porte, perhaps learning from last year’s lack of a plan B.
At 25, French, and with a Tour podium under his belt, Pinot could have been readying his shoulders for a hefty weight of home nation expectation. His podium, behind compatriot Jean-Christophe Peraud, were France’s first in the Tour since 1997 (although naming Tour podiums from the first part of this century is almost a matter of opinion these days). However, the star studded line up to this year’s race actually provide Pinot with one more chance to fly under the radar. Okay, maybe not under the radar, for the FDJ rider’s climbing ability is beginning to reach top tier, but Pinot will at least be given some leeway to attack. His performance in the Tour of Switzerland confirmed his great shape but he still lacks the team and the nous to control a stage.
If not for his slightly riskier tactics, and more tellingly the final time trial, Romain Bardet could have been on the podium last year. In a field this strong, Bardet will unlikely take time on the summits but you can be sure he will try. Even if settling for ‘just’ a stage win, Bardet needs no second asking to attack and he’s good enough to make it stick. An alert rider, Bardet will do his best to follow the right wheels and if others falter a surprise could be on the cards. Another string to Bardet’s bow is his descending which can be somewhere between sublime and ridiculous, showcased recently in the Dauphine on his way to a superb win. Lacking in time trials, this year’s Tour should really suit Bardet as the discipline remains an ugly Achilles’ heel.
Tejay Van Garderen
It’s easy to forget Tejay Van Garderen is still only 26. A comparatively peripheral figure in last year’s race, Van Garderen never cracked nor was completely dropped, taking 5th place overall after a strong final time trial. The Tour is the best place to see Van Garderen but this year he has stepped up his game in other races as he edges closer to the top tier. He jumped away for a win in Catalunya before being comfortably best-of-the-rest in the Dauphine behind Froome. Van Garderen to finish in the top 10 once again looks one of the safer bets you could make.
Best of the Rest
Joaquim Rodriguez still demands respect and on his day can climb with the best. However, his Katusha team looks skewed towards Alexander Kristoff and Rodriguez may find he is best suited to week 1’s hills. All his best form this year has been over the shorter climbs, and his acceleration is as impressive as ever. If Rodriguez begins to lose time he will certainly amend his goals. Lotto NL-Jumbo’s Wilco Kelderman has shown this year he remains a level below the best and this gap will only widen in the longest race format. In these same races, however, he has a shown some form most notably in Catalunya. He has also been given team leadership, an accolade in a strong mountains line-up that includes Robert Gesink, Laurens Ten Dam and Steven Kruijswijk. Lampre-Merida are headed by Rui Costa who has not got the credit he deserves for a strong start to the season. His Dauphine stage win brought back memories of his Tour victories and Costa will certainly feature in this year’s race. Rigoberto Uran is a somewhat surprise selection in a rounded Etixx team and he will be hoping to rediscover his best form after a disappointing Giro.
Sprinters and Stage Winners
The sprinters appear undeterred by the lumpy route and will arrive in Utrecht in full force. Mark Cavendish is somewhere near his best again and has delivered many wins already this year. He seems to be enjoying himself once more, not exclusively in bunch sprints, as shown recently in his superb British championship second place. Tour rival Marcel Kittel is absent largely due to a horrible virus-hit season and losing his battle with race fitness. Instead, Giant-Alpecin turn to San Remo and Roubaix winner John Degenkolb. We can expect the German to challenge on Stage 3’s cobbles and in the points competition as well as trying his luck in the sprints. French sprinting is on the rise with Arnaud Demare, Bryan Coquard and Nacer Bouhanni all holding realistic hopes of a stage win. Cofidis’ Bouhanni suffered a fall in last week’s French Nationals and may yet find himself on the side-lines. In the most straight forward sprints (Stages 5, 7, 21) Cavendish will find sturdy opposition in the shape of old rival Andre Griepel and superstar Alexander Kristoff– the pair will be disappointed to go home empty handed and I expect both to go well.
Peter Sagan, who I believe has had a deceptively good campaign, will feature in a variety of stages and must be an on-paper favourite for numbers 6 and 13. These stages will bring into play the fast lumpy finishers such as Greg Van Avermaet and Simon Gerrans. I didn’t think I’d be saying this 12 months ago, but double Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen is another who could feature. The harder stages should see to the end of the true fast men and there’s a whole host of aggressors waiting to take their place. Tony Gallopin will go well on home soil whilst Cyril Gautier may take over the mantel of Europcar’s stage hunter, though Tommy Voecklar is unlikely to go out quietly. Luxembourg’s Bob Jungels is in form and may choose to go for stages as Trek aim to put an appalling Giro behind them, the return of Fabian Cancellara also a boost. French wildcard team Bretagne have a host of riders to go on the attack but Argentinian Eduardo Sepulveda may prove to be their best hope should he manage to escape for a day’s climbing (Stages 16, 19). He may find himself in a break with MTN Qhubeka’s hugely impressive Louis Meintjes.
On the hard climbs Team Cannondale-Garmin may send one of Andrew Talansky or Dan Martin in pursuit of a stage win. Both may hold top 10 ambitions but a loss of a time could turn their heads to stages. Similar things could be said of Simon and Adam Yates who both possess the potential to be the next British Tour de France stage winners.
Michael Matthews, Tim Wellens, Pierre Rolland, Warren Barguil, Alexis Vuillermoz, Rafael Valls… there’s so many possible stage winners in this truly star-studded Tour de France start list!
- Any of the big four could win this race- I’ll go for Chris Froome from Nairo Quintana.
- Louis Meintjes or Merhawi Kudus to get close to a top 20 finish for both MTN Qhubeka and Africa.
- Movistar to win the Team Time Trial.
- Sagan to edge out Degenkolb in the Green Jersey competition.
- Cancellara to wear the yellow jersey following Stage 4’s cobbles.
- Cavendish to win on the Champs Elysees.
- Tony Gallopin to win a stage.
- Rui Costa to win a stage.
- Orica GreenEDGE to win a stage.
- The KoM competition is impossible to predict- I’m going Quintana, Rolland or Joaquim Rodriguez.
- Chris Froome
- Nairo Quintana
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Alberto Contador
- Romain Bardet
- Tejay Van Garderen
- Thibaut Pinot
- Alejandro Valverde
- Richie Porte
- Rui Costa