Next weekend sees the return of cycling’s most famous race. The Tour de France is the race even your non-cycling friends will have a passing interest in. It’s the one that might make it on to the evening news or the back page of the paper. Nobody wants to hear that your favourite stage of Paris-Nice was actually more exciting because – in reality – nothing can compete with Le Tour.
Chris Froome returns to France this year seeking a place amongst the greats with a fourth win in five years. Nairo Quintana – half way through a tepid and doomed Giro/Tour double – was pencilled in as Froome’s biggest challenger but a raging Richie Porte has finally got his act together and will now start as the main danger.
The route details were met with general disappointment. It didn’t help that the announcement took place half-way through another brilliant Giro d’Italia. Italy’s race felt progressive and worked towards a huge week in the Dolomites. It was traditional and visited many famous locations but creative finishes, a volcano and a final day time trial provided plenty of fresh excitement.
If we’re being harsh, the Tour is too flat. The ASO has resisted the urge to follow the recent trend of lumpy routes and instead opted for a far more balanced race. However, this is no crime and the Tour has always been the undisputed king of the sprints. There is no reason why a flatter route will make the race less exciting but it’s a shame there is no eye-catching Alpine triple to book off work.
We start in Dusseldorf with a short time trial. It’s a loop course and large parts of the route are nice and straight. It’s not particularly technical and we could see a big sprinter get involved if the specialists aren’t firing. At 14km, it’s still long enough to keep the GC riders interested.
Stage 2 finishes in Belgium and we greet Luxembourg the following day on the way to an interesting finale in Longwy. The closing kilometre ramps up to 5% and should be hard enough to rule out the sprinters.
It’s back to the flat on Stage 4 before we see the first summit finish on Stage 5. The Planche des Belles Filles is a nice early examination but I’m not expecting fireworks.
The sprint teams will be hard at work on Stages 6 & 7 before a lumpy day towards the Swiss border on Stage 8. The climbs look more suitable for a breakaway but it’s possible we’ll see the GC riders flex their muscles.
Stage 9 is the first proper mountain stage with the Grand Colombier paired with the Mont du Chat. The two boast some of the race’s hardest gradients but the final peak arrives 30km before a flat finale in Chambery. It’s a strange decision by the ASO and will likely lead to dropped riders igniting a furious chase.
After heading south for much of the first nine days, a transfer takes the race west to Dordogne in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine for a day’s rest.
After the first rest day there’s two more flat stages including a long one to Pau. It was once said that Pau has ‘the most beautiful view of the earth’ but that quote can be remoulded for cycling circles as the most beautiful view of… the Pyrenees. The race reaches the famous mountain range on Stage 12 and the profile looks hard. At 214km it’s long for the mountains and two short climbs in the final 15km are likely to create time gaps.
Stage 13 will be unlucky for some. The bizarrely short 100km creation is very interesting and we should see action from the moment the flag drops. The Col d’Agnes and the Mur de Peguere are both around 10km long at an average of 8%. The pace will be unforgiving and it’s not a stage where you’ll get away with having an off day. Easier roads follow with Stages 14 & 15 presenting big chances for the stage-hunters.
Following the second rest day, the race heads down and out of the mountains. Stage 16 is one of the easier post-rest day stages and shouldn’t catch anybody out. However, we don’t return to flat lands for long with a quick switch to the Alps on Stage 17. The race welcomes some familiar names with both the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Télégraphe acting as a warm up for the sky-high Galibier. Again, a downhill finish has the potential to ruin the fun.
Thankfully, Stage 18 provides a proper summit finish on the Col d’Izoard – the first time a stage will end on the Alpine climb. 14km at 7.3% isn’t the hardest finish but – almost by default – the stage will play a large part in the GC battle. Stage 19 should be a sprint before we reach the final time trial. It’s just 23km long with a short, sharp, 9% bump arriving after 14km. It’s an intriguing course and it could be an exciting day. Paris arrives on July 23rd and it’s easy to feel there’s something missing from the final week.
Who’s Going To Win?
At the end of last year’s race I was convinced Froome would reach five Tour victories by 2018. He was too good, too well-rounded and backed by an ominously strong team. He had made Quintana look ordinary once again and there was no upcoming challengers on a fast enough development curve. It’s therefore surprising that he’s heading into the race with more than a handful of doubters. Ex-pal Porte has made serious steps forward and Froome is expected to face his sternest test yet. Nevertheless, I expect him to get the job done.
In last year’s race – where he recovered from an early time loss to stomp his way into the top five – Porte showed he is much more than a one-week racer and there’s been plenty of encouragement since. He destroyed Willunga Hill in January to finally land the Tour Down Under and impressed again at last month’s Criterium du Dauphine. Unfortunately his dazzling form will have painted a target on his back and he’ll need to force the pressure back on to Froome. It’s time for Porte to be ruthless.
For the last two years Quintana has been Froome’s biggest rival but has only once – briefly on Alpe d’Huez – even vaguely resembled a Tour de France winner. Classy at last year’s Vuelta, Quintana was disappointing when second at May’s Giro d’Italia. It was supposed to be the start of a Giro/Tour double but only fuelled the idea that Quintana’s not quite as good as we all thought. Ruling out the best pure climber is a dangerous game but I just can’t see him getting close this time around.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
I loved everything about Romain Bardet’s second place in 2016. He rounded into good form for the final week and showed he was prepared to risk more than his podium rivals with an attack on Mont Blanc. Unfortunately, repeating the feat is a hard ask. Although Bardet has been competitive all season I don’t think he will be able to trouble the top spot. He is, however, suited by the route design with lots of fast downhill racing and less than 40km of time trialling. Did the ASO have French success in mind?
