Chris Froome and Ritchie Porte are the top picks. Spend too long watching them and someone else will ride away, just as we saw in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné when Astana set up Jacob Fuglsang for the win. With a varied route ahead it’ll be as interesting to see how the win happens as well as who stands atop the podium in Paris.
With enough unknowns to keep Heisenberg, Socrates and Karl Popper guessing here’s a closer look at the contenders and pretenders for the podium in Paris.
Route summary: two time trials totalling just 36.5km, not much but enough for some to take a minute and more on their rivals. Three summit finishes evenly spaced across the race offering set piece opportunities to take control of the race and three, possibly four, other mountain stages with a downhill run to the finish with a theme of steep gradients where there’s no slipstream to hide behind. There are time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds on all stages except for the two time trials.
Chris Froome goes for his fourth win. Three wins bring experience and over 40 days and nights in the yellow jersey and all that goes with it, from defending a race lead to handling the media and public expectations. This helps but it’s marginalia. The real question is Froome’s form and we’ve not had the habitual wins during the season. Good in the Critérium du Dauphiné but not dominant, he finished fourth overall after could have finished second but opted to bury Richie Porte instead, a sign of his steely side and ambition too, there’s no point securing a lower step on the podium if the win is within reach. Sky’s insecurity over Froome’s condition is our gain, the prospect of a greater contest rather than the habitual pattern of Team Sky taking yellow jersey after a week and holding onto it forever, the standard pattern for four of the last five years. One evolution during this period has been his racing style, he’s now a more aggressive and entrepreneurial rider although let’s remember he gained seconds from these moves last year and minutes in the time trials. If anything his improved descending skills are a concern for the way he throws himself down the mountain with the forceful style of a slalom skier, you can almost hear tires screeching but it does give him a weapon to push Porte. Team Sky assemble a team of millionaires with domestiques could lead on other teams and it’ll be interesting to see if Geraint Thomas tries for a high place overall or if he follows the rotation policy of resting on some days and losing time in order to help Froome better. The Welshman was a serious contender for the Giro so remains one to watch in France.
Richie Porte is the form pick, the apprentice who wants to topple his old master, the star who wants to eclipse Sky. He has been the best and most consistent rider of the season and even when he has lost, he’s reassured. His defeat in Paris-Nice came about after a mistake but he bounced back to win the mountain stage; he lost the Critérium du Dauphiné on the final day but didn’t lose his mind despite losing his team mates. He was good in June but the Tour has been the big goal so there’s every chance he’s better in July. Can he cope with a grand tour? It’s become accepted wisdom that he can’t ride consistently for three weeks only it’s wrong: see his Tour de France last year where if it wasn’t for that puncture he would have placed second overall. Yes he punctured at a bad time, and there is something in the Napoleonic quip that it’s better to be lucky than good, but the point is Porte was mentally and physiologically consistent last year and even if punctures come into play again he’s the sole leader of BMC Racing which means he should get a wheel this time. The question is dealing with the media pressure and expectation but he seems more relaxed in front of the cameras too. The team is strong but need to prove themselves in the mountains following the Dauphiné debacle but they’re reinforced by Damiano Caruso, fresh from finishing second in the Tour de Suisse.
Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana form a formidable double act for Movistar. If Valverde could have drawn a route he might have picked this one with the lack of high altitude and the varied route including downhill runs to waiting time bonuses. The 37 year old has enjoyed a superb season with wins in stage races and spring classics alike but Dauphiné didn’t bring matching results even if he was close on the climbs and delivered a very good time trial. Since then he was so strong in the Spanish championships he could gift the win to team mate Jesus Herrada. Nairo Quintana has stood on the podium in Paris three times already and in between last year’s Tour and starting tomorrow El Condor has won the Vuelta and finished second in the Giro, his record looks as consistent as his face looks stoic. He rode around Italy resembling a car driving in a gear too high, going uphill in fourth when he needed third and unable to take much time on the climbs, normally his strong point. The talk is his form is good, the proof will come soon. Movistar offer ample support, including strongman Andrey Amador plus Carlos Betancur who is looking angular again.
