Having looked at the other jerseys, now it’s time to assess the contenders for cycling’s ultimate prize, the yellow jersey and the overall win in the Tour de France.
Chris Froome is everyone’s pick and it’s easy to see why. But who are his rivals and how can he be beaten? Also the quantity of top-10 contenders stands out, promising a battle in the mountains.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) is the first choice. He can climb and time trial with the best. Second in 2012, this year’s route suits him better and he’s got a very strong team riding in his service. He’s improved technically, has experience of leading races and enjoyed a strong season from the Tour of Oman to the recent Critérium du Dauphiné. In this last race he was so far ahead he was trying to set up team mate Richie Porte for stage win. If you want to quantify his status the bookmakers price his chance of winning at worse than evens, odds even shorter than Bradley Wiggins this time last year.
The certainty is a concern for those wanting a show in the mountains given Wiggins’ win last year was a triumph of pacing and power over panache. But Froome is more able to attack in the mountains, the tempo riding of 2012 was designed for Wiggins. Still the fear is Sky will play it safe and set a pace to deter others from attacking until Froome launches a late moves to steal seconds.
How to beat Froome
His rivals can try two strategies. First is to disrupt Team Sky’s mountain pace-setting, even going as far as chopping and flicking riders out of the pace-line, for example taking an awkward line through hairpin bends. All’s fair in love and war. Second is to embrace Team Sky’s pacing and tuck in whilst playing on Froome’s attacking instincts and hope he launches a move that ejects his team mates and then others can gang up on him.
Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) is a strong candidate but is this thanks to reputation or form? Banned this time last year he came back to win the Vuelta. But we wondered how big his margin of victory would be only he needed a surprise move on a medium mountain stage to take the race. It was an great result but not the domination many had expected. This year he’s had only one win and in the modest Tour de San Luis, an early season race in Argentina. It’s now all about improving on his performance in the Dauphiné. He took second on the stage to the ski resort of Valmorel behind Froome and complained of allergies during the race. The late spring this year in western Europe means pollen levels are still high; perhaps the variety that bugged him in June has gone but he could still suffer in July. A podium is possible but he’s over 30 now and not the same rider when he had the sulphurous Jose “Pepe” Martí as coach but if anything he’s more aggressive and willing to take risks. We’ll know a lot more after the Stage 11 time trial where a top-20 position would suggest he’s on track. He’s had a lite team in years past but the arrival of Russian tycoon Oleg Tinkov has meant Roubles to sign riders like Nico Roche, Roman Kreuziger plus Mick Rogers has transferred from Team Sky, bringing the inside scoop on Sky’s marginal gains.
All the talk is about Chris Froome but team mate Richie Porte was second in the Dauphiné. Climbing and time trialling with ease, he’s won Paris-Nice this year and has ambitions for the 2014 Giro. Visions of two Sky riders on the podium are déjà vu thanks to the Wiggins-Froome combo last year but there’s a difference as Froome and Porte are friends and train together regularly and we’re likely to see the 1-2 combo at work rather than the tandem ride of last year where the Froome-dog was called to heel.
Which brings us to Nairo Quintana (Movistar). A theme of 2013 is the resurgence of Colombian cycling but in 2012 Quintana was already leaving Sky trailing in the mountains to win a stage of the Dauphiné. His problem is one of experience, I can see him on the podium but leading the world’s biggest race is a lot for a 23 year old. Plus any haematological advantages from the past few months spent living at home in Colombia will fade by the third week of the Tour. That said he got stronger in the spring as he raced more, he was second on the Col d’Eze time trial of Paris-Nice in March and won the Tour of the Basque Country in April.
Notionally Quintana is supposed to ride in service of Alejandro Valverde. It’s hard to assess the Spaniard. He was off the pace in the Dauphiné but look back across the season and he’s been superbly consistent, finishing in the top-10 in the majority of races he’s completed, whether on GC or stages and one day races. He was seventh in the Dauphiné but once the time trial result delayed him he seemed to be playing with tactics a bit more. Movistar also come with Rui Costa who has just won the Tour de Suisse for the second time. He was impressive and won the race with a much more powerful display that last year. The Portuguese rider was 18th in the Tour and should do better this year. The impressive thing is the collective force of these riders in the mountains, the team will have plenty of options and many will count on them to disrupt Team Sky’s linear efforts.
