Tag Archives: TDF2015

Mega daily Bone-Up: Stage 8

5. Another scenic day
Again, the old formula of letting a small group up the road far enough that everyone can relax and enjoy the ambience of Brittany, but not far enough that there’s any chance of them actually staying away and ruining the plans of the big teams.

Bartos Huzarski (Bora-Argon18), Romain Sicard (Europcar), Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) and Pierre-Luc Perichon from local team Bretagne-Seche Environnement had their day in the sunshine. Lotto-Soudal did a big job of work (#sherliggettisms #drink) controlling things on behalf of Tony Gallopin, the break was caught too early and another break went, but it wasn’t given much rope and it was all back together with 15km to go.

4. Cannondale-Garmin flex 
The green argyle crew with the funniest hats in the peloton flexed their legs in the latter chase, hoping for a good day for Dan Martin on the steep finish up the Mur de Bretagne (the ‘other Mur’). The team hasn’t had a great year so far, but a Tour stage would certainly help.

Martin was certainly good, finishing second and riding well clear of the fairly elite selection of riders in the last 500 metres. Unfortunately he left it a fraction too late, and was upstaged by…

3. Vill…Vuillerm… Who?
Not many tipsters would have picked the stage winner Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R). The 27-year-old French former mountain biker (#drink) launched powerfully 700m from the finish and grabbed the win while his more fancied rivals waited to see who would chase him.

It was a canny piece of opportunism, and perhaps he deserved a bit more respect after finishing 3rd on the Mur de Huy (the ‘real Mur’) earlier this week. Still, it’s his first big win on the World Tour.

Vuillermoz is the first Frenchman to win a stage of this year’s Tour, and he even managed to do it before Bastille Day.

2. The shark flounders
Vincenzo Nibali, the Shark of the Strait, looked more like a gummy shark as he was dropped in the finish.
He only lost a handful of seconds, but is the defending champion going to flake? Was the battering he took on stage 6 more damaging than he’s letting on, or is his form just not where it was last year? Can he handle the heat once the race hits the mountains, or is he fried?

Stage 9 is a team time trial, so we won’t have another opportunity to find out until after the rest day.

In the meantime, Chris Froome and Tejay van Garderen are both looking strong, Contador and Quintana have hidden effectively, Andrew Talansky appears to be struggling, and Thibaut Pinot has finally had two consecutive days without a crash.

1. Sagan pips van Avermaet in Bridesmaid jersey competition

Peter Sagan picked up 4th on the stage, edging further clear of his great rival Greg van Avermaet (6th) in the competition to rack up the most near-victories without actually winning anything. I think he’s got this category stitched up, given that van Avermaet’s objectives are about to switch to fully supporting Tejay vG in the GC battle.

Big Boys’ GC:

The team time trial up tonight might stir things gently, but at 17km short it’s not going to ruin anyone’s Tour (unless they crash).

1. Froome

2. van Garderen @ 13″

3. Uran @ 34″

4. Contador @ 36″

5. Barguil 1’07”

6. Mollema 1’32”

7. Valverde 1’47”

8. Nibali 1’48”

9. Kreuziger 1’51”

10. Quintana 1’56”

11. Rodriguez 2’00

12. Talansky 2’49”

13. Bardet 3’15”

etc. Pinot 6’33”

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Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 7

5. Nibali versus Froome: FIGHT!

This is really news from yesterday, but apparently Vincenzo Nibali thought Chris Froome was responsible for causing the crash that brought him down near the finish yesterday, and piffed a bidon at him. It was all a big misunderstanding, of course, and the two later hugged it out by the team buses, but it does make you think.

For me, that thought was “Nibali would beat the shit out of Froome in a fist fight”.

Although it might look like this:

Nacer Bouhanni would be disgusted.

4. Another day of chateaux and chapels

Beautiful, but uneventful. Normandy and Bretagne. Such charming. Chalk up another win for the French Tourism Board.

3. No yellow jersey

What with Tony Martin snapping his collarbone like a twig yesterday and going home to have it bolted back together, there was no yellow jersey in the race today. Everyone knew it was Chris Froome, though. Luckily it was a day for the sprinters so Froome was able to whistle along pretending the race lead had nothing to do with him.

2. Who’s in charge?

Etixx-Quickstep and Lotto-Soudal have both lost key riders from their leadouts (Tony Martin and Greg Henderson respectively) and both teams looked a little rattled in the run into the finish. Lotto-Soudal had done a job of work (#sherliggettisms #drink) all afternoon, and eventually Giant-Alpecin came to the front for John Degenkolb’s moustache.