Prediction: Top 5 battle
As always, Contador is one of the most interesting contenders to analyse. One last crack at Tour glory was expected when he switched to Trek Segafredo but he can no longer be considered the best climber in the peloton. Tactically bold and with years of experience, Contador would need to reverse a lot of recent performances to seize the yellow jersey. Bauke Mollema should at least offer him the strongest support he’s had in a long time.
Prediction: Top 10
At various points over the last few years I’ve been forced to admit that Valverde is the best cyclist in the world. His set of results has been immense and he roared into this season with wins in Andalucia, Catalunya, Pais Vasco, La Fleche and Liege. Nevertheless, he looked ordinary at the Dauphine and I don’t expect him to get that close to the top of this GC. A stage win seems probable.
Prediction: Top 10
A double-stage winning overall victory at the Dauphine was the biggest success of Fuglsang’s career. Unfortunately, I believe it will stay his biggest success for the foreseeable future. The Dane’s odds were slashed following the final Dauphine stage and it was great to see him step out of the shadows and showcase his obvious talent. With Fabio Aru originally packaged for the Giro, I hope Fuglsang gets a chance to at least co-lead for Astana. However, none of this changes the fact he’s finished in a Grand Tour top ten just once in ten outings.
Prediction: Outside the Top 10
Sticking with Astana, what can we expect from new Italian champion Fabio Aru? Not for the first time in his career, Aru falls into the category of ‘could finish anywhere’. A disjointed season has seen his races follow no real structure but his results have actually been strong. He climbed very well at the Dauphine and finished just four seconds behind Froome. There are no concerns about his three week calibre and he should be feeling fresher than some of his rivals. I’m a believer!
After taking third place at the Dauphine, Martin has now finished in five straight GC top tens in 2017. I don’t think there’s anything he’ll fear in this year’s Tour route and I’ll be very surprised if he falls out of contention. I can’t imagine a chain of events which lead to an Irish Tour de France victory but we’ll be seeing plenty of the Quick-Step captain.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
What Else To Look Out For
This year’s sprints are going to be busy. Marcel Kittel has done just enough this season to earn favouritism for the opening bunch sprint but he was beaten by Dylan Groenewegen this month and the Dutchman may have what it takes to cause a huge upset. Arnaud Demare has gone from strength to strength since winning Milan San Remo and will start as France’s most likely sprint victor ahead of Nacer Bouhanni. Perennial stage winner Andre Greipel faces a hard ask to keep up his streak of Grand Tour victories but should never be totally ruled out.
Peter Sagan looks set to win another green jersey but with so many sprint stages on offer he may need to get up the road to top up his points tally. Michael Matthews is the only realistic alternative in the Sagan-mould but we’re yet to know if he’s interested.
Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb will need to rediscover their top end pace in order to make an impact, whilst last year’s four-timer Mark Cavendish needs a bit of magic to accelerate a recovery from an Epstein-Barr diagnosis. He’s certainly capable.
I want to mention two of my favourite young riders in Pierre Latour and Emmanuel Buchmann. Although Ag2r will be all-in for Bardet, I don’t believe Latour will be made to work as on several occasions this season he has be afforded a free role. He can time trial better than his captain (as proved in his recent French ITT Championship) and is making his Tour debut on a relatively easy course. I also think he could surprise Simon Yates and Louis Meintjes in the young riders competition.
After a brilliant Dauphine Buchmann will start the Tour as Bora’s GC guy. He’s got a steady, patient style and has stealthily ridden to some big results this year. The Tour will be his biggest test yet but I’m expecting him to finish in the top 15.
I’m very excited to see Diego Ulissi and Fabio Felline at the Tour de France. Both have gone well at the Giro and I was happy to see UAE and Trek make bold decisions to take them away from home soil. Felline may be asked to support Contador but I’m convinced Ulissi has been asked to animate stages and bring home a victory. He’s one of the most exciting Italian riders and UAE will be hoping to pocket some major UCI points.
Rafal Majka is one of scarce few riders expected to challenge for the polka dot jersey. Pierre Rolland is another obvious candidate but my preference is for Thomas De Gendt. The Belgian is riding very well this year and will have total freedom for Lotto Soudal.
And what about Esteban Chaves?! I’m convinced the Colombian will win a Grand Tour but injury has prevented him from carrying any real form into the 2017 summer. If his legs do return I’d love to see him chase the KotM jersey.
Bets & Predictions (And Certainly Not Tips)
Not a lot interests me in the pre-race markets but I’m expecting Bet365 to add to their offering in the coming days.
- Froome to win @ 5/4
- Izagirre to finish in the top 10 @ 11/8
- Aru to finish in the top 3 @ 4/1
- Demare to win the points jersey @ 12/1
- Latour to win the white jersey @ 12/1
- De Gendt to win the KotM jersey @ 12/1
- Matthews to win the points jersey @ 20/1
- Porte to win the KotM jersey @ 22/1
- Esteban Chaves to win KotM jersey @ 30/1
- Bardet to win a stage
- Demare to win a stage
- Matthews to win a stage
- Stybar to win a stage
- Ulissi to win a stage
- Uran to win a stage