This is the last in my series of three Talking Tactics previewing tactical aspects of the forthcoming Tour de France. I’ve already taken a look at how the polka dot and green jerseys will be won. Today I’m going to examine the tactical options of the contenders for the most important jersey of all – the maillot jaune, or yellow jersey.
1. Sky: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough
Everyone knows what to expect from Sky, for whom plan A is the only plan. Their team of time-trialists and climbers will ride in one long train on the front on all the key mountain stages, setting a rapid and unvarying tempo to isolate Chris Froome‘s key rivals and dare them to attack.
Richie Porte will serve as Froome’s right-hand man, as Froome did for Bradley Wiggins last year, but every member of the team has a defined role to play in what will essentially amount to one team time trial after another in the high mountains, predicated on the idea that the fastest way up a climb is to avoid the constant accelerations that come with responding to attacks.
2. Movistar: The three-headed monster
Of all the top teams, Movistar have the greatest tactical flexibility in having three genuine top ten contenders: Alejandro Valverde, Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana. Valverde, the 2009 Vuelta winner, has both the most experience and the best pedigree. Costa won his second consecutive Tour de Suisse a fortnight ago. And 23-year-old Colombian Quintana announced his arrival as a major player by winning the Tour of the Basque Country, although his Tour is more likely to be a learning experience than a truly competitive one.
This potential-one-two-three punch gives Movistar an impressive array of tactical options in the mountains. They have the ability to ask serious questions of all their rivals by throwing in attacks from multiple angles. No one with an interest in a top ten finish can allow any of the trio too much leeway on the big stages.
3. Europcar, Garmin-Sharp, BMC: One-two punches
There are a number of teams who have two credible GC riders. This gives them a variety of options both day-to-day and in terms of overall race strategy. For instance, there is the classic one-two punch of sending one rider opportunistically up the road while their teammate sits in the wheels hoping to capitalise later.
Europcar will be led by Pierre Rolland (tenth and eighth at the last two Tours) and reigning King of the Mountains Thomas Voeckler. The latter is more likely to attack in search of stage wins and possibly a second polka dot jersey, which will take pressure of Rolland who will ride more steadily in search of a high GC finish.
Garmin-Sharp can boast 2012 Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal and Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Dan Martin, with the latter likely to be designated as the animator in support of his team leader. Meanwhile BMC also have two GC threats in 2011 winner and nominal leader Cadel Evans and Tour of California champion Tejay van Garderen, but the pair are more likely to ride in tandem with neither asked to sacrifice their overall ambitions until deep into the final week.
4. Saxo-Tinkoff, Katusha, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Belkin, Lotto-Belisol: Solo attackers & hangers-on
Several other teams possess plenty of talent but only one genuine GC threat. Their options are more limited in so far that sending one of their leader’s teammates up the road will not ruffle too many of their rivals’ feathers, as they will not consider them a threat in the GC.
In the case of Saxo-Tinkoff, that suits the characteristics of Alberto Contador down to the ground. The 2007 and 2009 champion will be quite happy to rely on his teammates for little more than the support he needs to get into position to launch one of his trademark attacks on the big climbs. Similarly, fellow Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez will look to Katusha teammate Daniel Moreno to provide pacing and tactical cover before looking to accelerate away on steeper ramps. Jurgen Van Den Broeck, twice a fourth-place finisher, will probably have to fend for himself on the toughest climbs, as his Lotto-Belisol team has split its resources between him and sprinter Andre Greipel.
Others may be more aggressive, pursuing stage wins or perhaps the mountains classification. Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Anton is one who might target polka dots over yellow. And there are equally talented riders who will look to build consistency and confidence by sitting comfortably in the group rather than over-extend themselves, at least initially. Belkin (formerly Blanco)’s Bauke Mollema is a prime example of a rider whose objective is likely to be to finish as high as he can without risking everything on one bold move.
5. Movistar, Katusha, Saxo-Tinkoff, Euskaltel-Euskadi: The Spanish armada
It’s also possible we may see a degree of Spanish nationalism at play, with the teams of the Three Amigos who dominated last year’s Vuelta – Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez – combining their firepower to counter Sky’s strength in depth. Imagine the all-too-possible scenario where the lead group is down to Froome, Porte, Evans, Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde. Now picture Valverde, Rodriguez and Contador attacking in turn.
If anything is going to crack Froome and Sky, it would be a concerted, relentless attack like this. Whether the three Spaniards – and Euskaltel-Euskadi could also play a role here – would actually co-operate to defeat a common foe is another matter.
6. Our man in the break
One final common tactic is to put a relatively lowly teammate in the break. This has a three-fold benefit for a team. Firstly, it excuses their teammates from contributing to the chase. Secondly, it means there is a man up ahead waiting to provide his team leader with a useful tow at a potentially critical moment in the race. Finally, there is always the chance that the break might survive to battle it out for the stage win.
Any team can pursue this tactic, but arguably the best equipped to do so is Movistar. In addition to their three GC contenders, Andrey Amador, Imanol Erviti and Ivan Gutierrez are all strong riders and previous grand tour stage winners themselves. Don’t be surprised to see one of them go up the road in breaks on the big mountain stages, setting up even more attacking options for their team.
The 100th Tour has both a more testing parcours and a stronger field than the 2012 edition, which means we are unlikely to see another straightforward procession dominated by a single outstanding team. The other GC contenders offer a spectrum of attacking options, depending on how many genuine challengers they have, their overall strength in depth, individual and team objectives and a variety of other factors such as the King of the Mountains standings, which will bring other interested parties into an already complex equation.
Whatever happens, it’s likely that the winner of the 100th Tour will not only be the strongest overall rider, but will also need to negotiate the ever-changing tactical landscape which will be shaped as much by their teams as by themselves.