Tour de France preview: The key contenders

We’re now less than one day away from the start of the 2012 Tour de France, and if the bookies are to be believed this year’s race is a battle between just two men – Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s defending champion Cadel Evans – with 196 other riders merely background characters.

In truth that is unfair on a field of undoubted quality. Although shorn of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, the peloton contains nine Grand Tour winners: Evans, Denis Menchov, Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso, Juan Jose Cobo, Alejandro Valverde, Alexandre Vinokourov and Ryder Hesjedal. And then there are at least half a dozen others who could conceivably consider at least a podium finish to be a reasonable target.

This could make it one of the most open and unpredictable Tours in recent memory, on a parcours designed to allow the advantage to swing between the pure climbers and the all-rounders. But who are the genuine contenders, and who are likely to be exposed as mere pretenders?

The big favourites

Evans will undoubtedly put up a fierce defence of his title (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Let’s start with the overwhelming favourites in most people’s eyes: BMC’s defending champion Cadel Evans and Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins.

Evans finds himself cast in the role of underdog, second favourite at 9/4. He hasn’t enjoyed the stellar results he did in the run-up to last year’s Tour, but a swashbuckling win and third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné signalled he is building towards a peak at the right time.

An excellent time-triallist who has also become a top-notch climber in his own right, he proved twice on the Galibier last year that he can lead a chase single-handed, and he has the psychological advantage of knowing he can win the Tour, rather than just thinking he can. Evans is also one of the toughest battlers in the peloton, and having worked so hard for so long to gain the crown, he will not relinquish it easily.

How will Wiggins cope with being the favourite? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, it is Wiggins who is the overall favourite at positively stingy odds of 5/4, built on the back of overall victories at Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and the Dauphiné. With both Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin feeling their way back to fitness and form, the Briton has been the outstanding time trial exponent so far this season.

He could easily gain five minutes or more on the climbers across the two long time trials, and with his climbing ability continuing to improve he will be tough to distance even on the big summits, where he need only stay in touch. His only discernible weaknesses are a lack of explosiveness on the steepest climbs and the fact he has not yet won a three-week race.

Ultimately it may well be the battle that goes on inside Wiggins’ head which determines whether he emerges triumphant or cowed come Paris, and it is here where Evans may have a decisive edge.

Each-way bets

Can Menchov spearhead a successful Russian attack? (image courtesy of Katusha)

With Contador (suspended) and Schleck Junior (injured) both absent, there’s a big void between the two favourites and the next tier of contenders in terms of odds. Each of the following is a potential winner in the right circumstances, but also offers an attractive each-way option for a finish on the podium. Aside from Evans, two of the other eight former Grand Tour winners in the field stand out above the others.

It has been three years since Denis Menchov (18/1) won the Giro, the most recent of his three Grand Tour titles (he also won the Vuelta in 2005 and 2007). The 34-year old Russian, now with Katusha, is a strong all-rounder with a history of being accident-prone. He has barely raced all season, placing well on occasion at the Vuelta a Andalucia and the Volta a Catalunya. More relevantly, he won his national time trial championship last week.

Can Nibali add a Tour title to the 2010 Vuelta? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali (20/1) has not placed lower than seventh in any of his last five Grand Tours, including his 2010 Vuelta victory. His spring form was outstanding, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing third and second at the one-day Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège respectively, but he has been quieter since, culminating in an anonymous ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

The Italian is a good time-triallist and an excellent climber who can also attack with devastating effect on the descents. He’ll be ably supported by a strong team which includes fellow Grand Tour winner Ivan Basso, although their resources may become diluted if the prolific Peter Sagan emerges as a green jersey contender.

Behind these two come a gaggle of five riders, all of whom have shown the capability to deliver at least a podium finish. Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen van den Broeck (20/1) was fourth at the 2010 Tour. The Belgian is a so-so time-triallist whose accelerations could put rivals into trouble on the steeper climbs, but his odds don’t look particularly generous despite his encouraging fifth-place finish at the Dauphiné.

