Even for a Giro-lover like me, there’s something about the Tour de France which takes pro cycling to a whole new stage. From a commercial point of view, the Tour secures more mainstream media attention than any other event on the calendar. From a cycling front, the race is the high point of the season for a huge number of riders and the depth of talent on show is second to none. Throw in a spoonful of the Tour’s rich history and climbs such as the returning Mont Ventoux and you’ll usually get a fantastic three weeks’ racing.
Things start with a 188km stage from Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy and, with the absence of a prologue, gives sprinters a chance to wear the Maillot Jaune. The stage isn’t pancake flat but I’ll be hugely surprised if we don’t see a bunch sprint. The coastal town of Mont-Saint-Michel is a wonderful spectacle and a fine choice for the first Grand Depart on home soil since 2013. There’s an immediate change of focus on Stage 2 with a punchy 2km climb at the day’s finale calling out for explosive climbers and quasi-sprinters. After this knot of stages on the northwest coast, riders head south as an anticlockwise loop of France begins. Stages 3 and 4 are classic Tour de France chase-the-break days and there should be more than enough teams willing to close down gaps.
The GC contenders will wake up for Stage 5’s climb to Le Lioran. Neither Chris Froome nor Alberto Contador are afraid of making moves early in the race and there could be time to gain on the four categorised climbs in the day’s last 40km. Stage 6 should once again be for the sprinters despite a handful of climbs at the start of the day – it will be the last chance for the fastmen until after the first rest day.
The Pyrenees arrive on Stage 7 with a flat day spoilt by the Col d’Aspin 20km from the line. The climb is surrounded by a famous Pyrenean family but gets an overdue turn in the spotlight in this year’s race. It was tamed by Thomas Voeckler in 2012 and a face of the climb was used on the way to the Col du Tourmalet in 2015. This year the Tourmalet arrives the following day as the opening climb of Stage 8 but is tackled from the alternative side and averages a 7.7% gradient. There’s no respite for the peloton who tick off three more ascents on the first full day of climbing. The assault on the Pyrenees continues on Stage 9 with the first summit finish in Andorra – a climb that saw Jan Ullrich best Marco Pantani in 1997.
Following the first rest day, riders will be less than impressed with the start of Stage 10. They will resume racing by immediately tackling the Port d’Envalira before a long descent and flat finish makes the stage a candidate for a bunch sprint. An easy 164km trip to Montpellier follows on Stage 11 before Stage 12 brings the most distinguishable of climbs in the famous Mont Ventoux. Averaging around an 8% gradient for between 15km – 20km (depending on where you take your measurements) Ventoux is the definitive Tour de France monster. Its aura is enhanced by its moonscape of a backdrop, noticeably non-Alpine and bearing little resemblance to the Pyrenees. It’s also July 14th, Bastille Day, and this could be the perfect combination for a French climber to go for broke.
Off the back of Ventoux we reach Stage 13 and the first time-trial of the race, some fourteen days after it began. It’s a good length at 37km; unlikely to decide the race but long enough to punish tired legs. Stage 14 will be one for the sprinters and we could then see a rider exodus before a ferocious spell in the mountains.
The Alps are welcomed on Stage 15 with no less than six categorised climbs including the Grand Colombier (13km at nearly 7%). Stage 16 is flatter and acts as a transition into Switzerland passing through Fabian Cancellara’s home region. After the second rest day the mountains return and Stage 17 introduces a new summit at the finish in Finhaut-Emosson. Riders meet the 17km mountain time-trial on Stage 18, moderate in gradient but most definitely uphill.
Stage 19 is short and finishes on the steap slopes of Mont Blanc before one final day’s climbing on Stage 20. The Tour’s last climb is the Col de Joux Plane, deceptively hard with 11.5km at 8.5% and easily tough enough to see the Maillot Jaune crack with Paris in sight. A descent into Morzine follows and it is there that we’ll know the Tour de France winner. Starting in Chantilly, Stage 21 brings down the curtain on the race with the iconic Champs Elysees circuit.
