Who’s going to win and do you really want to know? The problem last year was that it was all too obvious too early rather. Ideally this would all come down to the final moments of the final mountain stage, a showdown over the top of the Col de Joux Plane and the toboggan run down into Morzine.
Two riders stand out in Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome but the route will reward others and the irregular climbs and several downhill finishes mean it’s as much a test of W/kg as a test of nerves. Here’s a look at the contenders and pretenders for the 2016 Tour de France.
Route Summary: before the contenders and pretenders, a quick reminder of the route. An opening start by the sea, bracing for the sea breeze and high stress for the riders as everyone fears losing time in the crosswinds. The race then heads south with a stage in the Massif Central mountain range to shake up the race. The Pyrenees come before the Alps but for a change the route uses more of wider, steadier roads in the Pyrenees while the Alps feature several novel roads that are steeper and more irregular. In between there’s Mont Ventoux, famous for many reasons but ignore the myths and it’s very selective with 15km at 9%. It’s chased the following day by the first of two time trials. The first climbs in places but has very fast sections elsewhere to reward those able to turn a 56T chainring; the second climbs almost all the way and has some tortuous sections to break the rhythm. There are several downhill finishes designed to disrupt the usual tactic of riders holding back until the final kilometre of a mountain stage. In short it’s mountainous but varied, we’re unlikely to get repeat episodes each day in the mountains and the race should be all the better for it.
Chris Froome is the prime pick. Last year’s route saw the strongest teams grab control of the race on the opening stages, grip it tighter still after the team time trial and then Froome got a stranglehold on the maillot jaune in the first summit finish at La Pierre St. Martin and led until the end. This time he’s saying it’s all about the third week but his rivals must watch out for an early knock-out, he’s looking as lean as ever and weighs a reported 67kg. He’s finally shown good form at the Critérium du Dauphiné after an early season that lacked the usual winning streak. He’s just ahead of Nairo Quintana for the assurances he and his super-team bring for the opening week it’s flatter stages; also if the Colombian got the better of him last year it was because Froome fell ill. He’s like some colonial official from a Kipling story, polite and cautious in social circles but vicious and steely once he starts pedalling those oval chainrings and while Team Sky have a reputation for calculated – read boring – riding he’s been known to attack at will. He climbs with the best and among this group he’s arguably the strongest for the time trials. Geraint Thomas is being spared the team duties to make his own challenge for the GC but there are questions over his form, his performance in the Tour de Suisse was better last year than this time and if he was ill this year then surely he would have been pulled out just as Team Sky took out Leopold König. Mikel Landa is probably Plan C, watch to see if he sits up during the early stages or whether he’s a protected rider too, he’s surely there to help Froome but by virtue of riding alongside him can finish high.
Nairo Quintana is the voodoo chile who chops down mountains. There’s still an air of mystery around him yet he’s a simple and humble character from rural Colombia, he’s got his feet on the ground but it’s at 2,700m above sea level. He came so close last year, arguably that route suited him more even if he lost time on the opening coastal weekend. He’s had a good season this year winning the overall in the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie and recently taking the Route du Sud. Movistar bring a very strong team but lack the Flahute rider who knows which way the wind blows on the flat stages. Even if he can avoid time losses on the sprint stages Quintana is likely to surrender time to Froome in the Stage 13 Ardèche time trial. For him it’s all about the Alps in the final week, a succession of tough stages on some of the smaller, twisting, steeper climbs in the Alps where it will be hard for a team to control events. Alejandro Valverde rides in support but this has to be seen to be believed, his quest for stage wins and honing form ahead of the Olympics might see him easing back at times too.
Alberto Contador is having a great year already and it shows in several ways. He seems more relaxed and more willing to chat in English. His results have picked up and he even won his first time trial in ages on his way to victory in the Tour of the Basque Country, granted that was mountainous but his ride in the Giro last year shows he can cope fine with rolling courses too. He was beaten by Froome in the Dauphiné and this is the main concern, his repeated attempts to get away could not work. There’s been talk of illness recently too but he always skips the Spanish national championships. He does share the Tinkoff team with Peter Sagan but their interests can coincide, both need to keep out of trouble on the flat stages and besides most of the team is dedicated to Contador but if he has the quantity, the quality isn’t quite what he’d want. Still he’s experienced and has a mental toughness few possess. Best of all he can win even when he’s losing, others may try to defend a podium or top-10 position but Contador rarely settles for safety and is prepared to launch long range raids to reverse the situation.
Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen form a double-act for BMC Racing. Like it or not everyone wondering who comes out on top and you can bet they’re tired of it already. While Astana’s leaders actually had separate altitude training camps BMC’s duo have spent time together training and reconning stages in the Alps. They’re different riders, Porte is punchy and van Garderen steadier but both are tactically conservative and use the effective method of following for as long as they can and if they have anything left attacking late in the stage. Van Garderen tends to be the steadier rider, good on the long and steady climbs and his is still a story of progress, he is improving every year, 5th overall in 2014 and sitting 3rd until he fell ill late in the race last year. For him a top-5 would be satisfying and the podium a joy, especially as wins are rare. A stage in the recent Tour de Suisse broke the drought but only following a collapse in the cold on a previous mountain stage which meant he was afforded more room by his rivals.
It’s perhaps telling that in trying to find a photo of Richie Porte for this piece many show him behind others, like the one above or another from Paris-Nice. He’s a strong contender for the podium yet amazingly he’s still trying to improve on 7th place in the 2010 Giro, his career best finish in a grand tour. Since then he’s either taken one for the team, a dreaded jour sans ruined his chances or he just lost his flow. He’s been a formidable one week stage racer and on a good day he can climb as well as Froome, is punchy for any time bonuses and excels in hilly time trials.
