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COUNTDOWN TO THE TOUR: PART II

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The podium contenders and their teams. 

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

It’s not surprising that among the first words out of the winner’s mouth following any bike race are “I want to thank my teammates for all their hard work. I couldn’t have won without them.” That’s because road racing is a team sport, even though the winner gets the glory, the teamwork needed to produce a Tour de France champion is simply extraordinary.

In describing the teammates’ efforts, the media often misuses the word “sacrifice.” That’s because those support riders don’t expect to win. They are not sacrificing their chances; they are doing exactly what they are paid to do. And that is, to work their rear-ends off—riding a high tempo at the head of the peloton for hours on long, hot stages; dropping back to the team car to load up with water bottles for their colleagues; leading out their sprinters in the final kilometers of flat stages; and pacing their climbers for as long as they can on the mountain stages.

In the past two Tours de France, people have sometimes mocked the Team Sky tactic of placing half a dozen men at the front of the peloton and riding almost flat out on every key climb, so that Brad Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year didn’t have to worry about rivals catching them unawares. It may look boring, but the British team’s tactic was mighty successful. And they’ll be trying to do the same again at this year’s Tour, starting next weekend.

Every one of the eight Sky riders who’ll be riding tempo for Froome over the three weeks is a decent or exceptional climber, and that’s why Froome is again the No. 1 favorite on all the betting sites. But other teams and their leaders know now what it takes to “do a Sky.” And that’s especially true for Froome’s leading opponents, including Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo, Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, and Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida—but not the 2013 podium finisher Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, who hasn’t raced since crashing out of the Giro and will be focusing on stage wins in the second half of the Tour.

But the Tour is not just about the mountain stages, particularly this year, when a climbing-oriented team such as Sky could get caught out on many of the early stages by teams that have stronger classics-style men to guide their leaders on the tricky ups and downs of Yorkshire, the cobblestones of the “Paris-Roubaix stage,” or the steeps of the Vosges. And with the only time trial coming on the very last weekend, a rider such as Froome can’t gamble too much on taking time back from the climbers that late in the game.

So those are among the factors I’ve taken into account in assessing who will be the strongest contenders (and their teams) for the podium in Paris at the end of the 101st Tour’s 21 stages and 3,664 kilometers of racing. I’ve listed the 15 team leaders I believe have a chance of making the final podium … starting with No. 15.

Click on any image below to see a much larger view.

15. Romain Bardet (France), 23, AG2R La Mondiale
Bardet
This French team’s Colombian climber, Carlos Betancur, was expected to lead AG2R at the Tour, but disciplinary factors forced the directors to leave him at home. This gives talented French climber Bardet a chance of improving on his 15th place of 2013. AG2R has proved surprisingly strong this year thanks to such experienced men as Jean-Christophe Péraud and Christophe Riblon, and the team should again be solid at the Tour.

14. Leopold König (Czech Republic), 26, NetApp-Endura
Konig
Making its debut at the Tour, this Pro Continental team is the first one from Germany to compete in the world’s biggest bike race since Milram disbanded in 2010. NetApp is a surprisingly solid squad, made up of riders from six countries with such powerful all-around riders as Tiago Machado of Portugal, Bartosz Huzarski of Poland, and Jan Barta of the Czech Republic. They’ll all be riding for Barta’s countryman König, the talented climber who took mountaintop stage wins at last year’s Vuelta a España and Tour of California.

13. Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), 24, Omega Pharma–Quick-Step
Kwiatkowski
The focus for the season’s winning-most team is on sprinter Mark Cavendish, who’ll have a superb support cast that includes world time-trial champ Tony Martin, Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, and lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw. Omega Pharma–Quick-Step is weak in the mountains, and the talented Kwiatkowski, winner of so many races early season, will have to key off the tactics of other teams to be a contender.

12. Pierre Rolland (France), 27, Europcar
Rolland
Twice a Tour mountaintop stage winner, and with his confidence boosted by an excellent fourth place in the recent Giro d’Italia, Rolland will need all the help he can get from team captain Thomas Voeckler if he is to shoot for the top 10 in Paris. Rolland may be content with earning another stage win should he lose valuable time on the cobbles of stage 5.

11. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium), 31, Lotto-Belisol
Van-den-Broeck
Still Belgium’s only true Tour challenger—he was fourth in 2012—Van den Broeck won’t get much help from a Lotto team that is structured around its German sprinter André Greipel. However, he showed a return to his best form in finishing third at the recent mountainous edition of the Critérium du Dauphiné.

10. Thibaut Pinot (France), 24, FDJ.fr
Pinot
Known as a pure climber with a stage win and a top-10 finish to his credit on his Tour debut two years ago, Pinot showed unexpected time-trial strength at this month’s Tour de Suisse in taking ninth place in a difficult 25-kilometer TT. He’ll also benefit from the camaraderie of the all-French FDJ.fr squad that will be riding for Arnaud Démare on the flats and Pinot in the mountains.

