Tour de France preview: Round-table (part 2)

In the first part of our pre-Tour round-table yesterday, Jack, Kitty, Panache, Sheree and I shot the breeze about this year’s race route over a glass of Pimms. After a quick refill (or three) we moved on to talk about the riders themselves, starting with the hole left by a couple of absent friends who will not be present at this year’s race for differing reasons.

Here’s the second part of our discussion.

So, no Alberto, no Andy. How much do we think their absence has weakened the field?

Panache: The GC field is much weaker because of the absence of Alberto Contador. He is the most explosive climber in the world and can time trial with the best of them. If he had been able to race this season, I believe he would be the undisputed favourite. On the other hand, because of the parcours and his poor form, I don’t think Andy Schleck would even have made the podium this year. Keep an eye out for dark horses such as Alejandro Valverde, Samuel Sanchez, and some Canadian dude named Ryder Hesjedal. They could all surprise us.

Contador will be missed – but how much? (image courtesy of Saxo Bank)

Jack: Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel the field is completely weakened. Maybe my Bertie bias is kicking in, but not only is the best climber in the world missing, but so is the close second. Having said that, it will be an interesting duel between Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins, with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Denis Menchov and Jurgen Van Den Broeck among those feeling they have a chance of taking the maillot jaune.

Tim: The field is weaker – and I agree Alberto is a far bigger miss than Andy – but’s still the strongest GC field we will see all year, though – ‘weaker’ is just a relative term. I count nine current or former Grand Tour winners in the field: Evans, Menchov, Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso, Juan Jose Cobo, Alejandro Valverde, Alexandre Vinokourov and Hesjedal – and then there’s pre-race favourite Wiggins too. Contador and Schleck will be missed, but not that much.

Kitty: I don’t think it weakens the field: it just changes the field. No one who seriously contends the Tour de France is weak and I think we’re going to see a couple of dark horses give the favourites a run for their money, perhaps even taking a couple of podium spots that in the past few years have been sewn up in people’s minds from the prologue. The Giro’s field wasn’t weak and the usual suspects weren’t riding it – it was one of the strongest races I’ve seen in ages.

Sheree: Well, I will miss seeing Alberto dancing on his pedals but I’m quite sure the Evans vs Wiggins battle will be epic, monumental even. Let’s not forget, there’s Frank Schleck with a point to prove and we’re bound to have a few surprises, as we do every year. I can’t wait – bring it on. [Sheree was hospitalised shortly after giving this answer with a severe case of Yellow Fever – Ed.]

You can’t get much better than even money on bookies’ favourite Bradley Wiggins. Are British-odds makers looking at the race through red-white-and-blue tinted spectacles?

Jack: I’m never convinced on the climbs with Wiggins. He always seems like he’s seconds away from cracking – and he usually does. However, with Contador and Schleck’s explosive style missing, it could be that he will be able to grind his way up the climbs on Evans’ wheel, and look to take the race in the time trials. Do I think he will? No. At least I hope not.

Wiggins has raced brilliantly this season, but can he do it at the Tour? We’re not convinced yet (image by Panache)

Kitty: Thank God I’m not the only one!

Panache: If there is any year for him to win, it is this year. The absence of Contador and the large quantity of time trial kilometres make this the perfect Tour for a Wiggins win. Bradley has shown that he knows the formula for winning a week-long stage race and he has been perfect this year. But can he take it to the same level for three weeks? I’m not betting on him.

Kitty: I have a vested interest in Wiggins blowing it big time, but objectively I think the question is not whether Wiggo can sustain his form, but if his teammates can. Sky controlled the races Wiggo won – but those were one-week races and in the Tour they’ll have to do that every day for three weeks. And he’ll need help in the mountains as everyone will be attacking – but how much do his teammates still have in their legs for that? He won’t win this race by himself. Evans can.

Tim: For me the critical factor is a psychological one. Can Brad take step from being a top rider to being the top rider? Can he physically win the Tour? Yes. Can he win it mentally? Maybe. Will he win it? I’m on the fence, but if I had to put a number on it I’d say he has a 35% chance.

Sheree: The odds are reasonable given what he’s achieved this year but, remember, I’m not a betting gal. I’m obviously hoping he does it as I’ll have bragging rights down at the cycling club in perpetuity plus I’ll be on hand in Paris to faithfully record Kitty’s capitulation for all our readers.

How do we rate Cadel Evans’ chances of defending his 2011 title?

Kitty: Evans has proved over the past handful of years that, if he has to, he can ride this race alone. He has unbelievable grit. He dragged the other contenders after Andy Schleck last year, all by himself. For that reason, I think he has the edge on Wiggins. Plus Evans will have the advantage of all the teams racing against Sky more than him. He’s in yellow in Paris, I say.

Can Cadel make it two in a row? We think he can (image by Panache)

Panache: I recently read Cadel’s book Close to Flying and I believe he will come to the Tour more prepared than anyone. He is cool under pressure, as demonstrated by last year’s victory. His team is solely focused on keeping him protected and well positioned. BMC must deliver a good result to justify their budget. Barring any first week crashes/injuries, I rate Evans as a six-in-ten favourite.

Tim: He hasn’t had the stellar first half of the year that he did in 2011, when he won Tirreno and Romandie, but his form is clearly on an upward trajectory and his stage win and third place at the Dauphiné showed he is there or thereabouts. The emphasis towards time trials this year favours him almost as much as it does Wiggins, and he’s been there, done it and got the (yellow) t-shirt. I still regard him as the favourite.