The defending champion returns to the Tour with a team just as focussed as in his two previous victories. Team Sky could pick two line-ups stronger than most others but Froome’s A-listers will include Wout Poels, Geraint Thomas and Sergio Henao. Giro d’Italia captain Mikel Landa has also been announced as has Giro KotM winner Mikel Nieve and World ITT champion Vasil Kiryienka. Froome himself has had a mixed 2016 racing just 27 days. Underwhelming in Catalunya, Froome claimed a stage but finished a lowly 38th in Romandie two months later. Just as bookmakers were beginning to favour his rivals, the Kenyan native stormed to victory in the Dauphine as the strongest rider in the high mountains. He doesn’t look to have improved much in the last 12 months but Sky’s tried-and-tested methods make Froome a justified favourite.
One year after finishing second in the race, Movistar’s Quintana remains Froome’s greatest concern. The Colombian was born to climb and will have enjoyed the Tour’s route reveal last October. Movistar have the resources to accommodate Quintana’s challenge and will hope he can reverse the finishing order of 2013 and 2015, having twice finished second to Froome. After conceding over a minute in the crosswinds last year, Quintana has unfinished business with the Tour. However, despite looking the more natural climber, the Colombian also suffered losses on a rudimentary climb to La Pierre-Saint-Martin early in last year’s race. He certainly finished the fresher; racing up the Alpine summits and cementing his close second place. He’s had an excellent year so far claiming GC wins in Catalunya, Romandie and last week’s Route du Sud. The key to Quintana’s challenge? Being as close to Froome as possible heading into the final week.
Contador starts third favourite for the Tour despite his glistening Palmares and bags of Grand Tour experience. It’s easy to forget that the ageless Contador was winning the Tour in 2007 when Quintana was 17 years-old and Froome was signing with Barloworld. Despite his known shortcomings in recent Tours (no serious challenge since 2010) Contador will believe he can topple Froome and has a fearless attitude to racing. The Spaniard is in middle of what he suggested would be his last season (it almost certainly won’t be) and has carried an aggressive mindset round the World Tour this season. Two big wins have come in uphill time-trials and he’s clearly still got the legs to reel off attacks. Unfortunately for Contador, rivals are finding it increasingly easy to land blows of their own with the likes of Richie Porte and Dan Martin pinching time in the Dauphine. The peloton’s finest aggressor is certain to be involved but a third Tour victory would come as a slight shock.
At the 2014 Tour Porte was working for Froome before the defending champion crashed and later abandoned. Porte stepped in as leader but was unable to keep pace with Vincenzo Nibali and wound up a disappointing 23rd. Last year he was flying for Sky when picked as their Giro d’Italia leader but a succession of setbacks forced him to leave Italy early and two months later he was back at the Tour in a familiar domestique role. This transition from worker to leader then back to worker made it clear Porte would be best moving away to develop his career. His move to BMC has so far been fruitful. His results – third in Paris-Nice, fourth in the Dauphine – have been solid but it’s perhaps a change in Porte’s attitude that’s most refreshing. Whilst Team Sky deserves to be lauded for their approach to rider development, BMC should be a more relaxed environment for a rider who’s shown signs of struggling under pressure. On his good days Porte’s climbing remains first-rate and the champion of Willunga was the only rider to follow Froome’s attacks in the Dauphine.
After spending much of 2015 proving he was worthy of a place among the elite, Aru has looked miles off the pace since the turn of the year. When winning the Vuelta in September he showed a patience and tactical awareness that had been missing in his brave, lively but erratic performance in May’s Giro. Across the two races he did enough to convince Astana to give him the nod for this year’s Tour but since that moment he’s been a shadow of his former self. There’s been no results this year that suggest he is capable of a big performance but a dashing descent in the Dauphine at least reminded fans that Aru will go down fighting. In fairness, the Sardinian has never been one for the smaller races but on recent form a top five Tour finish would be highly impressive.