Now for the other double act with Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali. This is Aru’s first Tour de France after second in the Giro and winning Vuelta last year. Success in the Tour sounds like the logical next step but the Tour isn’t just a step up, it’s a new storey. He’ll find a route that suits even if the Ardèche time trial won’t. He’s often exciting in races, at least in the mountains where he’s willing to attack. Form is the big question, he’s had a poor season so far and showed up at the Dauphiné to get dropped on the mountain stages; his stage win was in spite of his climbing form. Since then there’s a 40 day window to improve before the Alps arrive but he’s got a big gap to close. That said Astana did this in 2014 when Nibali went onto win the Tour.
Nibali – now without the Italian tricolore jersey – triumphed in the Giro like one of Napoleon’s lucky generals: he held on while his rivals fell away and fell apart. He wasn’t even sure about riding the Tour but his win has given him a free hand and he’s eyeing the Olympic road race too. He’s leaving Astana and sometimes departing riders can get benched by teams but he and Astana management alike both have an interest in cooperating. This time the pressure is off and a Giro-Tour double seems hard given the opposition but a stage win and perhaps some risk-taking on the descents to take stages and stir up the race would be good. The flipside of this daring is that he can flop too, his attacks and gambles cannot always work. He’ll enliven the race. Jacob Fuglsang can ride high too but he was given his chance in the Giro and it’s back to team duties now and he’s just one of several imposing team mates.
Thibaut Pinot‘s story this year has been one of improvement, his climbing and his time trialling keep getting better and he’s now among the best stage racers in the world. His stock’s been rising all year but there are doubts about his form. He was off the pace in the Dauphiné and if he won the time trial title in the French championships his biggest rival that day was the heat rather than another cyclist. In the road race he told his friend Vichot to attack because he was not feeling his best. In other words he’s been having some off days recently and the story of his rising trajectory all season could be ending: was June about turbulence or has he stalled? He’ll hope to come good but remember nobody’s form peaks in the third week, instead it’s just a story of managing the catabolic effects of a grand tour better than others. In short he’s a top rider but his rating below gets discounted because of questions over his form.
Romain Bardet had an excellent Dauphiné, even climbing with Froome and Contador on the tough Col du Noyer and there’s a course to suit him. Ag2r La Mondiale are a strong team when it comes to attacking but can they be disciplined enough to keep him out of danger in the first week? There are other risks, has he hit peak form already at the Dauphiné? He’s also a risk to himself sometimes, the Masters student is analytical and reflective off the bike but during a race his lizard brain takes primacy and if this means bold descending and lively racing it can mean tactical mistakes in a contest where saving energy counts. He’ll also pay a price in the first time trial stage. The team would surely sign up today for a top-5 overall and a stage win along the way but the perfectionist Bardet may not settle for this.
Warren Barguil completes the trinité of home riders. Just like in Switzerland he’ll concede time in the longer time trial stage but will enjoy the mountains and race aggressively both uphill and downhill. He’s just 24 and leads Giant-Alpecin and is aiming for a top-10 overall and the white jersey.
What about Ilnur Zakarin? He was riding to a Giro podium before his horrific crash on the Colle dell’Agnello and has been one of the few people in the world to match Quintana uphill this year; yet the bookmakers have him at 200-1. The odds seem wrong even if his chances of a podium look improbable; he’s recovered from injury but this is hardly the approach needed to the Tour but he could be good for a stage win. Jurgen Van Den Broeck has joined Katusha following a divorce with Lotto-Soudal over the winter and he’s placed high in the Tour before but is one of those stealth riders who can finish between 5th-10th in every mountain stage and therefore ride high on GC. Katusha’s third prong is Joaquim Rodriguez but he’s not looking as sharp as before, a repeat of his third place overall in 2013 seems most unlikely.
Pierre Rolland‘s failures and fightbacks have become a meme for French fans and he’s been announced as the next big thing in French cycling several times over during his time at Crédit Agricole, Bouygues and Europcar. Now he’s riding for Cannondale and an increase in performance is expected; it’s not hard given no staff at Europcar knew how to read a power file. Rolland has spent time at Tenerife and invested long hours on the time trial bike. The result? Not much so far 10th-25th place overall in the stage races so far this year but he’s often been a hero of the third week in the Tour so we’ll see if he can come good in the Alps, he’s certainly looking leaner than ever. Team mate Lawson Craddock seems strong and promising but this is bound to be a learning experience.
Finally some more names in rapid fire. Dan Martin was looking great in the recent Dauphiné but is still uncertain to hold it together for three weeks, a stage win or two would surely delight him. Adam Yates will challenge Barguil for the white jersey and go stage hunting too, he was active in the final week last year which is always a promising sign for a young rider’s future. Bauke Mollema was 7th last year but tends to ride for 7th, doing his best of course but that means recognising his limits and riding to them. Fellow Dutchman Wilco Kelderman at Lotto-Jumbo showed some more flashes of talent in the Tour de Suisse but also some fragility too but he remains a classy rider if he can hold things together and another white jersey contender. Rui Costa had a solid Tour de Suisse but is bound to find the likes of Froome, Contador and Quintana too hot to handle and more likely to cruise around in search of stage wins. IAM’s leader Mathias Frank made the top-10 last year and could climb back here.
|Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana|
|Tejay van Garderen, Richie Porte|
|Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru, Thibaut Pinot|
|Kelderman, Barguil, Yates|