Tour de France preview: Round-table (part 1)

We’re now less than 48 hours away from the start of the 2012 Tour de France. So on a lovely sunny afternoon here at VeloVoices Towers we decided to start pouring the Pimms and have a quick natter about our thoughts, hopes and predictions for the next three weeks. Continue reading

Tour de France preview: Five key stages

This year’s Tour de France covers 3,497km in the form of a prologue and 20 stages over the course of 23 days. To balance the 100-plus kilometres in time trials, the organisers have planned the mountain stages to be race-changers. In the nine mountain stages, there are 25 climbs of Cat 2 and above, 11 of which are in the Pyrenees. Even innocuous-looking stages have interesting little twists and traps laid for the tired and unwary. However, there are five key stages that we think will be particularly decisive in the tussle for the podium spots.

Stage 9: Arc-et-Senans to Besancon, 41.5km individual time trial

The first of two important individual time trials facing the riders. This stage will inform the tactics for the rest of the Tour. GC riders who do well in time trials, like Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, will be racing hard to make sure they put time into the pure climbers. If they succeed in gaining minutes on the others, they will be able to ride defensively in the mountains while the climbers will have to attack all over the place. The parcours itself starts out with some small, rolling climbs before flattening out to the finish. Nothing too technical, but this is still the race of truth – a rider finds out a lot about himself when he’s riding by himself. But I have a feeling that it won’t be the time trial specialists that will get the most out of this stage, but the riders who are decent time triallists and can climb explosively – like a Vincenzo Nibali – who will get the most benefit and go into the Pyrenees with confidence and an attacking strategy.

Stage 11: Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, 148km

Look at the length of this stage. The shorter the stage, the harder the stage and this one is going to test the mettle of the GC contenders. This is the big day in the Alps and the first high mountain finish of the Tour. If you do well here, you’re still in the clover. If you don’t do well, you could be out of contention for a podium spot. This is a stage for the specialist climbers who will love the 2,000m passes of the Col de la Madeleine (25.3km at 6.2%) and the Col de la Croix de Fer (22.4km at 6.9%). These two HC climbs are going to bust some legs for sure and sap the energy out of everyone else. For those who are hoping to make up some time on the descent of the Mollard before the final climb to the summit finish on La Toussuire (18km at 6.1%) – where Floyd Landis cracked while in the yellow jersey in 2006 – there are some tightly packed hairpins on the way down so it’ll be a delicate balance of caution and daredevilry. Climbers who attack all through the stage can put the others under real pressure and they’re going to have to take advantage of every chance they get.

Stage 16: Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon, 197km

This stage could conceivably blow the doors off the GC. The Tour organisers have taken four mighty climbs and strung them all together to force a day of reckoning. The two HC climbs of the Col d’Aubisque (16.4km at 7.1%) and the Col du Tourmalet (19km at 7.4%) are in the first half of the stage. Both are steepest near the summit and therefore give the specialist climbers two excellent opportunities to try to break other riders with some explosive attacks. If, however, that doesn’t work, the further two Cat 1 climbs in the form of Col d’Aspin (12.4km at 4.8%) and Col de Peyresourde (9.5km at 6.7%) will give more opportunities to turn the screws. A speedy descent to the finish line might seem an anti-climax but the boys are going to have to descend like bats out of hell if they’re not in front and have lost time. One thing is for sure, whoever is in the maillot jaune will have to use his team effectively to defend it from the first kilometre to the last. With another hard mountain stage to follow, how a GC rider uses his team on this stage will certainly have a bearing on the following day’s outcome.

Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, 143.5km

Short and brutal. This stage kicks off with the Cat 1 Col de Mente with a fierce 9.1% average gradient, before going over the Col des Ares (Cat 2) and Cote de Burs (Cat 3) before taking on the ascent of the HC Port de Bales (11.7km at 7.7%), the site of the infamous ‘Chain-gate’ incident of 2010. As if that isn’t enough, the final 30km of the stage is up and down with another visit to the Col de Peyresourde followed immediately by the final short climb to the summit atop Peyragudes. A lot of the main GC contenders could find themselves alone in the last half of this stage, depending on how they’ve been using their team in the past week, and it could very well be a two-man fight tooth and nail to the end of the stage. Anyone who has time to make up has to do it here. Anyone who is worried that they’ll get hammered in the final time trial has to attack here. Anyone who wants to win the Tour de France has to be at their best here. If we’re lucky, this is a stage we’ll be talking about for years to come. I think we will be.

Stage 19: Bonneval-Chartres, 53.5km individual time trial

The GC will be settled on this stage. The question will be: how much of the podium is still up in the air. If the pure climbers have a few minutes on the time triallists, it could go right down to the wire, like this year’s final stage of the Giro d’Italia, where the winner wasn’t known until 16 seconds from the end of the stage. After three weeks of racing, this time trial will be more about endurance, willpower and staying focussed than technique. And luck – because a Tour de France winner has to have luck on his side as much as training and mental hardness. It may very well all come down to this, and whoever ends the day in the maillot jaune will be wearing it on the top step of the Champs Élysées podium the following day.