The French Threat
For the better part of three years, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet have been talked up as France’s great Tour hopes experiencing mixed, but successful, results. Though often mentioned in the same breath the two are very different bike riders. Bardet, the avid reader and business student at the Grenoble School of Management, is the livelier and punchier climber. He looks up to the likes of Contador and will attack when his legs are good. He’s also the better descender of the two. Pinot, who at first seems the more fiery personality and stylish rider, has developed into a measured climber enjoying long constant gradients and steady tempos. At times this season Pinot looked to have moved beyond Bardet’s level but a reversal of form at the Dauphine leaves the two as closely matched as ever. Both had poor starts to last year’s Tour but redeemed themselves with shining performances in the Alps. With multiple Tour de France rides behind them they will be at ease with France’s expectations and they should both finish in the top eight. Pinot, the far better time-trialist and new national champion, has the ability to podium should rivals falter. After a successful Tour de Suisse, Warren Barguil can make the French challenge three-pronged. A breakout star of the 2013 Vuelta, 24 year-old Barguil spent much of last year’s Tour ahead of both Bardet and Pinot before eventually slipping to 14th. The Giant-Alpecin climber is another who loves to attack and will have the most freedom of the three.
Best Of The Rest
Sitting third in last year’s race, BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen was hit by respiratory problems and climbed into his team car on Stage 17. Whether he would have gone on to podium is anybody’s guess but the noise coming out of BMC was of a team devoted to their American leader; ‘next year they said they would do the same’ was the message released by a distraught and grateful Van Garderen. It therefore came as a surprise when Porte was signed from Sky and again when the team listed neither rider for the Giro. Van Garderen has been slightly quieter than the Tasmanian this season but should still put in a good ride; two of his best Tour performances came when riding alongside an Australian leader by the name of Cadel Evans. For Tour consistency alone Bauke Mollema deserves a mention. He hasn’t grabbed many headlines since winning the Tour of Alberta last year but will once again aim to peak in July and take a fourth straight top ten finish. Grand Tour conquering Vincenzo Nibali is expected to feature in the Astana startlist and the Kazakh team’s announcement is one of the most highly anticipated. If all goes to plan he’ll work for Aru – but if the Sardinian falters Olympic-bound Nibali could be asked to pick up the pieces.
The tradition of having the world’s best sprinters at the Tour continues in 2016. When things are flat and straightforward Marcel Kittel is in a league of his own. A fully-functioning Etixx train will be hard to beat and their star German is a prime candidate to take the race’s first yellow jersey. Kittel has a knack of avoiding a fit and firing Andre Greipel – the most successful sprinter of the last 18 months. Maintaining his power as he edges closer to 34 years of age, Greipel looks to be Kittel’s number one rival. However, no number of victories changes the fact that Greipel will struggle to best his compatriot when all things are equal. The third star sprinter in the race is Mark Cavendish. Nothing gets the Brit’s heart racing quite like the Tour de France and he returns to the race for a debut in Dimension Data colours. With a record number of stages to his name, it’s a wonder how Cavendish’s desire has never waned. Perhaps it’s a yearning to keep pace with old rival Greipel or perhaps he still feels the pain from a race-ending crash in the Tour’s Yorkshire opener in 2014. Whatever the reason, Cavendish is still seriously quick and a proven winner.
Nacer Bouhanni edges Alexander Kristoff as the greatest threat to the ‘big three’. Bouhanni’s Cofidis team has finally settled on a strong train and a Bouhanni-or-bust approach gives the Frenchman every chance of causing an upset. Katusha’s Kristoff has been quiet in comparison to his dynamite 2015 but could reap the rewards of a more relaxed build-up to the Tour, where he looked tired 12 months ago. If he does reach his powerful best he could pick up regular green jersey points all the way to Paris.