Another slightly dodgy leadout from Etixx-Quickstep, but it didn’t matter in the end, because…

1. Cav’s in charge!

Finally the Manx Missile managed to grab his first stage win of this Tour, with a cunning sprint up the inside to come past Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan (another podium for Oleg to savour) and John Degenkolb.

Cav lost Mark Renshaw’s wheel again, but found Alexander Kristoff’s enormous slipstream instead. When Greipel opened his sprint, Cav jumped across onto his wheel, timed his sprint late and ducked underneath to take it on the line.

Another win for Etixx-Quickstep. Cav’s 26th career Tour stage win inches him closer to second-place on the all-time list (Bernard Hinault has 28).

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 6

Here’s the things that happened today.

5. Snooze-fest on the French coast

If you were going to explain to someone how the Tour de France can sometimes get a bit formulaic in the first week, this would be an ideal stage to do it.

A small breakaway containing little-known riders from small teams went up the road on a stage with no salient features.

The peloton rolled along a very nice coastline, enjoying the sunshine, allowed the break to dangle 5 minutes in front and then gradually started reeling them in as the finish approached. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The break was caught within the last 10km. It was all set for the bunch sprint.

4. TV Time Tommy

Thomas Voeckler a.k.a ‘TV Time Tommy’ a.k.a. ‘Little Tommy Voeckler’ a.k.a. the alleged housewives’ favourite of France, made his first significant TV appearance, with a cheeky attempt to bridge across to the leaders with 44km to go in the stage.

Unfortunately for fans of Voeckler’s famous #voecklersexface, the Tour’s most effective gurner couldn’t get anything to stick and he was soon nestling back into the warm bosom of the peloton. Expect that to be the first of many sashays up the road for the Europcar man, who might be looking for a new team next year if his current one can’t find a new sponsor.

3. Teklehaimanot takes polka dots

Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka), the lanky Eritrean who spent a couple of years on Orica-GreenEdge’s squad, is having a great season and – courtesy of getting into today’s break and claiming all of the small KOM prizes along the route – he’s now wearing the polka dot jersey as King of the Mountains.

He’s the first African rider to wear the jersey.

It’s a big deal for the photogenic 26 year old, and for his team (which is the first African team to ride in Le Tour). Hopefully it inspires lots of young Africans to jump on a bike, perhaps with help from his sponsor Qhubeka (a charity which provides bikes to people in Africa). I’m still of the view that if the Eritreans, Kenyans and Ethiopians ever get into cycling, it will change the sport forever.

Teklehaimanot is becoming a bit of a polka dot specialist, having won the jersey in the Dauphine a few weeks ago. He will need to pay attention early tomorrow and try to nab the KOM points again, and get a small buffer on his lead in that competition.

2. Tony, NOOO!!!

I swear this year’s yellow jersey is a curse. Tony Martin was the first rider so far to wear it for more than one day, and this clearly angered the cycling gods.

Tony was caught up in another bloody crash and broke his collarbone.

Anyone else getting sick of seeing so many top riders heading home with fractures?

This one looked suspiciously like Tony’s fault, trying to barge his way through a gap that wasn’t there, taking down Vincenzo Nibali and several others.

Excuse me while I watch replays of Tony’s Stage 4 heroics and sigh about what might have been. After Fabian Cancellara, Martin is the second yellow jersey to crash out of the race this week.

1. Etixx-Quickstep gains instant redemption, but has anyone told Peter Sagan he’s trying to come FIRST?

Another second place for Peter Sagan (he’s had 3 seconds and a third this week). I like to imagine his team boss Oleg Tinkov watching these podium presentations silently through gritted teeth, a vein in his forehead pulsing 160 times per minute.

A different rider to win, at least, and some joy for Etixx-Quickstep on a bittersweet day for the team, a victory to balance Tony Martin’s crash.

Zdenek Stybar (former cyclocross world champion – #drink) better known as a hard bastard who specialises in the cobbled classics, surprised the field with a full-gas attack on the uphill section with just under a kilometre to go. Nobody could (or would) follow, and he powered across the finish line with a small lead over the bunch.

Stybar’s known for riding hard. At the Tour of Flanders this year he managed to literally shake his false teeth loose over the cobbles, and he’s been extremely close to winning some big road races without quite breaking through (his win at Strade Bianche this year was outstanding).