Garmin-Sharp are also promising chaos. Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky can all crack the top-10 and go higher. The team plan is to see where the cards fall and then back the best rider. The lack of hierarchy is intrinsic to the Slipstream philosophy. Each rider has their qualities, Martin is the climber who has come good this year with Liège-Bastogne-Liège and wants to prove himself in a stage race. Ryder Hesjedal’s looked good this until things fell apart in the Giro and Tour de Suisse, he’ll have some freshness for the final week and is reputed to be lighter than ever. Meanwhile everything is going to plan for Talansksy, the Tour is his target this year and he’s useful all rounder.
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez has been targeting the Tour. In 2012 he was on the podium of the Giro and Vuelta and was close to winning these races outright. But the Tour is something else, unlike the Giro there are no time bonuses for him to snipe nor are there a succession of steep climbs for him to dance up as he did in the Vuelta. Above all the level is higher in the Tour plus he’s 34. He should not be dismissed outright and his punchy style helps liven up the race. He comes as package with Dani Moreno who arguably is having a better year with a win in the Flèche Wallonne and his third place in the Dauphiné bodes very well too.
If Rodriguez is 34, BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans is a still a contender at 36. If he were to win he’d overtake 1922′s Firmin Labot title as the oldest winner of the race. He was seventh last year but ill and his third place in the Giro was achieved after a late entry. Is he too tired now? In the past he’s been one to target races but if he’s in form his ability is proven by his 2011 Tour win. If not team mate Tejay van Garderen sets out on a quest to get the world to spell his name right and is a stealthy pick for the podium. He’s been fourth in Paris-Nice, third in the Criterium International and won the Tour of California. If he was on team duty in the Tour de Suisse this might have allowed him to ride tempo rather than burn out. All is building well and he’s a steady rider, a smooth running diesel whose powers of recovery should suit the final week.
Bauke Mollema is Belkin’s leader with Robert Gesink for support. The newly branded team needs a result to win more sponsors and Mollema’s momentum from the Tour de Suisse could be just what’s needed. His lively riding in Switzerland was a pleasure to watch but behind the spectacle it took big power to ride away for the win on Stage 2.
Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen van den Broeck has to be mentioned. Fourth overall in 2010 and 2012 but do you remember it happening? Clearly it takes big talent and dedication to achieve this result but he’s made one victory salute during his 11 years as a pro and its rare to see him attack. He’ll have to work hard as Lotto-Belisol come equipped with more wagons for André Greipel’s sprint train than mountain helpers.
By now we’re firmly into outsider territory. Jacob Fuglsang and Janez Brajkovič bring options for Astana and you can see them in the top-10 . Ag2r’s Jean-Christophe Péraud leads the brown-short brigade, he’s a likeable rider but exploring the frontiers of his talent to make the top-10 again. Thibaut Pinot can climb with the best and was tenth overall last year on a route that didn’t suit him. He’s better this year and wants “to confirm” as they say in French, I can see him in the top-10 with ease and taking a stage or two in the mountains but he’ll have to avoid being caught out at the back of the bunch, le placement is his weakness.
Consensus says Andy Schleck should be left to himself. But his results over the years and past ease in the mountains means if he hadn’t had such a tumultuous 12 months he’d be a nailed-on podium pick given the mountain overload this year. Radioshack-Leopard also come with Andreas Klöden and Haimar Zubeldia who was sixth last year but would you know if he walked past you in the street?
Any others for the top-10? Cofidis’s Rein Taaramäe has the clichéd big engine but it’s prone to breakdowns and overheating whilst new recruit Dani Navarro is a top climber. Vacansoleil-DCM’s Lieuwe Westra seems their best bet with Thomas de Gendt as a more random factor and Wout Poels remains a talent and it’s nice to see him back after his critical injuries last year. Europcar’s Pierre Rolland is still having trouble with the time trials so a prestigious mountain stage win seems more likely than a high overall place but win in the mountains and you soar up the leaderboard too. Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Antón is another climber to watch but again stage wins and the polka-dot jersey seem to be the goals although remember the Basque teams needs ranking points to stay in the top division. Przemyslaw Niemec had a strong Giro and could be Lampre-Merida’s best bet but the Tour is new for him. Orica-Greenedge’s Cameron Meyer impressed in Switzerland and should find the steady climbs of the Tour to his advantage.
Chris Froome is so far ahead do the others have to settle for second place? No, the Tour brings 20 stages where a crash or a puncture can be enough to ruin anyone’s chances and he’s as prone as anyone to have a bad day, it happened in Tirreno-Adriatico where the weather iced him and Vincenzo Nibali and
Contador Rodriguez rode away. Froome is my pick to win the race but I would not bet with the prices now.
What’s striking is the number of riders capable of a top-10 finish. Richie Porte, Tejay van Garderen and Alberto Contador seem to be the safe choices but what of all the others? It’s this uncertainty that promises plenty.