Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Tour de France 2013: The Contenders

I'm sure you are all familiar with the format by now so lets get straight to the point. The 100th Tour de France is upon us in 3 days time and it's time to take a look at who's who in this years race. It's been a good year of racing so far and some have shone much brighter than others to put it mildly, so who are the favourites for the biggest Grand Tour of the year and why?...

The Favourites 

Christopher Froome (Sky)
If there could only be one real race favourite this year then leading by a country mile is Sky's Chris Froome. With Bradley Wiggins firmly out of the picture Sky put all their eggs in one basket and it's a pretty strong basket - racking up wins in Oman, Criterium International, Tour of Ramandie and The Dauphine it's hard to see anybody side swiping the Kenyan born Brit off the top step of the podium. He has dominated throughout the year only slipping once in Tirreno-Adriatico where an extremely inform Vincenzo Nibali took advantage of some wet descents leaving Froome on an unfamiliar second step of the podium. Not only has Froome proven he is 'the climber' of the moment - skipping away from other favourites with ease in the final kilometre - he's also unbeaten by any of the GC guys in a Time Trial this year, add in a very strong mountain train and one of the best teams in the Tour and he's looking good for Britain's second Tour de France victory in as many years. But, and there is always a but - how long can the Sky man maintain his form and dominate the season, surely he has to take a dip somewhere? 

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Contador was missing from last years race but had he been there he would probably have started as favourite, as he would in any other given year had Sky and Froome in particular risen through the ranks quite so sharply. The Spaniard hasn't looked the same post-ban (make of that what you will) though he still makes for extremely entertaining viewing as it's a given he will make an attack somewhere along the line. The problem this year is that those attacks haven't paid off, he's one only once this year - a stage in the Tour de San Luis - and he's raced seven days more than Froome. He's still likely to be Froomes biggest rival in the race but he needs to find those climbing legs and quick, he was left wanting in the Vuelta last year as time and again Joaquim Rodriguez beat him on the upward slopes but luckily a last ditch gamble paid off and Contador won the race. Will he have to do the same in this years Tour? Well he comes with a very strong 'climbing' team who could play Sky at their own tactics, but it's the final km of the race when its man-on-man against Froome that he really needs to make his mark.  

Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
We haven't seen the best of J-Rod this year and that's scary but watching him pulverise Contador on just about every climb in last years Vuelta was even scarier. Amazingly Joaquim has only ridden the Tour once in his last 13 seasons and at 34 years of age time is running out - lucky for him then that he feels he's just right to peak and that those extra TT miles from last year are no more (though he has considerably improved his time trialling). This years race is all about the climbs and if Chris Froome has become memorably for his kick in the final metres then it's Rodriguez who is the real, original 'kick' master. Can he keep with the best in the business? Yes. Will he win the race? He's perhaps not as 'on the radar' as he should be but that may play to his advantage, look out for him on the podium.

Cadel Evans (BMC)
Few would have picked Cadel Evans as the 2013 Tour winner at the start of the year but some might just be changing their minds now. After a torrid 2012 Evans form has been building gradually over the season - he's been one of those riders where the change and progression has been noticeable - I say 'building' but finishing third overall in this years (and one of the most difficult ever) Giro d'Italia make that quite an understatement. His grit and determination was there for all to see as he battled horrific weather and tricky roads long after others (Wiggins, Hesjedal) gave up and he was only supposed to be riding the Giro as 'preparation' for the Tour but the important question is, will this be his downfall? Nobody has done the Giro/Tour double in quite a while - Cadel is 36 years old, he just rode one of the most difficult Giro's ever, surely the Tour will be a step to far? Time will tell.  

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
The 33 year old Spaniard has been pretty impressive since returning from his ban last year, cruising to second overall in the extremely mountainous 2012 Vuelta a Espana and he's made finding the Tour podium one last time a bit of an ambition. He's got the credentials - he can sprint, climb, kick and he has a much underrated but very efficient Movistar team behind him. He lacks in the time trial though and it could be costly as however good a climber he is, he won't be taking much time back out of Froome and Contador. Talking of Froome, if the Froome/Wiggins rivalry is on hold for the Tour then Movistar might have an equally interesting battle lined up: Valverde V Quintana, but more on that later...  

The Second Tier 

Robert Gesink (Belkin)
How long must we wait for Gesink to pull something out of the bag? He's a good rider but he talks of being a 'Grand Tour' rider and it's time he let the riding do the talking. His last win was in the Tour of California last year and when it comes to the Grand Tours he seems to suffer the 'off-day' syndrome or just lack that something extra such as in this years Giro - the roads started to head upwards and Gesink began to slip backwards - if he can avoid his rudimentary off day and find some climbing form he could be looking at the podium, maybe. 