It’s his first Tour stage win, and another one in the bank for his Etixx-Quickstep superteam, which needed something to smile about after losing its race leader only a minute before.

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 5

5. Crosswinds, echelons… PELOTON SHREDDED.

A flat stage, but another potential banana peel for the GC contenders, as the race crossed the WWI battlefields of the Somme. Strong crosswinds were always expected, but it was a day of miserable wet weather as well, making for slippery conditions.

If you’ve ever ridden in a strong crosswind you’ll know how bloody horrible it is, and the inevitable splits in the peloton did indeed occur. Crosswinds are one occasion where riding in a group doesn’t offer much protection. Allowing the slightest gap to the rider in front of you can lead very quickly to being blown off the wheel, and it’s extremely difficult to ride back on.

So it happened, and a large group of riders were left to grovel home over 8 minutes behind the leaders.

No major damage to key riders’ ambitions. Poor old Thibaut Pinot, who is fast becoming the pantomime patsy of this Tour, struggled and crashed again but didn’t lose any more time at the finish.

4. A truce on the Somme

The big teams clearly decided that it wasn’t worth it to rip each other apart in the wind, and each put half a dozen riders on the front in a block formation, keeping the speed comfortably low. Etixx-Quickstep, Astana, BMC, Tinkoff-Saxo, Sky and Movistar all in agreement – you won’t see that too often.

The race didn’t really light up again until the final 10km, when the sprinters started to salivate over possible a stage win.

3. ANZAC memorials

The race passed the Australian and New Zealand war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, and the Orica-GreenEdge team marked the occasion with black armbands. An appropriate commemoration of the centenary of a famously awful conflict.

2. More crashes, more withdrawals

A couple of decent stacks today on the wet roads and strong winds.

The big names to withdraw today were Cofidis sprinter Nacer Bouhanni, with a broken wrist, Orica-GreenEdge’s Michael Albasini (who finished the stage with a broken arm) and Cannondale-Garmin’s Kiwi Jack Bauer.

Michael Matthews is still in the race – struggling with his injuries, but still in the race. He won the combativity prize today for his guts and determination to stay in the race. I’m sure he’s repeating that phrase to himself constantly through gritted teeth, “Stay in the race, stay in the race, stay in the race…”

1. A proper bunch sprint

Finally a chance for Greipel, Cavendish, Degenkolb, Kristoff, Demare and Sagan to race head-to-head.

GREIPEL!

Etixx-Quickstep made another complete hash of the finish, with Cavendish losing Mark Renshaw’s wheel and being forced to freelance. If it wasn’t for Brad Haddin dropping Joe Root on 0 in the first Ashes Test, it would’ve definitely been the worst drop involving an Australian and a Brit of the day.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff went early, Cavendish followed and hit the front looking the goods, but he faded again in the final metres, and had the best seat in the house to watch Andre Greipel fly up the inside with a perfectly timed sprint to pinch the chocs again.

Peter Sagan was 2nd yet again, finishing extremely fast but leaving his sprint slightly too late. Another tactical error for the Slovak who is becoming more famous for pinching arses than stages.

Greipel is having a great Tour, with two stage wins and the green jersey. It’s a pleasing return to form for one of the nice guys of cycling.

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 4 cobbles edition

What happened today?

5. No crashes

Amazing scenes today with no major crashes on the feared cobblestones, after yesterday’s carnage on seemingly innocuous roads. I suppose everyone was paying attention, and it was mostly dry and dusty. And they didn’t use the worst sectors from Paris-Roubaix.

4. Not enough cobbles for Nibbles

Vincenzo Nibali looked magnificent on the cobbles again, powering over every sector with skill and intent. Several times he managed to open small gaps to his rivals, only to see the pave sector finish before he could really put anyone away.  This gave Sky and TInkoff-Saxo a chance to regroup and no damage was done.

3. Froome better than expected

After last year’s debacle in the equivalent stage, a lot of people were expected Chris Froome to struggle on the stones. He didn’t miss a beat (Paul Sherwen even remembered to mention that Froome is a “former mountain biker” #sherliggettisms #drink) and with excellent support from his teammates (Geraint Thomas take a bow) he even managed to throw in an attack on the last sector.

It was a perfect result for Froome: hand over the pressure of the yellow jersey to a guy who’s no threat in the long run, without losing any time to the guys who really matter to him.

Contador and Quintana survived, but the small Colombian didn’t look far off cracking. Still, that’s enough for Nairo.

Not many changes to the Big Boys’ GC, other than Thibaut Pinot having a shocker.