Some argue World Champion and perennial stage runner-up Peter Sagan should abandon his approach of challenging in each and every sprint but his form, four bunch wins since the start of May, argues otherwise. Sagan is the strongest climber of the Tour’s sprinters but is capable of beating anybody in a technical finish and should not be taken lightly. Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb start for Orica and Giant-Alpecin respectively. The two go well in the classics and will look to pounce on any stage deemed too tough for the pure sprinters. Degenkolb’s season was wrecked before it started by the terrible Giant-Alpecin training crash and it will take a while for him to get back up to speed. Matthews is one of the most versatile riders in the peloton and can claim victories on a number of stage types. The jokers in the sprint will be talented debutante and new national champion Dylan Groenewegen (seven wins in 2016) and flying Frenchman Bryan Coquard (a table-topping thirteen). Direct-Energie are lucky to have Coquard who is part of the rare breed of featherweight sprinters able to roll over climbs with a relative ease. He likes to contest the intermediate sprints and we could be seeing a lot of him in his home Tour.
What Else To Watch Out For
Etixx-Quick Step will be hoping Julian Alaphilippe takes to the Tour with the same ease he did the Ardennes classics. The Frenchman confirmed his stage race potential this year by winning the Tour of California and taking sixth at the Dauphine. Already a two time runner-up at Fleche Wallone, Alaphilippe is showing a liking for higher mountains and if he can ride with the same level of consistency he did at the Dauphine he could contest the Tour’s best young rider competition (a classification that could be extremely tight this year). His only team mate on the slopes is likely to be Dan Martin but the duo has worked well together this season.
With Aru looking frail, Alexander Vinokourov must have given thought to a plan B and Astana’s band of climbers have the ability to win stages. Luis Leon Sanchez, Tanel Kangert and particularly Diego Rosa have the potential to go on the attack and that’s ignoring the aforementioned Nibali. The Italians on the team are likely to rally round the popular Aru but Rosa’s climbing continues to impress and he’ll count himself unlucky if he is given domestique duties all the way to Paris.
Lampre’s Rui Costa has experienced more bad Tour moments than good ones since his two mountain stage wins in 2013. He’ll co-lead the team alongside South African Louis Meintjes and may return to stage-hunting following two unsuccessful runs at the top ten (abandoning twice). All signs point to a good performance having podiumed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and finishing in the top ten of each of Oman, Paris-Nice, Pais-Vasco, Romandie and the Tour de Suisse. Costa, together with Meintjes, Jan Polanc and Kristijan Durasek, should give Lampre some fun when the roads slope up.
World Champion Peter Sagan is now clearly capable of switching from Sagan-the-sprinter to Sagan-the-puncheur at the first site of mountains – the main reason for his recent points jersey monopoly. If he fails to land his fifth Tour stage in the opening week expect a plethora of attacks through both mountain ranges. He really is that good.
Edvald Boasson Hagen and Stephen Cummings are expected to start and will share Dimension Data expectations with Cavendish. Both have had good seasons with Boasson Hagen grabbing a handful of victories before the end of February and Cummings proving on three occasions he is the World Tour’s leading stage-hunter. The Brit was disappointed to miss out on an Olympic place and that’s bad news for the other 197 Tour starters; there’s no better 35 year-old around and the autumn of Cummings’ career has been dotted with major successes.
Thomas Voeckler is two years Cummings’ senior and starts his fourteenth Tour whilst another possible French stage winner is Pierre Rolland. Making his Tour debut for Cannondale, Rolland will mix GC ambitions with stage goals. He has just ridden his best Dauphine in years and it’s too soon to dismiss the talented climber. Whilst FDJ bring a team built around Pinot, Ag2r are expected to hedge their bets with the inclusion of Alexis Gougeard. The 23 year-old Vuelta stage winner should have the freedom to attack and a number of stages will suit.
- Quintana to win the Tour & a stage
- Quintana, Froome and Contador to fill the podium
- Porte fourth, Pinot fifth
- Sagan to win the green jersey & a stage
- Rolland to win on Mont Ventoux
- Boasson Hagen to win a stage
- Coquard or Bouhanni to win a stage
- Costa to win a stage
- Adam Yates top 15
- Alaphilippe top 15
- Rosa top 20
- Tom Dumoulin to win the Stage 13 time-trial
- Contador to win the mountain time-trial
- Voeckler, Cummings, Rosa or Joaquim Rodriguez to win the polka-dot jersey.