Rabobank’s Robert Gesink (26 years old) and Sky’s Chris Froome (27) are the strongest representatives of the next generation of cycling stars. Both 25/1, Gesink was fifth behind van den Broeck in 2010 and climbed to victory in the Tour of California last month after an impressive solo attack. Froome was second at last year’s Vuelta, just 13 seconds off top spot, and finished fourth in helping Wiggins to victory at the Dauphiné. Gesink’s a decent shout as a dark horse, while Froome – who is also one of the best time trial riders in the peloton – is a real long shot, as he will only come into play should Wiggins falter.

Can Frank finally emerge from Andy’s shadow? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Finally we have two hugely experienced veterans. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) can be found at 25/1 and 33/1 respectively. The Spaniard, the reigning Olympic road race champion, has three Grand Tour podiums to his name including third at the 2010 Tour. He was also King of the Mountains last year and this season can boast overall victory at his ‘home race’, Vuelta al Pais Vasco.

Frank has too often ridden in the shadow of his brother Andy, but with the 2010 champion out he will have the freedom to target an improvement on last year’s third-place finish. Sanchez is the better all-rounder, Schleck arguably more consistent. Either or both could easily finish on the podium, although Frank will have to show better ability in the TTs than he ever has before.

The outsiders

There are a number of prominent riders on offer at apparently attractive odds, who are in reality only for the brave of heart or the full of wallet.

One last hurrah for Vino? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Of the other five previous Grand Tour winners, current Vuelta champion Juan Jose Cobo (200/1) will be riding primarily in the service of Movistar leader Alejandro Valverde (40/1), who enjoyed early season successes on his return from a doping ban but in reality is more of a prospect for stage wins than the overall. Lampre-ISD’s Michele Scarponi (250/1) was declared the winner of the 2011 Giro after Contador was banned and finished fourth there in May, but is a notoriously weak time-triallist. Two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso (150/1) will ride in support of Nibali, while Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) will target a breakaway victory in his farewell Tour.

Newly crowned Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) is 50/1 to complete a Giro/Tour double which has not been completed since Marco Pantani in 1998. Don’t waste your money. He may go well but it will be a surprise if he finishes anywhere near the podium.

Pierre Rolland (image courtesy of Europcar)

Rolland will seek to build on his Alpe d’Huez success (image courtesy of Europcar)

Also featuring in the betting are Alpe d’Huez stage winner Pierre Rolland of Europcar (50/1), Astana’s Janez Brajkovic (66/1), and Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema (125/1). Each is a talented young rider, but even at these odds they should be considered highly speculative.

The same goes for veteran riders Andreas Kloden (66/1) and Chris Horner (150/1)  – both RadioShack and riding to support Schleck – and their former teammate Levi Leipheimer (now Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 80/1). The latter has the capability to deliver a big performance – but people have been saying that for years without joy.

Long-time 2011 yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) is 150/1, reflecting both the exceptional nature of last year’s performance and the knee injury which nearly ruled him out of this race. He will doubtlessly animate the race at some point, but it will take a remarkable performance to do more than that.

The sprinters

Despite this being his Tour debut, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) is the odds-on favourite for the green jersey at 10/11, off the back of five stage wins at the Tour of California and four at the Tour de Suisse. Sagan is fast, powerful and versatile: he can win flat-out sprints, short time trials (he’s a decent bet to take the first maillot jaune in tomorrow’s prologue) and has the strength to get over medium mountains and take vital intermediate points in the manner of a Hushovd or Zabel.

Cavendish will face stiff opposition as he looks ahead to the Olympics (image by Panache)

World champion and reigning green jersey Mark Cavendish has drifted out to 10/3 in recent days, off the back of admissions that his focus this July is Olympic gold rather than green – which has cost him some top-end speed – and that Sky’s primary focus is to put Wiggins in yellow. Mind you, Cav always sandbags at this time of year, but while he will still be involved at the sharp end he won’t dominate the sprints the way he has over the past four editions, where he has averaged five victories per year.