2. Paris-Roubaix specialists get a shock

My tip for the stage, P-R winner John Degenkolb, won the sprint for second, ahead of Peter Sagan, Greg “The Bridesmaid” van Avermaet and Eddie “Thank god I’m off the Death Star” Boasson Hagen. All men you would usually expect to see in the top 10 of a Spring Classic. But they were upstaged by an inspired ride by the new maillot jaune…

1. TONY MARTIN

C’est magnifique! The German may sound like he’s named after an English plumber, but he’s a pretty special bike rider. Three world time trial championships and a reputation for generating more power than a hydroelectric power station show that. Tony needed a measly 1 second to take the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, but he was never likely to get it in a bunch sprint. So Tony attacked 3km from the finish and simply rode everyone off his wheel. You have to be incredibly strong to do that.

He’s a popular bloke, is Tony, and perhaps for once there’ll be smiles around the dinner table at camp Etixx-Quickstep.

Mega daily bone-up: Stage 3

Bone up after stage 3:

1. That crash.

Crashes are part and parcel of Le Tour, with nervous riders wrestling for position. But this was a doozy, with 60km remaining in the stage a high-speed stack on a section of straight road brought down half the peloton, including race leader Fabian Cancellara. It was a spectacular pile-up with cartwheeling limbs and jerseys ripped to shreds, and it was followed by a second big chute seconds later. The race had to be stopped and then neutralised for a few kilometres while riders were treated – a very unusual event – and some big names withdrew immediately. There will be some very sore bodies over the next few days, and it just shows that even in dry conditions and straight roads, disaster can strike at any time.

2. Simon Gerrans is out, again

It just is not Gerro’s year. He’s had more crashes than a broken laptop this season. He’s out of the Tour de France in the first week for the second year in a row, yet again a victim of bad luck. His understudy for the punchier stages, Michael Matthews, also went down in the crash and looked pretty grim, so it will be interesting to see how Orica-GreenEdge handles the situation over the next few days, given that South African Daryl Impey has also withdrawn.

3. Why was the race neutralised?

It’s highly unusual to see the race stopped and then held behind the chief commissaire’s car mid-stage, even after big crashes. So why did it happen today? Was it anything to do with the fact that Fabian Cancellara, patron of the peloton and wearer of the maillot jaune, was languishing back in the team cars looking miserable and sore, but Team Sky decided to jump on the front and put the hammer down? Attacking the race leader after a crash is extremely impolite, and perhaps it was a step too far for the men with the flags.

Cancellara is another rider who’s had a shocking season of bad luck, a big crash at E3 Harelbeke in March ruined his Spring Classics campaign, and just when his luck appeared to be turning good with the yellow jersey, another crash reminds him of the fragility of existence. He lost several minutes today, and looked miserable doing it. Fair enough: it later turned out that he had fractured some vertebrae and he’s out of the race.

4. Sky train is on schedule

Sky was happy to put riders on the front in the last 40km today, and Richie Porte even put in an appearance on the front, putting in some big turns on the lumpy sections leading to the finish. Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana were also present and watchful, but the big teams are already flexing their muscles and testing each other.

5. Froome takes yellow on the Mur

The Mur de Huy is one of the iconic finishing climbs of the Spring Classics, reliably giving Fleche Wallonne a thrilling climax. Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez knows the climb as well as anyone, having won Fleche Wallonne in 2012 he is one of the best punchy climbers in the business, and he nailed it today – his second career Tour stage win.

The big news though was Chris Froome dropping his GC rivals to finish second, pick up 11 seconds to his rivals and a 6 second time bonus, and take over the race lead. The time gaps won’t be decisive in two weeks, but it shows his form is good. Can Sky defend the jersey for the rest of the race?

Tomorrow: Can Froome overcome this year’s seemingly accursed yellow jersey AND his nemesis stage on the cobbles?

Relative GC (big GC names only)

1. Chris Froome

2. Tejay van Garderen @ 13″

3. Rigo Uran @ 34″

4. Alberto Contador @ 36″

5. Bauke Mollema @ 1’32”

6. Vincenzo Nibali @ 1’38”

7. Robert Gesink @ 1’39”

8. Alejandro Valverde @ 1’51”

9. Nairo Quintana @ 1’56”

10. Dan Martin @ 2’06”

11. Andrew Talansky @ 2’39”

12. Leopold Konig @ 2’52”

13. Romain Bardet @ 2’54”

14. Thibaut Pinot @ 2’58”

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.