Here’s a look at the contenders for the biggest prize in pro cycling, the maillot jaune in Paris. Chris Froome returns once again but this time his rivals will hope to profit from fresher legs and the toughest route in years. With luck the predictions below will be totally wrong.
Route recap: Variety, this is not a course with a couple of set piece stages to target and then defend. The first week is fraught with risks, Stage 3 is a 35km team time trial which is going to hamper several of the contenders on smaller teams. Stages 5 and 6 include some hills to mix things up, Stage 9 is the Roubaix stage which includes beaucoup cobbles, far more than usual. The mountain stages are bookended with downhill finishes, Stage 10 has a long descent down the Colombière into Grand Bornand, Stage 19 down the Aubisque to Laruns and Stage 16 goes drops down the Col du Portillon to the finish too. Otherwise there’s a mix of summit finishes, the grinding ascent to La Rosière, the celebrity of Alpe d’Huez and the novelty of the Col du Portet, the highest ever finish in the Pyrenees. And in between the Alps and the Pyrenees there’s some ambush country in the Massif Central too. The Stage 20 TT course has been described as “lumpy” or “rolling” by others but I’ve ridden it three times now and prefer labels like “jagged”, “searing” or simply “Basque”.
- There’s more detail on each stage plus all the rules, points scales, time cuts and more at inrng.com/tour
Chris Froome (Team Sky) is the prime pick. To state his chances is to repeat everything we know already: he can climb with the best, has turned descending into a weapon, he’s got the strongest, wealthiest team and he’s done it all before. Only it’s this last point that is a potential problem, he’s now on his fourth consecutive grand tour and trying the elusive Giro-Tour double. Yes there’s an extra week between the two races but that only helps so much. He’s had a tendency to fall ill towards the end of the Tour before so the Pyrenees could be difficult and explains why he only gets four chainrings in the table below. He and his team will look to establish a lead and use his and his team’s grip on the race to establish a psychological stranglehold on the race, already his rivals are talking about going for the podium not the outright win.
Geraint Thomas is the understudy. Only a few months younger than Froome, the Welshman’s won a string of shorter stage races but hasn’t got a great track record in the grand tours. Some of this is because he’s been on team duties, other times it’s down to mishaps, a tendency to crash a lot. All told he’s far from a certainty but his Critérium du Dauphiné win last month showed he was climbing with the best and even getting the jump on his rivals in the mountains although when it came to the steepest summit finish at Le Bettex he lost a little ground, a tell that he’ll struggle on the hardest climbs or just that he could afford to sit back? If any of the GC contenders are looking forward to the pavé on Stage 9 it’s him. Otherwise Wout Poels could finish high on GC and Egan Bernal is a mystery, a phenomenal talent but untested in a grand tour.
Richie Porte (BMC Racing) was the challenger this time last year and is so once again. He can climb with the best and is good for the final time trial plus his BMC team are contenders for the team time trial. He’s just won the Tour de Suisse and says his form is now even better and he’s lighter too. So far so good but the same risks exist as they did a year ago. First is descending, put aside the accident down the Mont du Chat and remember the Dauphiné last year where lost ground down the Col de la Colombière. Second is putting it all together for three weeks, he’s been near-invincible in shorter stage races in recent years but far less consistent in grand tours. Still he was fifth overall in 2016 and seems more resilient these days. Third his team are among the strongest but don’t seem as strong as Team Sky nor as willing as Ag2r La Mondiale to take risks but in Tejay van Garderen he’s got a great helper. How to beat Froome? They’ve been team mates and friends which gives Porte an insight and perhaps on a given day Porte can out-climb Froome but in his own words his best hope is, in his own words, that “Froome is buggered” from the Giro.
Talking of post-Giro fatigue Nairo Quintana tried the Giro-Tour double last year. He finished second in the Giro and was 12th in the Tour, looking as stale as a baguette that had been left on the back shelf of a car for days. Now he’s had a rest, almost a sabbatical, and the few times he’s raced haven’t been big targets. The Tour is the goal and given he’s won the Vuelta and Giro and he’s finished on the podium in Paris three times already, another runner-up result would be merely anecdotal. Forget the stereotype of darting attacks from Colombians, Quintana is steady type, think of a car going up a mountain but stuck in one gear too high if you like. His stage win in the recent Tour de Suisse illustrated this, he took off early on the climb to Arosa and wasn’t caught, a long range effort and if Porte tried to get to him the bedevilled Tasmanian couldn’t close the the final metres. The first week is a risk for him but he’s alert, when the race has split in crosswinds before he’s been in the front group.
If Quintana is one of the best climbers in the world, Mikel Landa is another and the second prong of Movistar’s “Trident”. He’s capable of surging accelerations and the final time trial is in the French Basque Country, almost home turf. He’s the most volatile of Movistar’s three leaders, capable of a stage win one day but being caught napping the next. He’s often best in a supporting role, a gadfly. It’s another thing to assume the burden of leadership, to look team mates and staff in the eye over breakfast and know he’s responsible for putting food on their tables. His fourth place last year was achieved as a team mate, ditto his third place in the 2015 Giro.
Alejandro Valverde is the third prong of Movistar’s Tridente. Aged 38, he’s like a cask of whisky, the older the better. Just starting this year is an achievement after breaking his knee and ankle in Düsseldorf a year ago. Even when healthy and younger the Tour has been hard going for someone who wins on so many fronts, although grand tours and especially high altitude mountain stages seem to be his frontier. He can read a race well and if you can recall a tactical error – beyond riding into Italy and Pratonevoso in the 2008 Tour – please share it in the comments below because I can’t. He’ll place high on a sprint stage and still has a kick for time bonuses on mountain stages. But the outright win? It’s hard to see and he has the makings of a road captain de luxe.