Richie Porte (Sky)
The Australian has been a man on fire during his service for Chris Froome this year and the podium 1-2 has become rather familiar. He's clearly in good shape and if he can maintain it then expect to see him listed in the 'favourites' section for this years Vuelta a Espana. Last year we had a Sky 1-2 in the shape of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome with Froome achieving second placed based solely on his work for Wiggins, there is certainly no reason why Porte can't repeat that feat this year. If there is an Australian on the podium then I would trump for Porte over Evans, but a win? Well if Froome DNF then somebody had to take the reigns... 

Teejay Van Garderen (BMC)
If much was made about the Wiggins V Froome scenario then the Cadel V Teejay set-up has gone pretty much unnoticed. Evans is knocking on the door of retirement and his natural replacement is Van Garderen. He has consistently out-performed Evans this year with high placings in Paris-Nice and the Criterium international - no doubt Cadel Evans is BMC's number 1 but Van Garderen gives them another card to play especially if Cadel starts feeling the pace post-Giro.  

Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto)
With just a single victory on his entire palmares it's hard to describe Van den Broeck as a GC contender but look over the stats and you find him finishing fourth in 2010 and 2012 Tours (He quit 2011 with a broken collarbone). The boy can certainly climb but his time trialling let him down big time last year as Wiggins literally wiped the floor with him but Van den Broeck has clearly worked on It because he only lost 30 seconds to Chris Froome in the Tour of Romandy time trial. He's narrowly missed out on the podium more than once - natural progression means he should finally make the step-up, at some point anyway. 

Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Back to the 'in-team rivalry' thing at here we are at Movistar - the ageing Alejandro Valverde looks set to be phased out by the young Colombian sensation that is Nairo Quintana - climbing supremo. On his day he can rip the mountains apart and knock any rider down a peg or two. We haven't seen him race in a couple of months so it's hard to say where he's at but when Mr Prudhomme first announced this route he predicted big things for Quintana and he's certainly started to live up to the hype. What about that 65km time trial though? No worries - the little Colombian finished a mere 17 seconds behind powerhouse and TT specialist Tony Martin at the Tour of the Basque Country. So whats stopping him then? In all honesty, not a lot. Except Alejandro Valverde that it.  

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)
He first hit the radar by winning the 2012 Giro d'Italia and we were all looking forward to seeing how the Canadian would return in Italy at the 2013 Giro. Not good - actually that's a little unfair, in the first few stages he was extremely aggressive and put in a lot of attacks but as the race carried on his form took a dip and neither I or he knows why. The last I heard was he was awaiting test results that would show just what happened during the Giro that saw him fall of the pace so suddenly but there is yet to be an explanation. Of course withdrawal from the Giro means Hesjedal was always going to be quids in for a Tour start and if he's found form again then he might do well. (At the time of writing Garmin-Sharp are yet to confirm any of the riders on their Tour roster - as such Andrew Talansky is missing from this list.) 

The Outsiders 

This year there are plenty of riders capable of achieving big. Garmin Sharp are yet to announce their roster but if Talansky finds a place in the team then he aggressive riding style will make for some entertaining viewing and if he has good legs in the mountains then watch this space. Thomas De Gendt heads to France as Vacansoleil leader and though we used to think of him more as a stage-hunter he has increasingly found our Grand Tour GC radar. Always strong and pretty consistent if he plays his cards right a podium place is achievable.  

Dani Navarro of Cofidis has looked on fine form of late but is his team up to the job - there is no mountain train here that can match the likes of Sky or Saxo so if he wants a high chart placing then it looks like he'll just have to hang on to the bunch. Andy Schleck (RSL) has to make this list somewhere along the line and it's with regret that he isn't featured in the 'favourites' or even 'second tier' section. He, for whatever reason, just isn't the rider he was, in fact he has been pretty dismal for the last 18 months but he is starting to show signs of form and anyway, his team picked him as team leader so they must have a bit of faith in him.  

The pressure is off at Astana right now thanks to Vincenzo Nibali bagging them a Grand Tour already this year and that means pressure is off for Jakob Fuglsang, their team leader. He has built his year around the Tour and he's ambitious but try as I might I can't remember much of his racing this year, perhaps he will be one to really surprise.

 There is plenty of young French Talent on offer this year with Thibaut Pinot, Kenny Elissonde and Romain Bardet all lining up at the start - Elissonde is perhaps a little further from our minds than Pinot and Bardet but all three are capable - and will be capable - of big things in the future but this year could be Pinots year - he was a great addition to last years race and he really shone, if he turns up in better form than 2012 then he's going to be extremely dangerous. Whilst OPQS have a team built around Cavendish - despite what he might think, it's not all about him this year either as he's joined on the roster by Michal Kwiatkowski - a rising force in the GC stakes he shone brightly in the classics too so he's my last choice for this list.

A Final Note - I am away at the minute and this article was written quite a while ago, way ahead of any published team rosters. I regret that there are probably quite a few names missing from this list which I would have liked to have written about - unfortunately it's out of my hands though if I get time during the start of the Tour then I may revise or make some further additions to the list.

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