Your guide to the Tour de France – the contenders and the pretenders
In the past, the Tour de France often started out with a whole week dedicated to the sprinters. Those days are gone. In modern day cycling, there are no easy days in the Grand Tours. Every day serves as an opportunity to shake the general classification.
The opening time trial will give us the first indication of the current form of the favourites. On paper, stage 2 should end in a bunch sprint but it could easily turn into crosswind mayhem. Stage 3 and 4 are mini editions of the Spring Classics Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix. The cobblestones will especially have a big impact on the GC. Be sure to watch the pavé show next Tuesday.
Stages 5-8 include two days for the sprinters and two days for the puncheurs with the uphill finishes in Le Havre and on Mur de Bretagne. The next big day for the GC riders is on the ninth day of racing. None of the favourites can afford any bad luck in the undulating 28km long team time trial.
After a well-deserved rest day, the first of six mountain top finishes comes on stage 10 where the riders take on the 15.3km HC climb, La Pierre-Saint-Martin. The following two days in the Pyrenees include well-known climbs like Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet (both on stage 11) and Plateau de Beille (stage 12).
Stage 13 serves as an excellent day for a break to make it all the way. Numerous small ascents in the last 90km will make it very hard for the sprinters to stay in contention. In fact, the sprinters may not get another chance to fight for glory until the race reaches Paris on the last day.
The final week is very mountainous. Stages 17, 19 and 20 all finish uphill after overcoming many hard climbs. Alpe d’Huez awaits the riders as the last struggle of the race. This penultimate stage of the Tour is only 110km long but there is barely one metre of flat terrain. It’s the last chance for the favourites to move up in the GC. We can expect a great show this Saturday afternoon.
As you can see, this year’s Tour de France favours those who excel uphill. With only one short individual time trial and a hilly team time trial, the pure climbers couldn’t ask for a better course. The sprinters don’t have many stages to aim for so they have to make sure it ends in a bunch sprint on the few days they have a chance.
This means we should see a fair amount of cooperation amongst the sprinter’s teams. They simply can’t afford to miss out a single day. In the Giro d’Italia, we saw drama on every stage. Don’t be surprised if the same thing happens in the Tour.
Remember, bonus seconds are back on the menu in the Tour de France this year. Ten, six and four seconds will be awarded to the first three riders to cross the finishing line on all the regular road stages.
Everybody is talking about “The Fantastic Four” of Froome, Quintana, Contador and Nibali. Combined they have won seven of the last eight Grand Tours. It will be a huge surprise not to see one of these four riders win the 2015 Tour de France. It will be very close however. As we’ve seen many times before, avoiding bad luck will be just as important as doing well on the climbs.
Nairo Quintana has changed his race program compared to 2013, when he finished 2nd overall in the Tour. Instead of not racing since the end of April, Quintana decided to do both the Tour de Romandie and Route de Sud before taking on the Tour this year. According to the Colombian, he’s in better shape than two years ago. The route suits him perfectly and personally, I’m confident he will be on the final podium in Paris.
To help set-up Quintana for the win, Movistar sends a very good team for the TTT. The Spanish squad is amongst the top favorites to win Stage 9. As a tiny climber from Colombia, you may not think Quintana stands a chance on the cobblestones on stage 4. However, don’t forget that he did surprisingly well in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke this spring. Quintana proved the pave doesn’t scare him and even though he doesn’t have a strong team for this particular stage, I don’t think he’ll lose much – if any – time to his rivals.
With three mountain-top finishes in the last five days of racing, Quintana will have plenty of uphill terrain to attack and gun for the yellow jersey. In 2013, he was the best climber in the last week of the race. If this is the case again this year, Quintana will be extremely difficult to beat.
In Alejandro Valverde, he has one of the strongest domestiques on the climbs. That is of course, if the newly crowned Spanish champion wants to play ball. Valverde is a winner. If he sees an opportunity to take over the leadership of the team, he won’t hesitate to seize it.
To me, Chris Froome has, without a doubt, the strongest team in the race. No matter the terrain, Team Sky should have at least two or three riders next to Froome. They should also be able to fight for the win in the TTT.
It would have been better for Froome had there been a long individual time trial. He might be able to put in 15-30 seconds on his rivals on day one but it won’t be of much importance when the peloton reaches the high mountains.