Sheree: It’s always easier to win a Grand Tour when you’ve already won one. So Evans has the psychological advantage. Wiggins being favourite will also play into Evans’ hands as he’ll have more pressure which ultimately wastes more of your precious energy. Evans has also got stronger support this year. It’s gonna be one hell of a fight.

Jack: For me, he is the race favourite, not least due to the strong team which will flank him. Whether Philippe Gilbert will try and concentrate on picking up stages and points for himself remains to be seen, but the likes of Steve Cummings, Amael Moinard, Tejay Van Garderen and Marcus Burghardt are all very capable climbers. I’m less than convinced that Wiggins has such strength in depth, and Evans must be licking his lips at the prospect of consecutive titles.

Andre Greipel has talked about the green jersey being a straight fight between himself, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. Which of the three is the most likely winner, and should we consider any other possible contenders?

Tim: Greipel is great on his day but remains too inconsistent for me. Cav will suffer both from not having a dedicated train and having an eye on the Olympics. I think the way he suffered on Le Manie at Milan-San Remo made him seriously refocus to sacrifice top-end speed for climbing legs. So I’m going with Sagan, who has been unstoppable in the last few weeks. He’s super-fast, super-consistent and fully capable of picking up unexpected points on mountain stages like a Thor Hushovd or an Erik Zabel. No matter what, I expect it to be a close battle. Watch out for Marcel Kittel to pick up a maiden stage on debut too.

We’re leaning towards Sagan when it comes to the points jersey (image by Panache)

Panache: This year’s battle for the green jersey is about more than just finish-line sprints. The victor will have to go out and earn the extra points, which will require getting over some of the more hilly parcours quickly. In my mind, Greipel isn’t capable of taking those points. It’s a contest between the Manx Missile and the Velvet Samurai. A thinner Cav should be able to contest for these crucial points and Sagan has shown that he is made for this. The critics always doubt Cavendish before the Tour and then he comes and slays everyone. After the Classics, California and Switzerland, no one can touch Sagan. I am looking forward to this contest even more than the GC. In the end I think Sagan will win but it will be very close.

Jack: Cavendish is the favourite, and I think in recent races it’s been proven he is beatable. But he’s still the strongest sprinter in the world at the best race in the world, and he’s who I’d put my money on.

Kitty: SuperSagan for me, although I’d love it to go right down to the wire on the Champs.

Sheree: I don’t think we should totally ignore Messrs Goss, Renshaw, Kittel or Rojas in terms of battling for the green jersey but I’m with Kitty in that I think Sagan’s going to be the guy to beat.

Tim: Renshaw’s certainly coming into form and Goss is always there or thereabouts, but I think Rojas will struggle in what looks to be the strongest sprint field for close to ten years.

Last year’s race gave us many unexpected heroes: Thomas Voeckler’s long stint in yellow, Johnny Hoogerland’s bouquet of barbed wire, the mountain heroics of Pierre Rolland and Thor Hushovd. Who else should we be watching out for over the next three weeks?

Sheree: That’s the magic of the Tour. Heroics happen, heroes emerge and it’s most often not whom we expect. I’d love someone who’s coming to the end of his career and who’s never won a major stage to win one. I want breakaways to succeed, fortune to favour the brave and I’d really love Jeremy Roy to win a stage to prove my point that ‘who dares wins’.

Panache: Keep an eye out for Tejay Van Garderen. I think he’ll be to Cadel what Rolland was to Voeckler last year. Oh, and speaking of Hoogerland, he’ll be back this year for polka dots! Go Johnny!

Can Ryder pull off the Giro/Tour double? (image by Panache)

Kitty: Ryder Hesjedal. I don’t believe that a rider can’t do the double, although I know last year it was obvious they couldn’t. [The last rider to do the Giro-Tour double was Marco Pantani in 1998 – Ed.] But Garmin must be on a serious high still and they have a great team of hard men full of cunning and guile and a directeur sportif who is an evil genius with tactics. If Cadel isn’t on the top step, I’d love it to be Hesjedal. I’d also love to see my Movistarlets set off some sparklers during the race.

Tim: I think the double is a step too far for Ryder, but he did confound me (and many others) at the Giro and I hope he does well. I’m looking forward to seeing someone unexpected taking yellow on stage eight – like Panache said yesterday, maybe Hoogerland or Sylvain Chavanel – and watching them perform above themselves to defend it in the Alps. I’m also hoping we’ll see one of the several promising younger French riders have a real break-out performance: maybe Rolland, or even FDJ’s 22-year old Thibaut Pinot. And, of course, my three riders to watch for 2012 – Cav, Sagan and Kittel – in the sprints.

Jack: After last year’s Tour, Jeremy Roy! I’m desperately hoping that he doesn’t leave this year’s race empty-handed. Winning the combativity prize in 2011 was small consolation for coming within a couple of kilometres of a maiden stage win. Other than Roy, his teammates Sandy Casar and Pierrick Fedrigo are fellow breakaway maniacs, with Basque trio Egoi Martinez, Amets Txurruka and Mikel Astarloza always good for a mad dash up a mountain!

Panache: It’s going to be brilliant. Let the racing commence!

VeloVoices Tour de France previews

Are you ready?

You know you’re obsessed with Le Tour when …

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Five key stages

Round-table (part 1)

Link: Tour de France official website

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