For more details on every Tour de France stage, Cycling the Alps’ interactive videos of the route can be found here.

VeloVoices Tour de France previews

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Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Link: Tour de France official website

Tour de France: Teams and sponsors (part 2)

In advance of this Saturday’s start of the 2012 Tour de France, here’s the second part of VeloVoices’ overview of the 22 teams, their main protagonists and their eclectic mix of title sponsors! Only in cycling …

The final list of participants is subject to change in the last few days before the race, but these are accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing.

Liquigas-Cannondale

Sponsors: An Italian distributor of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and an American bicycle manufacturer.

Overview: The team will be riding in support of Vincenzo Nibali whose excellent early season form seems to have diminished in recent weeks, probably not helped by the rumours that he’s heading for the exit – and a big pay packet – with either BMC or Astana. The team will have been disappointed with Ivan Basso’s performance in the Giro  – he’ll be plan B in the Tour – and be hoping for better from Nibali on a parcours that seems suited to his attributes as a rider. Fortunately for Nibali, the focus has been very firmly on prolific stage winner Peter Sagan – the Velvet Samurai – with many speculating on what he may, or may not achieve. However, his preparation has been geared towards the Olympic road race and so, after toying with the other sprinters, may not finish the Tour. He’s my tip to take the prologue and first yellow jersey.

Lotto-Belisol

Sponsors: The Belgian lottery and a Belgian window and door manufacturer.

Overview: Lotto-Belisol have confirmed that their team will all be riding in support of Tour hopeful Jurgen Van den Broeck, whose hopes of a repeat fourth place ended in a crash last year. He’ll be strongly supported by an experienced team which includes Lars Bak  – looking for a stage win – and Jelle Vanendert – another one chasing the polka dot jersey. This would seem to imply that Andre Greipel will be going it alone in the sprints, which he’s more than capable of doing. Of course most fans are most looking forward to the daily Twitter exchanges between those masters of wit in 140 letters: Kiwi Greg Henderson – making his Tour debut at the age of 35 – and Aussie Adam Hansen.

Movistar

Sponsor: A Spanish mobile telecoms operator.

Overview: Alejandro Valverde will be playing the leading man at the Tour but he brings with him a strong supporting cast of similarly dimple-chinned riders, including last year’s Vuelta winner, Juan Jose Cobo, Ivan Gutierrez, Ruben Plaza and recent Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa. In addition he has his Russian heavies Vasil Kiryienka and Vladimir Karpets – surely the scariest looking rider ever – who’ll be riding tempo on the front of the peloton kilometre after kilometre. I suspect that, unlike last year, Jose Joaquin Rojas won’t be throwing his hat into the ring in the crowded points jersey competition. Team management believe that despite the time-trials, Valverde can still challenge for a podium place. We think he’d be better off going for the points jersey.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step

Sponsors: A Belgian pharmaceutical company and a Belgian laminate flooring manufacturer.

Overview: OPQS are still the team of the 2012 season and they’re coming to the Tour, for the first time in many a year, with a genuine Tour contender in Levi Leipheimer who demonstrated with his stealthy third place in the Tour de Suisse that he’s recovered from recent injuries and looking forward to jousting on a parcours that suits him. He’ll be supported by Tony Martin, again back from injury and coming into form, ahead of his tilt at the Olympic time trial title – he’ll be looking to shine in all three time trials. Bert Grabsch, a fantastic time trial performer, will be tasked with keeping the squad together on the flat stages. Levi will have further strong support from former Tour stage winner Sylvain Chavanel and Tour of Oman winner Peter Velits and his brother Martin. Not, of course, forgetting another one of Kitty’s chou chous, Dries Devenyns.

Orica-GreenEDGE

Sponsors: A conglomerate which provide chemicals and explosives for the mining industry and a wealthy Australian businessman.

Overview: The team will be hunting stage wins in its debut Tour de France with its team of nine opportunists, although Matt Goss is an obvious focus for sprint stage wins. Supporting Goss in the fast, flat finishes will be Baden Cooke, Brett Lancaster and Daryl Impey, the latter riding his first Tour. On other stages the squad will look to Simon Gerrans – the first Australian to win a stage in all three Grand Tours – Pieter Weening and Volta a Catalunya victor Michael Albasini for stage wins. Road captain will be Stuart O’Grady, who has appeared in every Tour since he made his debut in 1997. He has 13 finishes in 15 starts, two stage wins and nine days in yellow to his name. Please note, the team will be unveiling a new jersey at the start of the Tour.

Rabobank

Sponsor: A Dutch bank.