Luckily for the Kenyan-born Brit, he’s also amongst the best climbers in the race. In the Dauphiné, he proved to be in excellent form. With riders like Richie Porte, Leo König and Wout Poels to support him on the climbs, Froome too will be very difficult to beat.
Last year, he crashed out of the Tour on the cobbled stage 5. Many people point to the pave as the biggest hurdle for Froome this year. However, in Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, he couldn’t ask for better guidance on the difficult sections. If he can avoid any bad luck, I think Froome will prove to do much better on the pave than most people tend to think. Then, it’s up to himself to show that he’s strong enough uphill to conquer the race.
After winning the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, Alberto Contador now has a unique chance of becoming the first rider since Marco Pantani to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year. Completing ‘The Double’ has been Contador’s sole focus this year. It will be more than difficult for Contador to pull this off, though.
The Giro was extremely hard and even though he didn’t have any major problems winning the race overall, he wasn’t the best rider when the road went uphill. It might have been that he held back a little, thinking of the Tour, or maybe it was his crash or his allergy problems. In any case, he didn’t send the message that he will be able to drop Quintana and Froome on the climbs in the Tour.
Furthermore, Contador’s team proved to be very weak in the Italian mountains. Rafal Majka will be an important piece of the puzzle for Contador but if Roman Kreuziger, Ivan Basso and Michael Rogers don’t step up their game, Contador won’t be able to count on much support on the climbs.
Personally, I doubt Contador will win this Tour de France. However, I have no doubts that he will do whatever he can to complete his mission and win The Double. It’s also crucial to remember that, compared to his rivals, Contador has nothing to lose. He has already won all the Grand Tours multiple times. Only The Double counts.
It doesn’t really matter if he finishes second or 12th overall in this Tour. Therefore, in case Contador is still behind when they reach stage 20, we could easily see him throw a Hail Mary and attack early, on the Col de la Croix de Fer. One thing is for sure, Contador doesn’t give up until the race is over.
Vincenzo Nibali arrives at the Tour with a very similar season behind him as he did last year. Despite his coach Paolo Slongo saying that Nibali would take his first win this year much earlier than he did in 2013, he didn’t cross the line first until last Saturday when he won the Italian championship – just like last year.
Nibali has used every opportunity to stress that he doesn’t feel pressure to repeat his overall win from last year. He already has a Tour de France win under his belt. Now, he can ride without any stress. However, I’m confident that the proud Sicilian is very eager to prove that he didn’t just win last year’s edition because Contador and Froome crashed out of the race.
According to Nibali, his tests from training show that he’s at the same level he was at when starting the Tour last year. It will be very interesting to see if he really is strong enough to follow the other three favorites on the climbs.
Astana brings a very good team for the TTT and in Michele Scarponi and Jakob Fuglsang, Nibali can count on excellent support in the mountains. Fuglsang may even prove to be strong enough to make a great result overall himself.
Nibali also has great support on the cobblestones with last year’s stage winner Lars Boom on the team. In fact, Astana has number 1, 2, 3 and 8 from last year’s pave stage on the team this year. Naturally, they will try to pull off a similar performance as they did in 2014, distancing their rivals by more than two minutes.
On my list of candidates for this year’s Tour de France, we’ll find Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez and Tejay van Garderen a level just below The Fantastic Four.
Purito finished thid overall in the Tour two years ago. Now, the Spaniard hopes to climb the podium once again. He knows he won’t get a course as suitable for his characteristics as he has this year ever again. Even though he will lose time on stage 1 and 9, it won’t be three or four minutes like if there had been a long individual time trial.
With six mountain-top finishes on the menu, it’s no wonder that Purito has put all his energy into the Tour de France this year. However, compared to the four top favourites, he doesn’t have a team completely designed to back him up.
In Alexander Kristoff, Katusha also aims to do well in the sprints and in the points classification. This has left Purito with only three climbers on the team to support him in the mountains. Most notable is the fact that his right-hand lieutenant, Dani Moreno, hasn’t been selected. Instead, it’s up to Tiago Machado to escort his captain on the climbs.