Three of Cavendish’s former teammates are also likely to feature heavily in the points competition. Orica-GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss (9/1) is more in the Sagan mould and claimed a maiden Giro stage win last month, but has not yet hit the form which catapulted him to victory at Milan-San Remo in 2011. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol, 12/1) was unbeatable early in the season and recently added a brace of victories at the Tour de Luxembourg and another at the Ster ZLM Toer to take his 2012 total to 14 wins. And finally Mark Renshaw (50/1) has recently shown signs of completing the transition from lead-out man to featured sprinter, winning at the Tour of Turkey and being there or thereabouts in bunch sprints elsewhere. However, he will lack support from a mountains-focussed Rabobank whose top priority is Robert Gesink.

Beyond the above, it’s hard to see anyone else seriously challenging regularly enough basis to take the green jersey. J J Rojas (Movistar, 14/1) will consistently pick up placings but lacks out-and-out pace. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano, 20/1) is blsiteringly fast on the flat – I’d tip him to win a stage early on – but lacks experience of a three-week race. Veterans Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD, 25/1) and Oscar Freire (Katusha, 50/1) are getting long in the tooth, while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp, 33/1), like Rojas, will struggle to live with the top-end speed of Sagan, Cavendish and company.

The climbers

The mountains competition is difficult to predict, primarily because it is often won by a rider who is not a threat in the general classification, while the top contenders are content to watch each other.

The performance of Voeckler will have a major impact on Rolland’s KoM hopes (image by Panache)

Favourite Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, 13/2), David Moncoutie (Cofidis, 8/1) – a four-time winner of the mountains classification at the Vuelta – and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM, 8/1) have relatively short odds with good reason. All able climbers, they are likely to be given the freedom by both the peloton and their teams to attack in the mountains.

Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol, 16/1) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar, 20/1), both mountain stage winners last year, may be constrained by team orders if they are asked to support leaders Jurgen van den Broeck (25/1) and Thomas Voeckler (50/1). Similarly Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp, 14/1) may be allowed off the leash, but only if Garmin do not choose to support Hesjedal (50/1) 100%.

The positioning of this year’s major climbs may count against reigning KoM Sanchez (image by Panache)

A number of GC leaders also feature prominently in the betting, notably defending mountains king Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi, 8/1), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD, 10/1), Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan, 14/1) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank, 25/1). However, unlike last year where key summit finishes brought the GC leaders into play, this year there are just two summit finishes, neither of them hors catégorie, with most of the HC climbs featuring early on in stages. I suspect this will favour the breakaway artists in terms of racking up mountains points.

This year the mountains classification will be shaped by two stages – 11 and 16 – and decided on stage 17. These three days offer a maximum of 65, 60 and 57 points respectively towards the polka dot jersey, as follows:

  • Stage 11: Albertville to La Toussuire – HC, HC, cat 2, cat 1 summit finish (for which double points are awarded). 20 + 20 + 5 + 20 = 65 points available.
  • Stage 16: Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon – HC, HC, cat 1, cat 1. 20 + 20 + 10 + 10 = 60 points.
  • Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes – cat 1, cat 2, cat 3, HC, cat 1 summit finish. 10 + 5 + 2 + 20 + 20 = 57 points.

Any rider who has serious KoM aspirations will be desperate to get themselves into the early break on stage 11, where the yellow jersey contenders will gladly let them go unhindered over the first three summits, and potentially even the final climb depending on tactical considerations. Anyone who misses out will literally face an uphill battle to claw their way back into contention on the two Pyrenean stages.

If you fancy a long shot, look to someone such as FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnold Jeannesson (66/1). He climbed well for much of last year’s race and spent two days leading the young rider classification. He’s exactly the sort of rider who would be allowed to slip into a breakaway on the road to La Toussuire, and possesses the climbing legs to contest the mountain-top sprints in search of points. In my opinion, you’re more likely to find value down here at longer odds – particularly among French riders such as Jeannesson – than you are higher up the order.

So, have you seen someone you fancy having a flutter on? Happy hunting and good luck!

All odds are taken from Ladbrokes and were correct at the time of writing this morning (Friday).

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)

Round-table (part 2)

Link: Tour de France official website