9. Mathias Frank (Switzerland), 27, IAM Cycling
Frank
When Switzerland’s young IAM Cycling team went recruiting last winter, French classics star Sylvain Chavanel was expected to be its big star. Chavanel has won a couple of races this year (a stage of the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque and a seventh national TT title), but IAM’s big hitter has been Frank, the longtime BMC domestique. As the stage race leader, Frank has won a couple of summit finishes at 2.HC stage races, and placed second overall at the Tour de Suisse and fourth at the Tour de Romandie. Now, he’ll likely have Chavanel and a well-knit unit working hard for him in July.

8. Bauke Mollema (The Netherlands), 27, Team Belkin
Mollema
With Belkin having the added pressure of needing to attract a new title sponsor by the end of the year, this Dutch squad will put all its considerable strength behind former Tour de l’Avenir winner Mollema—who was sixth at last year’s Tour. The Dutchman’s form is on an ascendant curve after winning a stage of May’s Tour of Norway and placing third overall at the recent Tour de Suisse.

7. Andrew Talansky (U.S.), 25, Garmin-Sharp
Talansky
After winning the Dauphiné, this young American may be playing down his chances at the Tour, but this is the race he has always targeted and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t improve on his 10th place at last year’s Tour. Talansky has shown his tenacity in many situations, particularly on the climbs of the ultra-mountainous 2012 Vuelta (where he finished seventh overall), his second places at that year’s Romandie and last year’s Paris-Nice, and, of course, in his famous battle to defeat Contador at the recent Dauphiné. And with help in the mountains from talents such as Janier Acevedo, Rohan Dennis, and Tom Slagter, Talansky could even break into the top five at the Tour.

6. Tejay van Garderen (U.S.), 25, BMC Racing
van-Garderen
After placing fifth in the 2012 Tour, and last year winning both the Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge, Van Garderen can aspire to the podium at the Tour—but he does need to locate his very best climbing form that he showed earlier in the year the Tour of Oman (second to Froome) and Volta a Catalunya (third overall, only seconds down on Rodriguez and Contador). BMC has structured its whole team around the young American, naming the seasoned Peter Velits and Amaël Moinard and newcomers Peter Stetina and Darwin Atapuma to support him in the mountains.

5. Rui Costa (Portugal), 27, Lampre-Merida
Costa
Despite riding for team leaders Valverde and Nairo Quintana for Movistar at last year’s Tour, Costa still managed to win two mountain stages. And that was followed by his out-foxing Valverde and Rodriguez to win the world title for Portugal. Now with Lampre, he has proven his team-leader status by placing second at Paris-Nice and third at Romandie before winning the Tour de Suisse. And his back-up man at the Tour could well be Vuelta champ Chris Horner—always a brilliant team rider.

4. Alejandro Valverde (Spain), 34, Movistar
Valverde
With eight victories in the opening three months of the season, this Spanish veteran was able to enjoy a monthlong training camp at altitude before returning to racing at last week’s Route du Sud—where he took second overall to Tinkoff’s Nicolas Roche. Given his climbing strength and finishing speed, Valverde could well win a couple of stages in the Tour’s opening week and go into the heart of the race wearing the yellow jersey. With Giro winner Quintana back in Colombia, Movistar has packed its Tour team with climbers to help Valverde. His main weakness is time trialing, and the tough 54-kilometer TT on the penultimate day could be his undoing.

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), 29, Astana
Nibali
Nibali has finished on the podium in six of his last Grand Tour starts over five seasons, so there’s no reason to think that series will end—despite his not having had a single win this year. He has been plenty aggressive in his past several races, and he excels the longer a race goes on, so another podium (or even final victory) is not beyond this taciturn Italian. The Astana team, despite rumors of internal strife, will line up in Yorkshire totally dedicated to supporting Nibali, with climbers such as Jakob Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert, and Michele Scarponi allowing him to focus totally on beating Froome and Contador.

2. Chris Froome (Great Britain), 29, Team Sky
Froome
With the Tour starting in England, the British expect that Froome will defend his title with ease. He has shown some of his best form this year, in both time trials and mountain stages, and he will have a strong support team led by his Aussie roommate Richie Porte; but Team Sky does not always make the best tactical decisions, and Froome may well get caught out on the “Roubaix” stage or one of the wind-affected flat stages.

1. Alberto Contador (Spain), 31, Tinkoff-Saxo
Contador
He is one of the few cyclists to have won all three of the Grand Tours, and, after a less-than-stellar performance at last year’s Tour, Contador has been exemplary this season, finishing on the podium of every stage races he has ridden—including victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country. And strengthening his chances of winning another Tour is the reinforced Tinkoff-Saxo squad led by Roche, Michael Rogers, Roman Kreuziger, and Jesus Hernandez.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson