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Former world number one and current Eurosport commentator Sean Kelly rode 14 Tours de France during his long career, and has worked on many more since hanging up his bike in 1993. The quadruple green jersey winner will analyse the Tour for CyclingTips, drawing on his expertise and knowledge of racing tactics to assess the action as the race unfolds and also to anticipate what will happen next.
In this first entry, Kelly looks at the expected battle between two past winners in the race and cautions that nothing should be taken for granted, particularly with several dangerous stages ahead plus the technically demanding fifth stage over the cobbles of Northern France. He outlines some other riders who could surprise, warns that things could be tougher for Chris Froome’s Sky team this time round, assesses Bradley Wiggins’ non-selection and Movistar’s decision not to pick Nairo Quintana, comments on the Andy Schleck situation and suggests a young rider who could make the breakthrough this year and surprise Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel.
It’s two days before the start of the Tour and everyone is taking about Froome versus Contador, Contador versus Froome. It’s important to consider the other general classification guys in the race, though – while those two seem the most likely guys to battle for yellow, the weather conditions, the nervousness of the opening week and the cobbles could play a big part in shaping the race. So too the crashes, particularly if there is rain here in England. There are many uncertainties ahead.
If Froome and Contador get through this mad period of the first five, six days and the race settles down, things should be between them. But they have to get there first.
What’s certain is that the cobbles on stage five will suit some guys much more than others. Contador is a good bike handler. You can see that when there is a big fight before the climbs in races. He can ride well in the front, but Froome’s bike handling is not as good. He is not as comfortable doing that. And of course on the cobbles everybody is going to be fighting. Even the big Belgians want to be on the front, either trying to keep somebody up there or because they want to be there themselves in order to fight for the stage.
It’s going to be a really nervous part of the race, and full of people trying to move up. When you are going for a big climb, you have the general classification men up there and also the guys keeping them in position, but there are also others like the sprinters who stay at the back and think only about forming the bus and surviving the stage.
It’s going to be different on the cobbles. The stage is short, the stakes are high and there is always so much tussling getting onto them. We know Froome is not going to like that. I think he will be a bit more concerned about it than Contador. While he said that he rode across the cobblestones and felt quite well, it is very different riding across the cobblestones out training with the team than it is when compared to how it will be in the race. The speeds will be very high, riders will be squeezing into tight spaces and it will be a real battle.
This uncertainty is compounded by the tougher season his team has had. In other years Sky were very dominant, both before the Tour and also in the race. This year it has been different thus far. They have been weaker until now. They have had a lot of bad luck, problems with sicknesses and crashes. They will hope that things are all behind them now, that they will be a very strong unit at the Tour. The question is, will they come right in time? That’s one of the things we’ll learn as the race plays out.
Sky has also had some extra stuff to deal with, including the non-selection of Bradley Wiggins. What is right, what is wrong? It is such a difficult situation to weigh up. So many of us don’t know the relationship between Froome and Wiggins. We know it is not good, but we don’t really know just how bad it is. Only the riders and the team management can make a call on that.
We know that Wiggins is good on the cobbles; he has proven that. He can definitely manage the pavé. He has proven that this year and so it is a shame that he has to stay at home. If Froome gets into a problem, it’s certain that Sky will have a lot of questions to answer. The press will say, ‘well why didn’t you have Wiggins here, he could have taken that role?’
That said, if you continue on in the Tour, there was the chance that some friction could have cropped up between them on the mountain stages. So for Sky it is a real difficult position to be in. They are between a rock and a hard place on that selection decision.
What’s likely is that we could see a lot more teams attacking Sky. Last year teams learned that if they put real pressure on the team that Froome can be isolated. We saw that on stage eight when it was really aggressive from the start and Froome was left alone up front in a very big group.
The teams will be looking at that tactic. They will have studied that last year and that is what they will try to do again. It is impossible for one team to make it difficult, however; you have to have a lot of teams involved. They might also take encouragement from Froome cracking in the Dauphiné. They will say that if you really give him a hard time, he is breakable as well.
Nibali, Valverde could stir things up:
So who else will fight for yellow? People are not talking much about Nibali but I think he is going to be up there. His form might not have been as good as last year but if it comes right and if he gets good condition, then he will be very good. We have seen in the past that he is the type of rider who is aggressive, he is always prepared to attack. He’ll see any possible opportunity going downhill in wet conditions…he is definitely one who we could potentially see causing some problems.
Another rider who will stir things up will be Valverde. He is always going to be very aggressive and opportunistic. If Nibali goes on the attack, he is always there with him. He has a good eye for the racing, he reads the race well. The big question is if he can actually win the race? On past form it’s difficult to see him doing that…he always loses a bit of time somewhere in the mountains, or in the time trials. But this year he is in exceptional form.
There was a bit of debate in recent months about his Movistar team deciding to put Nairo Quintana in the Giro rather than in the Tour. He was second in his debut last year, after all. I think the team realises that if Quintana was in the Tour, that there would be a problem for Valverde. Quintana would be better than him in the climbs and probably as good as him in the time trials.
In other words, there was a recipe for the same situation we had with Sky, with Froome and Wiggins. So they decided to send Quintana to the Giro. It is working out quite well thus far because they have got their Giro win, now they have the Tour with Valverde. If he can do well, win some stages, then for Movistar it would be a great season.
Of course, in addition to Froome and Contador there is another past champion in the race. Andy Schleck won the race in 2010 after Alberto Contador lost the title due to his positive test, but hasn’t been the same since then. The team have been trying to get him back on track for a long time but it is proving difficult.
I don’t know if it is the morale, if his confidence is lost or what is the reason. But with both Andy and Frank, we hear stories about the way they train, the fact that sometimes they go fishing for five days and don’t touch the bike.
Can he get back to what he was? Well, if he is putting in the work as he should be, he needs to be doing it over many, many months. If he has been doing that and he is still not getting the form, then there is nothing he can do. Sometimes guys get a good run, then they get a bad time and they lose confidence. And some of them never get the confidence back.
Without confidence it is very hard…you need to really believe you can do it.
That brings us to the sprinters, riders who often have plenty of self-belief. If we analyse that, it is difficult to see anybody other than Kittel or Cavendish challenging on the real sprinters’ stages. One rider that could potentially surprise though is Arnaud Démare. He might just start producing those great sprints.
His team-mate Bouhanni did so well in the Giro, and I think Démare will be out to prove that he too can win big sprints in the Grand Tours as well. Maybe he might make that step and start challenging. But right now, two days before the race, it is difficult to see past Cavendish and Kittel.