Tour de France preview: riders to watch

The prestige of the Tour de France brings the world’s best riders to the starting line. More than any other race, it’s the focal point of the long road racing season, and unlike any other race, everyone arrives in absolute peak condition.

The beauty of the Tour is that it’s more than one race. There are 21 stages, enough for many different types of rider to take their chance. There are races within races: for the green and polka dot jerseys, for each stage, and simply for television time in a sport where showing the sponsor’s name is all part of the raison d’être.

There’s opportunities for everyone, but seizing them takes more than a bit of luck and fast legs. To win takes teamwork, planning and strategy (but the fast legs definitely help).

General Classification

Out of the 198 riders who will start this year’s Tour in Utrecht (22 teams of 9 riders each) there are perhaps only half a dozen who could hope to win the General Classification (GC) overall. These are the men who can climb the high mountains, time trial better than passably well, and have the stamina to survive three weeks of hard racing without suffering a bad day.

The four big favourites are defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana); 2013 champion Chris Froome (Sky); double winner and reigning Giro d’Italia champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo); and 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana.

All have won at least one three-week Grand Tour. Contador has won seven, plus two more that were stripped from him after a positive doping test in 2010. Nibali has three. Froome and Quintana have one each. It’s a tantalising prospect, seeing these four champions go tête-à-tête.

But who is the outright favourite?

Contador is attempting the heroic Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double, something that nobody has done since the late, tragic Italian climber Marco Pantani in 1998. Contador had to dig deep in the final week of the Giro, battered by an Astana assault, and history says he won’t recover in time to win the Tour. Winning the Giro/Tour double wouldn’t be a miracle exactly, but let’s just say we all live in hope Contador doesn’t have all of the advantages that Pantani did.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali has had a quiet season, and is yet to win a race in 2015. But he was similarly anonymous on the results pages in 2014, before he arrived at the Tour and delivered a performance of awesome proportions, leading for 19 out of 21 stages, claiming four stage victories and winning by more than seven minutes. Nobody would dare to write off the Italian again. If Nibali turns up in peak form, as he did at the 2013 Giro and 2014 Tour, his nickname ‘The Shark’ will fit better than a high-tech time-trial skinsuit. However, his form at the Dauphine seemed calculated to deceive: a barnstorming ride to take the leader’s jersey on Stage 6 was sandwiched by two pretty ordinary stages where he seemed happy to pull the chute early. Perhaps the biggest problem for Nibali is the mud being slung at his Astana team, which the UCI wanted to boot off the World Tour earlier this year for multiple doping offenses.

Chris Froome is running into form, with an impressive overall victory in the Criterium du Dauphine, the ‘mini-Tour de France’ in early June. Since his dominant 2013 Tour winning season, Froome’s gone off the boil slightly, and he’ll be desperate to put his crash-strewn 2014 Tour de France well and truly out of his mind. A return to the cobbles in stage 4 will be a major test of Froome’s nerve.

Froome’s ‘thin man fighting an octopus in a washing machine’ attacking style lacks the visual panache of his rivals (as does his ‘thin man driving a bus’ tempo riding style) but it’s very effective. Froome’s Dauphine was also uneven, but a big win on the queen stage of the race to set up an overall victory shows he’s not far off his best condition. At the Tour his Sky team had planned to provide the luxury of his own personal mobile home to sleep in (so he gets a good night’s rest) but the spoilsports at the UCI squashed the plan, so he’ll be forced to slum it in hotels like everyone else. He will at least have a beefed-up team to support him.

Then there’s Nairo Quintana, the neutral’s favourite. On Mont Ventoux in 2013, Quintana, then a relatively unknown 23-year old Colombian climber riding his first Tour de France, was the only rider who could follow Froome. He finished second overall and won the King of the Mountains jersey. It was a revelation. Quintana skipped the Tour last year, his team opting to send him to the Giro d’Italia to learn how to win a Grand Tour. He duly won in style, and returns to the Tour a vastly more experienced and tougher rider than at his last attempt. Quintana is an emerging superstar, with all the attributes to win multiple Tours during his career. Quiet and humble off the bike, on it he’s brilliant.

