By David de Winter – Sports Writer
Saturday sees the start of the 101st edition of the world’s most famous bicycle race, the eponymous Tour de France. And where does this three week lycra-clad epic begin? Paris? Non. Some chic, picturesque village in the south of France? Absolutement non. The Alps or Pyrenees? Of course not. Yorkshire? Mais oui. Quite why the organisers of a French race have decided to hold ‘le grand départ’ in England is beyond me but such is the popularity of the sport over here it would seem to be a no-brainer. It says a lot about the state of the nation when watching a couple of hundred skinny blokes dressed in skin-tight clothing ride around for 6 hours is a favourite pastime. If, like me, that sort of thing floats your boat then here are the movers and shakers who will gunning for glory on the Champs-Elysées in three weeks’ time.
Defending champion Chris Froome is an obvious favourite for this year’s prize. Weighing in at slightly less than a postage stamp, the Kenyan-born 29 year-old is a prodigious climber and crucially, can negotiate his way round a time trial with aplomb. Two victories this term at the Tour of Oman and the Tour de Romandie show that Froome has not lost any of his form in the saddle. He featured prominently in the Critérium du Dauphiné before a crash on Stage six halted his progress. His rivalry with Bradley Wiggins has generated plenty of column inches in the newspapers but now that Wiggins is not riding this year, he is free to concentrate all his energies on successfully defending his title. With the backing of Team Sky, expect Froome to be featuring up near the top of the peleton once again.
If Froome isn’t jumping for joy on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysées, then convicted drugs cheat and all-round bad egg Alberto Contador will certainly be a contender. Fourth last year, Contador has the perfect physique to tackle the Tour. His results have been impressive this season: victories at the Tirenno-Adriatico and Tour of the Basque Country have been backed up with 2nd places at the Critérium, Volta ao Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya. A particularly deceitful customer, I will not be shedding any tears if Contador doesn’t end up on the podium this year.
The rider who won the Critérium du Dauphiné must always be considered a contender for the Tour. The previous two winners of the Critérium (Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome) have gone on to grace the top step of the podium of the Tour a month later. The man charged with keeping that record alive is American Andrew Talansky. At 25 he still has his best years ahead of him but he still has an impressive CV: top 10 finishes in both the Vuelta a Espana and last year’s Tour de France. Alongside his Critérium victory he has also two 2nd place finishes at both the Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie. Victory over both Contador and Froome at the Critérium will fill Talansky with confidence for a strong assault at Le Tour.
Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali has had a quiet year so far by his high standards. A prodigious climber, Nibali forwent defending his Giro d’Italia title, instead putting all his eggs in the Tour de France basket. He had a stellar 2013 with the aforementioned Giro and Tirenno-Adriatico titles as well as a 2nd place at the year’s final grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana. Top 10 finishes in both the Critérium and Tour de Romandie this term show that he is in pretty good shape. A dark horse and could be very dangerous.
The business end of this year’s Tour de France will undoubtedly be contested by climbers.
I can’t see a time-trialist like Fabian Cancellara or Tony Martin mounting a serious challenge. Team Movistar’s Portuguese starlet Rui Costa could feature strongly. He has had an exceptional season so far, winning the Tour de Suisse as well as podium finishes in the Paris-Nice, the Volta ao Algarve and the Tour de Romandie. BMC Racing’s prodigy Tejay Van Garderen will be looking to erase the memory of his 2013 Tour by recapturing the sort of form that saw him finish fifth in the 2012 edition.
Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, third in the Criterium, already has two 4th place finishes in the Tour to his name and is always a danger. Another drug-cheat Spaniard, Alejandro Valverde, although 34, has had a strong season so far (won La Flèche Wallone and Vuelta a Andalucia, 2nd Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and will be prominent in the mountain stages. With three top-10 finishes to his name already at Le Tour he will certainly be in the mix at the business end of the race. Pierre Rolland and Thibaut Pinot will lead the host nation’s challenge for the maillot jaune although I don’t expect either of them to seriously feature in the General Classification.
So what about the sprinters? The Isle of Man’s favourite son Mark Cavendish will be desperate to regain the green jersey he won in 2011. A key man for Cavendish will be his lead-out man, Mark Renshaw who helped him to the points title in 2011. With grizzled Australian Renshaw directing operations, Cavendish will fancy his chances.
Trying to stop the Manx missile will be Slovakian sprint sensation Peter Sagan. Winner of the green jersey for the past two Tours, Sagan is most certainly the man to beat given that his team, Cannondale, won’t be in the running for the GC. He has already won the Points Classifications for the Tirenno-Adriatico, the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse so Cavendish will have to be at the top of his game to stop Sagan from taking a third straight green jersey.
The other sprinters bidding for the maillot vert are German duo Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel. Kittel won four stages at last year’s Tour and with victory in the points classification of the Tour of Dubai this season, he is certainly no slouch in the saddle and could really give Cavendish and Sagan a run for their money. Andre Greipel will also be hoping to mix it up with the big boys in the sprints. With five stage wins in Le Tour, he certainly knows how to get to the white line first. A points victory at the Tour of Oman early in the season shows that at 31, he can still give the youngsters a run for their money.
It’s a shame that Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana is not racing at Le Tour this year. In his début Tour last year he came 2nd to Froome and since then has arguably improved. His climbing ability is second to none, winning the polka-dot jersey (King of the Mountains) in the 2013 edition. Other notable absentees will be Rigoberto Uran and Joaquim Rodriguez, both excellent climbers in their own rights. Nevertheless whoever is mad enough to even attempt this marathon race is a braver man than I. The rider who crosses the line on the Champs-Elysées wearing the yellow jersey will have undoubtedly earned it. Let’s just salute the 198 riders crazy enough to ride 200km every day for the next three weeks. I’ll stick to watching them from the comfort of my sofa.