Fabio Aru and Jacob Fuglsang are another tantalizing tandem. They won the Dauphiné with the old 1-2 on the final stage, firing Aru up the road first and then Fuglsang counter-attacked on the final climb to win the race. They should work well together, Fuglsang as the consistent package who can do a respectable time trial and climb well but still with doubts about lasting into the third week but his Dauphiné ride and new-found winning ways will boost confidence; Aru seems to have rediscovered his effortless pedal stroke, like a dog let off the leash in the Dauphiné and took a solo win in the Italian championships.
Romain Bardet was second last year thanks to what the French call a coup d’audace. His bold move to Le Bettex allowed him take time, enough to distinguish him from the other climbers trailing in Froome’s wake. His form is a question, he wasn’t as incisive in the Dauphiné as he was last year but says he’s been working on this. If you can finish second in the Tour you can win but he, like all the others last year, were minutes behind Froome. So if you can finish second you can also finish, say, fifth. He’ll be lively to watch, time losses in the opening stage means he’ll attack and a podium in Paris with a stage win would delight his team. Ag2r La Mondiale also bring Pierre Latour, a contender for the white jersey if Brigitte and Bernadette agree while Mathias Frank has finished 8th before in the Tour de France while captaining IAM in 2015 but will work for the team.
Like Bardet Dan Martin had a strong Dauphiné last year and went on to have a good Tour. He’s just had another good Dauphiné. Last year he regretted a few attacks in the mountains because they just backfired, he went into oxygen debt and paid for it with time losses. Will he ride a more conservative Tour? Hopefully not but his contract is up and the higher the overall position, the better his deal. He did a decent time trial in the Dauphiné by his standards too and should be front group material in the mountains.
Alberto Contador could be starting his last Tour de France. His Dauphiné was discreet, apparently he was under orders not to attack but at times following the wheels looked hard, he seemed hunched and twisted on the bike as he tried to match rivals on the climbs. If he doesn’t win, he should be exciting to watch. Not for him a steady seventh place and a pot of UCI points, there’s nothing to prove: it’s all or nothing as we saw in Paris-Nice this year. But would he sign for a raid, a stage win and a podium finish? Surely yes. Trek-Segafredo also bring Bauke Mollema who attempts his own Giro-Tour double and the pair can work well together with talk of the mountains jersey for Mollema rather than a high finish overall but contend for the polka dot and you’re hanging with the best already and the Dutchman is good in a time trial too.
Esteban Chaves is aiming to win the Tour de France. But in 2017? Perhaps 2018 is better because the cherubic Colombian has been short of form and racing this year but remains a prodigious talent in the mountains capable of darting accelerations. A similar story for Simon Yates who is another of Orica-Scott’s long term plans – the team is searching for a sponsor to replace Orica – but the form hasn’t shown yet this year. He knows the Planche des Belles Filles well having lived nearby for a while and can sprint well from small groups. Both can do well but a big result overall would be a pleasant surprise.
Louis Meintjes (UAE Emirates) had a great Tour last year, consistently climbing with the best but languishing in the time time trials and in need of a better team to shepherd him across the flatter stages. He looked sharp at the Dauphiné so a repeat ride into the top-10 is likely and possibly a stage win too.
Finally the others to watch… Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is aiming for a stage win and having targeted the Giro he’d probably prefer to do the Vuelta but starting the Tour is the least the French leader of a French team can do. Rafał Majka isn’t the talk of the town but remains a strong climber who could win the mountains jersey again and comfortably sit in the top-10 by Paris with Bora-Hansgrohe team mate Emmanuel Buchmann improving too for a top-15 and maybe the white jersey. Ion Izagirre is a complete rider, able in the time trials and mountains alike and comes out of a good Tour de Suisse but he’s never lead a team into a grand tour and a win seems unlikely, Bahrain-Merida will be satisfied if he can hang with the front group regularly and aim for a prestigious stage win, especially if he can exploit the descending skills he showed in the rain to Morzine last year. Warren Barguil is hoping for a stage win, he broke his hip in May so he’s chasing his form which was good in the Dauphiné but not excellent.
|Richie Porte, Chris Froome|
|Alejandro Valverde, Jacob Fuglsang|
|Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, Dan Martin, Alberto Contador|
|Izagirre, Yates, Chaves, Mollema|