Romain Bardet needn’t worry about inter-team rivalry, Ag2r La Mondiale are all behind him with Pierre Latour as a loyal helper who’ll hope to pick up the white jersey along the way. Bardet has finished on the podium twice running now: 2016 was thanks to a coup d’audace down the wet descent of Domancy; 2017 was thanks to his coup de pédale, he was consistently climbing with the best and he and his Ag2r La Mondiale team even had Froome on the ropes a couple of times but crucially couldn’t deliver the knock-out punch. That podium was secured by one slender second though and this year’s team time trial is likely to put him on the back foot, the team have improved and recruited well but should still lose time to the likes of Sky, BMC and Movistar. The pavé stage is a worry, as if something to be endured rather than exploited but see his ride on the Strade Bianche this year.
Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was fourth in 2016, the best young rider that year. There’s a Simon effect here, his brother’s performance in the Giro has heightened expectations which is unfair but also inevitable because as twins they are similar but not identical riders. Adam is having just as good a season with a stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico and then winning the final mountain stage of the Dauphiné. He’s got a strong team in support, especially for the opening phase across the flat lands. He’s also handy for taking the time bonuses and the final time trial with its sharp climbs and twisty descents won’t dash his hopes in the way a flat course would.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) is another tempted by the Giro-Tour double this year and his chances seem to be downplayed, almost excused by his ride in the Giro. He finished a creditable second overall and out-climbed plenty of pure climbers. Yet now it looks like the Tour is an afterthought, he’s not a big favourite. He should be. he’s hot property and in form he can match the best on the climbs and put minutes into others in the time trials. Only here he finds a course with a lot of sharp climbs and the Stage 20 time trial’s no place for a 58T chainring so how to win? His team should help him ride high in the opening week, Sunweb are outsiders for the team time trial.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) can enliven any race. Having won the Tour, Giro, Vuelta and plenty more he’s not coming to harvest UCI points and should be the catalyst for action. But how to win? He was the runner-up in the Vuelta last year and if he took the first mountain stage to Andorra this was a wily sprint and he never got the better of his rivals in a straight summit finish. He had a quiet Dauphiné but then again he had a quiet time in 2014 before winning the Tour too. He’ll have to exploit the descents or exploit the opening week and his team are handicap, they’re going to lose time in the team time trial even if the likes of Pozzovivo, the Izagirre brothers and possibly forty-something Franco Pellizotti, the oldest rider in the race. Can he win? Maybe just but the fun is watching him try.
Rigoberto Urán was the surprise last year finishing second. He didn’t put a foot wrong but this was a defensive ride, he tracked Froome and Bardet rather than attacked them but if it lacked panache it gained a podium finish and he and his team would sign for this again in a flash. One concern is the team time trial, EF Education First-Drapac are likely to lose time compared to the big budget squads which will handicap the Colombian and the other is simply repeating the form he had last year although the signs are encouraging, in 2017 he was second overall in the Route du Sud, this year he’s just finished second in the Tour of Slovenia.
Jacob Fuglsang (Astana) is in great shape again, if it wasn’t for a poor team time trial he may well have won the Tour de Suisse. This is a concern again, Astana are normally a heavyweight squad but rode poorly in Switzerland and the Dauphiné too. Now Fuglsang is the sole team leader with a core of Danish riders around him even Astana look to be stage hunting too. Will Fuglsang too? He’s only once made the top-10 of the Tour even if at times he’s been on team duties, several times he’s looked promising but faded.
Third in the Vuelta and fifth in the Giro last year mean Ilnur Zakarin‘s CV should land with a thud when applying to win the Tour de France or at least going for the podium. Only the Tour’s got the most competitive field and the Katusha rider’s not shown so much form this year. Perhaps the Crane of Tartarstan is saving it all for this month but all the same he’s not a reassuring pick for the win and he and Katusha would sign today for a podium, especially as the team is also aiming to win sprint stages with Marcel Kittel.
If Movistar bring El Tridente then Lotto-Jumbo bring the Vleesfork, literally the meat fork and a two pronged attack with Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglič. Kruijswijk has few wins to his name, a stage of the Tour de Suisse in 2011 and the Arctic Tour of Norway in 2011 which he won a handful of seconds ahead of Kristoff the sprinter. So the Tour? But of course he almost won the Giro in 2016 and until that fateful crash into a bank of snow he looked imperious, the pink jersey sat firm on those coathanger shoulders of his. Still just being in contention again would be nice. Roglič by contrast is a contender even if he and his team keep downplaying his chances. A stage winner last year, he’s won the last three stage races he’s ridden this year including Romandie and the Basque Country which are among the hardest. But a grand tour? He’s only finished two and not targeted the GC, the question is how he can cope with long climbs day in, day out.
Finally a few other names. Bob Jungels (Quick Step) is on a journey to become a grand tour contender but not there yet, watch for him in the mountains and Julian Alaphilippe too. Meanwhile ranked in order Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Dan Martin (UAE-Emirates), Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) could make the top-10 on GC, win stages and go for the mountains competition but the outright win seems elusive.
|Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana|
|Romain Bardet, Vincenzo Nibali|
|Tom Dumoulin, Adam Yates, Mikel Landa, Alejandro Valverde|
|Urán, Thomas, Fuglsang, Zakarin|