In 2013, Purito was flying in the last week. His plan is to replicate that performance this year. If he survives the first nine stages without losing too much time, anything is possible in the last part of the race.
Van Garderen proved to be in great condition in the Dauphiné where he finished second overall to Chris Froome after losing the yellow jersey on the last day of racing. In Volta a Catalunya earlier this year, the American beat all the top favourites on the queen stage. It seems that he has taken a step up the ladder this season.
A long individual time trial would have boosted his chances of reaching the overall podium in the Tour but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway. BMC is the pre-stage favorite to win the TTT, which may put van Garderen in the yellow jersey after stage 9.
He doesn’t have any top climbers to support him in the mountains but in Rohan Dennis, Samuel Sanchez and Damiano Caruso (eighth overall in the Giro), he won’t be isolated quickly either. For the cobblestones, van Garderen can count on Greg Van Avermaet and Daniel Oss to help him not lose time. It won’t be easy to make the top three, but it won’t be a big surprise if he ends on the podium in Paris either.
Last year, the French riders had a fantastic race with two spots on the final podium. This year however, I think it will be difficult to put a rider in top five overall. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet are both arriving at the Tour in great condition. Pinot won the difficult mountain-top finish in Tour de Suisse, while Bardet put on a fantastic performance when he won the stage to Pra Loup in Dauphiné (the same stage the riders will do on stage 17 of the Tour).
However, even though both French climbers are close to peak condition, I don’t see any of them as strong uphill — and as consistent — as the six riders already mentioned. I think a stage win and top-10 place is the best they can do this year.
Other French riders with a chance of a good result include KOM contender Pierre Rolland, Tour debutant Warren Barguil and last year’s number two Jean-Christophe Peraud who doesn’s look nearly as strong as he did last year, though.
For other strong top-10 contenders, look to Bauke Mollema, Wilco Kelderman, Andrew Talansky, Rui Costa, Matthias Frank, Robert Gesink and some of the pre-race designated domestiques like Alejandro Valverde, Richie Porte, Rafal Majka, Tiago Machado and Jakob Fuglsang.
Personally, I’m very much looking forward to following Louis Meintjes in the Tour. The young South African is an extremely talented climber. He has proved his huge potential numerous times within the last couple of years but never on a scene as big as this one.
Don’t expect him to target the general classification in this first Tour de France. For Meintjes, it’s all about experience. Hopefully he can go for a stage win in the second part of the race. In Dauphiné, he proved to be amongst the best climbers on the days he targeted. If he makes it into the right breakaway in the mountains, it would be a big mistake to understate Meintjes.
Another interesting joker in the mountains is Julian Arredondo. He’s my personal outsider to win the KOM jersey. The little Colombian climber is very similar to his idol, Purito Rodriguez.
There are a couple of punchy stages well-suited for Arredondo within the first eight days of racing. Primarily, he hopes to win one of these stages. Then, he will look to the high mountains, aiming to take the polka dot jersey, which has a special meaning for any Colombian cyclist.
Arredondo won the KOM jersey in Giro d’Italia last year. The Tour de France is his big target in 2015. I expect him to do great things in this race.
One of the most dominant riders in the bunch sprints within the last couple of years, Marcel Kittel, won’t take part in this year’s Tour de France. This means that the level is very equal amongst the remaining sprinters.
On paper, Mark Cavendish is the prime pick for the sprints but he’s not far ahead of big power sprinters like Alexander Kristoff and Andre Greipel. Before his crash at the French national championship, Nacer Bouhanni would have been my favourite for the bunch sprints. Cofidis has built a strong team around Bouhanni who, after a difficult start to the season, seemed to be winning as he pleased before the crash.
France also has Arnaud Démare and in-form Bryan Coquard for the sprints. Both are capable of giving the top favourites a race for the money. So are riders like Sam Bennett, Davide Cimolai and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Without Kittel, Giant-Alpecin now relies on John Degenkolb for the sprints. The versatile German is also one of the top candidates for the green jersey together with Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews. However, Orica-GreenEdge doesn’t seem interested in targeting the green jersey.
With Simon Gerrans on the team, they have two riders for the undulating stages, which means Matthews won’t be their go-to guy every time. This will most likely ruin his chances of winning the jersey despite a very suitable course for the young Australian.