The 101st Tour de France, with its summit-heavy third week and only one individual time trial, has been designed to favour the climbers. So who’ll be in the frame for the maillot jaune and the other jerseys, en route to Paris?
The main men
There will be seven grand tour winners (Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Chris Horner, Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Andy Schleck and Alejandro Valverde) taking the start line in Leeds but not all of them will feature here.
We start with bookies’ favourite and defending champion, Chris Froome (Sky) whose 2014 season, despite victories in the Tours of Oman and Romandie, hasn’t been plain sailing like last year. Can his rivals put enough time into him ahead of the penultimate stage time trial or will he lose his way on the cobbles early on?
One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be more competitive than last year largely thanks to an in-form Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). His move to the quieter undulating terrain of Lugano (Switzerland), more altitude training and assistance from former Skymates could prove decisive. He’ll be relishing taking on Froome and his all-conquering men in black and trying to go one better.
Rounding out the podium (again) could be 2013 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who’s attempting to ape Contador and add a Tour de France victory to complete his set of grand tour victories. He sounded a warning when he took his first win of the season to become Italian national road race champion last weekend. Could the Shark have refound his bite just in time?
One rider on red-hot form this season has been Alejandro Valverde. His best-placed Tour finish (sixth) was back in 2007 and, though he generally falls short in the time trials, guess who’s just become his country’s TT champion? With Giro winner Nairo Quintana snapping at his heels for team leadership, Valverde’s pretty much in the last chance saloon and we don’t expect him to waste the opportunity. His team is also quite adept, as we saw in the Giro d’Italia, at aping Sky’s tactics. Of course, given his ability to sprint he might have one eye on the maillot jaune in the opening stages.
On the next rung of the ladder, we’ve two young American gunslingers. Andrew Talansky’s (Garmin-Sharp) recent spectacular win in the Criterium du Dauphine has given him confidence and certainly put him in the frame. Anyone nicknamed ‘The Bulldog’ has to view a British start as a favourable omen.
Then there’s fellow countryman and 2012 best young rider Tejay van Garderen (BMC). His great early season form took a dive due to a hip injury but he’s now recovered and we expect him to have all guns blazing come the third week.
From the low countries Bauke Mollema (Belkin), sixth last year, will be keen to grab a stage win and a top ten place in a bid to secure sponsorship for his team (or a new berth for himself).
Two-time fourth placed Tour finisher Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), climbed his way into second place at the Dauphine, suggesting he too is getting back to his best. However his team will be focussed on helping sprinter Andre Greipel battle it out with the other top fast boys which could hamper his ambitions.
With so many strong contenders for the general classification, there aren’t many top ten places left! But both the king of the mountains and best young rider may be lurking in the following selection.
Recent triple Tour de Suisse title-holder Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) won two stages last year as a Movistarlet and will surely achieve more for his own account.
How will ASO might handle the jersey dilemma should he figure in the mountains’ competition, after Pierre Rolland’s (Europcar) pox-fest last year? Of course, after his excellent showing at the Giro (fourth overall), we shouldn’t overlook Rolland’s credentials to finish either in the top ten or the polka dot jersey.
Speaking of the French, we feel their best hopes lie with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), tenth in 2012, and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), 15th in 2013. FDJ seem to have thrown their support behind sprinter Arnaud Demare, while Bardet has been strong from the start of the season, though he doesn’t fare as well as Pinot in the time trials. Mind you, one of them might just carry off the best young rider classification.
Other riders to keep an eye on include Tour stars of the future such as Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Or what about wild-cards Mathias Frank (IAM), Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura) and maybe even Frank Schleck (Trek)? We’re expecting a recovering Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) to target stage wins and possibly even the mountains jersey.
The fast men
The speedsters are set for a bit of a bonanza with potentially nine sprint-friendly stages and unsurprisingly we have a star-studded selection on the starting line. Last year Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) won four sprints, including the final one on the Champs Elysees, and easily sported the best hairstyle. Deposed fast man Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has reinforced his lead-out train. So the scene is set for a Cavendish vs Kittel vs Greipel battle. May the best lead-out train prevail.
However, it’s the most consistently placed sprinter who takes home the green jersey. For the past two editions that’s been Cannondale’s Peter Sagan and no one’s betting on him not making it three in a row. Though Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE), a Giro stage winner who is equally adept at getting over the hills, might give him a run for his money.
EDIT: Matthews will not start after sustaining an injury in training.
It’s likely that one or more of these boys will start off gracing the maillot jaune. It’s a huge incentive and, as usual, the early stages are bound to be nervous with everyone wanting to be to the fore on those narrow Yorkshire roads. Take care!
The surprise packages
One of the great things about cycling is its unpredictability. Unfancied, unheralded and overlooked riders will emerge from the pack to delight and surprise us all. Riders seeking new contracts will be trying to catch eyes and those bringing the curtain down on their illustrious careers at the end of the season will want to go down fighting. It’s going to be a close (we hope), absorbing fight to the death. Bring it on!