It’s incredibly hard to split Nibali, Quintana and Froome for favouritism. Each will have a strong team. Each arrives at the Tour fresh. Each has shown he has the mental and physical toughness to win a major three week Tour.

In such a closely fought contest, positioning in the bunch to stay out of trouble and save energy until the crucial moments will make the difference. Teams will be fighting for position to avoid crashes, which obviously causes crashes. A lot of luck and a lot of good management are needed to stay in contention to Paris.

Of course there are others who will be aiming to upset the big four.

Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.com) are two young French hopes. Both finished in the top 6 in 2014, and both are now a year older and stronger. The waif-like Bardet lit up the Dauphine and is generating extreme hype in the local media, but his weakness in the time trial is likely to cost him a chance to win overall.

Americans Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) will be flying the American flag which, let’s be honest, has had a pretty unpopular couple of decades at the Tour de France. As Cadel Evans’ heir apparent, van Garderen needs to improve on his previous best 5th place in 2012. Van Garderen came within a handful of seconds of winning the Dauphine, which shows he’s had a strong preparation, but consistency and avoiding bad days over three weeks is a different kind of test.

Talansky has to prove he’s the best GC option in his team, which also boasts Irishman Dan Martin, and that he’s not just the leader because he’s the best American on an American team.

Quintana’s Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde, Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) are others who are likely to figure in the top ten.

Sprinters

For all the tension and gripping tactical battles in the high country, there’s a lot to be said for watching 50 really fast blokes barging into it shoulder to shoulder at 70km/h in a bunch sprint. In a big sprint, the peloton becomes a small power station for the last couple of kilometers, with riders generating 1500-2000 watts each. It takes real skill and bravery to be there at all, let alone to execute a perfectly-timed lead-out and sprint to win. Of the sprinters, there are the flat track bullies, and the classics-style sprinters who can survive harder, hillier stages. The Tour has stages to suit both groups.

Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) is the peloton’s star sprinter, but he won’t be riding. He won eight Tour stages in the past two years, including the first AND last stages (the ones everyone remembers) both times. But the big German has been suffering from a virus since February and hasn’t managed to find the form to be selected.

Kittel’s absence leaves Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quickstep) as the man most likely to dominate the sprints. Cav, the old master, at the ripe old age of 30, has already won 12 times this year. He crashed out of the 2014 Tour on stage 1, but his 25 career stage wins puts him equal third on the all-time list, within sight of Bernard Hinault who has 28. Don’t be surprised if he’s second on that list by the end of July.

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) has a new team, and he’s finally the undisputed best sprinter in it. He’s had great form in the Dauphine, winning a brace of stages, and is known as an aggressive rider who trains at boxing in his spare time. So far in his career Bouhanni has often been spat out backwards as soon as the road tilted up, but rumour has it he’s been working on his climbing abilities, with the aim of getting to more finishes with the leading bunch.

Andre ‘The Gorilla’ Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) doesn’t win as often as his fellow big German Kittel, but he has 6 Tour stage wins to his name, a powerful leadout train, and has been in good form through June, winning four times.

Of the classics-style sprinters, Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) may lack the blistering pace of Kittel and Cavendish, but he is seriously strong. He rampaged through the spring classics season like a thing possessed, winning the Tour of Flanders and coming second at Milan-San Remo while picking up smaller classics seemingly at will. He has 15 victories this year, more than anyone else. He also took two stage wins at the Tour in 2014. Kristoff can get through stages that break other sprinters, and then win easily from reduced bunches. Kristoff is quite a lot like his compatriot Thor Hushovd, the  2010 world champion. Maybe even a bit harder.

Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) is arguably Australia’s best chance of a stage win. Matthews is not a flat track monster like Greipel and Cavendish, but he can survive medium hills and still finish with a real punch. Matthews had a great classics season, finishing on the podium at Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold. He won a stage at the Giro and wore the leader’s jersey in the first week, before leaving the race to prepare for the Tour. Watch for him on transition stages with a short climb near the finish.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) is similar to Kristoff in that he thrives on hard, long races. Degenkolb had an amazing classics season, winning Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo. The German is a very popular rider, and the smart tactics and sheer panache he displayed to win Paris-Roubaix won him plenty of new fans. Don’t expect Degenkolb to fill the shoes of the absent Kittel, he’s a different type of rider, but arguably more versatile.

