It’s said the mark of a champion is to win the Tour de France at your first go. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault are amongst those who came, saw and conquered from the start. But that’s the exception and the majority of Tour winners are like fine wines that take time to age and mature. You can be born with talent but it has to be worked on, weaknesses addressed and tactics learned.
While a future champion serves their apprenticeship the best young rider competition is a useful staging post and prestigious line for the CV. However a look at the past winners suggests the white flower of youth rarely blooms into a Tour de France winner. Here’s a brief analysis of the contenders, the rules and the history of this jersey.
The rules are simple, the jersey is worn by the best rider on the overall classification born on or after 1 January 1989, ie aged roughly 25 and half or younger. It’s worth €300 a day with a prize of €20,000 to the final winner in Paris.
Last year Thibaut Pinot had a Tour de France meltdown but the evidence of collapse was there in the Tour de Suisse when he was struggling on the descents; the Tour amplified this like it exaggerates everything else and Pinot’s tacophobic technical troubles went into a full-blown mental collapse as the media pressure that had been inflating all year burst in public sight. Now he’s had a quieter run up to the Tour and the burden of espoir français is now being spread across the shoulders of many riders. The Tour de Suisse went to plan this year except for a cold he caught at the end. A worry but he had the same in 2012 and took a stage win in the Tour. Otherwise this year has been much more satisfying and as mentioned the other day he’s not finished lower than 24th in a time trial which suggests both study and application rather than the usual “brave chap” approach associated with many a Frenchman. As we’ve seen before he can climb with the best on the good days so he is the prime pick.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) is another French hope. Rightly he pushed back against the label of “first Frenchman” in the Tour last summer as he wanted a high GC position rather than simply beating his countrymen. An intelligent and likeable rider who goes well in the mountains, his attacking style might be more suited to a stage win but the top-10 is within his grasp with this year’s route especially as he did well in the Dauphiné – fifth overall and pipped by Wilco Kelderman for the white jersey. The Tour requires constant concentration, for example the will to hang at the front of the bunch over the cobbles and in the crosswinds and this positioning has cost him in several races. Reviving the wine analogy, Bardet should keep developing over the years and 2014 might be too early to tell.
Rafał Majka is a late call up, a replacement for Roman Kreuziger and his passport problems. But what a replacement he is given he finished sixth overall in the Giro a month ago and wore the white jersey during the race, albeit carrying it because Nairo Quintana was pretty in pink. He wasn’t supposed to be riding so his form is unknown to us but clearly the team have a good idea and that’s why he’s got the call. He led Tinkoff-Saxo in the Giro but is obviously going to be riding in support of Alberto Contador. But tracking the Spaniard is one way to get a high overall position.
Michał Kwiatkowski wore the jersey during the Tour last year but slipped back during the final week. Now he’s a more uncertain prospect after a disappointing Dauphiné where he was consistently off the pace. It’s one thing to be behind the rivals but he was minutes down before he abandoned the race. In some ways he shouldn’t care because his start to the season was so good that anything else this year is a bonus but of course this is the Tour de France. A smart rider we’ll see if he can ride into better form during the race but so far the high mountains have been his limiting factor.
Movistar’s Ion Izaguirre is an outside pick. The new Spanish champion is in top form and benefited from the grace of Alejandro Valverde to win the title last weekend perhaps with the implicit understanding that the favour has to be returned during the month of July. But riding in service can still equate to a high overall position and the Basque climber could be Movistar’s mountain man for Valverde. The team also have Jesus Herrada, top-10 in the Tour de Romandie this year.
Is Tom-Jelte Slagter a stage racer? The Dutchman’s going to be riding in support of Andrew Talansky but was a contender to win Paris-Nice an unshipped chain sunk his chances. He’s solid in the mountains could be a rider to take the jersey when the race crosses the Vosges only to lose it to a pure climber later in the race. Team mate Ben King has shown promise but he’s yet in the league to rival Slagter yet alone Pinot or Kwiatkowski.
IAM Cycling’s Séb Reichenbach has been tipped on here before but the Tour de France is a big ask for someone riding shotgun to compatriot Mathias Frank. He could and should climb well but a high overall position might be too much to ask.
Orica-Greenedge’s Simon Yates was a surprise call-up but a welcome one given the excitement surrounding hi and twin brother Adam. He’s got what it takes, especially given he’s bounced the likes of Daryl Impey and Matthew Goss out of the team. It’s not because he’s English either, he’s in form with seventh in the recent Tour de Slovénie and strong in the British championships over the weekend so rates as an outsider. But I’m not sure he’ll make it to Paris, the team could have a secret plan to send him home mid-race?
|Rafał Majka, Romain Bardet
|T-J Slagter, Michał Kwiatkowski, Ion Izaguirre
|Séb Reichenbach, Jesus Herrada, Simon Yates
The History…. and The Scary Stats
The White Jersey was introduced in 1975. As Wikipedia puts it:
“on four occasions a cyclist has won the young rider classification and the general classification in the same year — Fignon in 1983, Ullrich in 1997, Contador in 2007 and Schleck (retroactively) in 2010.”
Worryingly if you strip out these precocious winners only two others have won white and yellow during their career, Greg LeMond and Marco Pantani. Certainly it can reveal talent at the highest level but there’s a surprisingly poor correlation between winning white and winning the Tour in subsequent years. The white jersey winner is not the revelation might imagine.
If he can avoid trouble this could be Thibaut Pinot’s chance. But the conditional tense applies to a tense rider. Otherwise there are some good challengers. The jersey offers a high profile to its wearer during the race even if it’s the race’s fourth jersey, both in the public perception and in the ASO rulebook which states if a rider has all four jerseys the green ranks second, the mountains is third and white comes last.