Overview: Robert Gesink will lead a team loaded with burgeoining talent. He’s addressed two of his weaknesses – descending and time trials – as witnessed in the Dauphiné – and can legitimately be regarded as a podium condender. Gesink will be supported by Bauke Mollema, third-placed in Vuelta a Pais Vasco, and another Tour debutant, Steven KruijswijkLuis Leon Sanchez will be on the hunt for another Tour stage victory. Rabobank will also look to take points in the sprints with Mark Renshaw who finally appears to have made the leap from lead-out man to full-blown number one sprinter. However, looking at the composition of the team it seems as if he’ll be fending for himself a la Greipel.

RadioShack-Nissan

Sponsors: A US electronics retailer and a Japanese automotive company.

Overview: The team with the highest average age [it would have been even higher without Tony Gallopin – Ed] RadioShack, or RadioShambles as someone called them on Twitter [Tim prefers RadioSlack – Ed], continue their abysmal season. Andy Schleck’s cracked sacrum has left elder brother and Giro abondonee Frank to assume leadership of the Tour team along with stalwarts Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner – the last-minute replacement for Andy. Meanwhile Tour rejects Jakob Fuglsang and Linus Gerdemann are actively seeking new berths for next year. Harmonious it ain’t and therefore not at all conducive to a great Tour performance. We can nonetheless expect Maxime Monfort to ride strongly in support of the leaders and Fabian Cancellara to challenge in the time trials, while Jens Voigt – another rider making his Tour swansong – will regularly put the hurt on the rest of the peloton. At the other end of the age spectrum, young Tony Gallopin makes his Tour debut. Tour veteran and team general manager, Johann Bruyneel has wisely decided to skip this year’s race and inevitable press scrum after being embroiled in a possible doping case with the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA).

Saur-Sojasun

Sponsors: Two French companies: one promoting sustainable and durable development, the other a producer of soya-based edible products.

Overview: The team’s hopes will rest once again on the slender shoulders of Jerome Coppel, 14th last year, supported by a mixture of emerging talent and experience in the hopes of securing a top ten GC classification. The time trial-heavy, summit-light parcours should play to Coppel’s strengths and so this isn’t an unreasonable expectation. Brice Feillu, himself a former Tour stage winner, will be lending a hand in the mountains as will Fabrice Jeandesboz. [Surely the rider with the least editor-friendly name in the peloton? – Ed] Team leader will be the uber-experienced Quatre Jours de Dunkerque winner Jimmy Engoulvent while emerging talent Julien Simon will most likely be animating the breakaways in the hope of snatching a stage win.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank

Sponsors: A Danish and a Russian bank.

Overview: Same old, same old for the Contador-less squad, which sits in last place in the WorldTour standings. They enter the Tour with a largely journeyman team which contains neither a recognised GC contender nor a top climber although they do have experienced stage winners with Chris Anker Sorensen, Karsten Kroon and Sergio Paulinho. Indeed, team manager Bjarne Riis has said the squad shouldn’t be underestimated, and will be chasing stage victories and aiming to make an impact on the race with their mix of experience, aggression and different competencies – good, positive spin. [I suppose it beats saying “we’re not very good and we’ll take whatever scraps we can find” – Ed.] Aussie Jonathan Cantwell will be making his Tour debut. The announcement of a new co-sponsor – Tinkoff Bank – on Monday means that there’ll be a change of jersey for the Tour.

Sky

Sponsor: A satellite television broadcaster.

Overview: Sky’s Tour focus will be on winning the maillot jaune with man of the moment Bradley Wiggins, who’s the bookie’s hot favourite to dethrone Cadel Evans after his amazing triple of Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné. He’s been looking awesome at 95%, come the Tour he’ll be at 100% and, barring a repeat of last year’s accident, will be the man to beat on a parcours which also plays to his strengths. He’ll be supported – as he was at the Dauphiné – by Chris Froome, Mick Rogers and Richie Porte. The line-up also includes world champion Mark Cavendish – with ‘minder’ Bernhard Eisel – who’ll be defending his green points jersey, but will primarily be chasing stage victories as he prepares for the Olympics. Wiggins could be in yellow after the prologue although it’s unlikely he’d worry about losing it before the week was out. Though he’ll want it back come Paris.

Vacansoleil-DCM

Sponsors: A European organiser of luxury camping holidays and a Belgian farm supply company.

Overview: The brave soldier of last year’s Tour, Johnny ‘barbed wire’ Hoogerland, has announced his intention to go for the King of the Mountains jersey. [There’s going to be one heck of a competition for this jersey – Ed.] As a consequence, we can expect Johnny to be competing with Jeremy Roy (FDJ-BigMat) for the the most kilometres covered in breakaways. Leadership duties will be assumed by the Dutch pair of Tour de Luxembourg runner-up Wout Poels and newly crowned national time trial champion Lieuwe Westra. Neither will be chasing the final podium, however, as the team’s main aim will be to complete its set of stage victories at all three Grand Tours.

Tomorrow we’ll preview the five key stages of this year’s race.

VeloVoices Tour de France previews

Are you ready?

You know you’re obsessed with Le Tour when …

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Link: Tour de France official website