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) has had an awful year. A huge contract hasn’t brought huge results, and team owner Oleg Tinkov has publicly aired his wish that he could cut the Slovak sprinter’s salary. Ouch. Sagan will also have to freelance his wins without much support this year, as his team will focus on protecting Alberto Contador. He’s still capable of winning, but regular tactical mistakes and his enormous reputation means he’s heavily marked, which makes it very hard to win. Sagan is fast, and handles a bike amazingly well, but he needs to win big during this Tour to get a rather belligerent monkey off his back.

Others to watch: Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Bryan Coquard (Europcar).

Climbers to watch

The Tour always provides opportunities for climbers who might not be considered as overall contenders, but will take their chances for stage wins in the high mountains. They might even deliberately drop chunks of time, so they’re given some latitude to attack in the mountains without being chased down by the leaders’ teams.

The French seem to have found a factory producing skinny young men who can climb beautifully – think of Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Kenny Elissonde (FDJ.com), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) and the aforementioned Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. They’ll be eager to get into the early break on the big mountain stages, nab some TV time and some King of the Mountains jersey points, and maybe stay away for a stage win.

British twins Simon and Adam Yates (both Orica-GreenEdge) will also be aggressive. Simon had a very impressive Dauphine, beating some big names on major stages. Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) is another who can climb beautifully, but a tough Giro probably rules him out of overall contention. Perfect opportunity to grab a stage win!

Stage hunters to watch

Some riders don’t easily fit into categories, but they know how to win. Sometimes known as ‘opportunists’ or even ‘puncheurs’, these guys have the ability to survive medium hills, love to attack, can outsprint all but the absolute fastest, and have that killer racing instinct that brings in the big money.

Aussie Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) will be out for revenge after being taken out by Mark Cavendish at the start of the 2014 Tour. ‘Gerro’ has had a shocking season in terms of luck – crash after crash after crash – but he’s a master at targeting stages that suit him, and peaking at the right time. His palmares puts him right up with the best this country has produced.

Others with a similar knack for bringing home the baguette include Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quickstep), former World Champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and triple World Time-Trial Champion Tony Martin (Etixx-Quickstep), who’s also developed into a dangerous road racer.

Any of these riders is a big chance to take a stage. Dan Martin, Costa and Kwiatkowski are all a chance of a top 10 position overall, too.

Team players

Cycling is a team sport with individual winners. Grand Tours are not won by individual brilliance, they’re won by building a strong team, and using it strategically and tactically to save energy or hurt your rivals, as the situation demands.

Being a domestique is not just about fetching water bottles and energy bars from the team car, it’s about being able to ride up a mountain at a pace that shreds the peloton to bits. It’s about shielding your leader from the wind, and closing down attacks from rivals. Sometimes it’s about getting in the breakaway and giving your teammates a few hours where they don’t have to do any chasing.

One of the side effects of the Tour being a team effort is that some of the best GC riders in the world end up riding for someone else, and don’t get their own opportunities. Just as strikers in football need someone to set them up, team leaders in cycling need help to get into winning positions, and keep them out of losing ones.

The big four contenders have four big teams.

Team Sky has Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, Nicolas Roche and Leopold Konig in the hills, and Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe on the flatter stages.

TInkoff-Saxo has Rafal Majka, Michael Rogers, Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger, with Daniele Bennati and Matteo Tossato for the flats.

Movistar has Alejandro Valverde, Winner Anacona, Gorka Izagirre and Jose Herrada, with the big engines of Adriano Malori, Alex Dowsett and Jonathan Catroviejo for the flatter stages.

Astana will have Jakob Fuglsang, Michele Scarponi, Tanel Kangert, Rein Taaramae and Lieuwe Westra for the climbs, with Lars Boom and Andriy Grivko on the flats.

These riders might not get the fame, the money and the pressure their leaders do, but they will be just as important to the outcome as the big names, and if a leader has bad luck or bad form, these guys might become Plan B. Many of them are already Grand Tour winners, podium placers or have earned top ten positions.

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