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July 4, 2015 – Saturday’s opening time trial at the 102nd Tour de France gave us an early insight into how the race may pan out—the highest-place contender was Rigoberto Urán, two seconds ahead of Tejay van Garderen and three up on Vincenzo Nibali—but what’s truly key to winning this Tour is climbing.
Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
There are the three hilltop finishes in the first half (besides the opening time trial, a cobblestone stage and the later-than-usual team time trial) and no less than five mountaintop stage finishes and another hilltop finish in the Tour’s second half.
On such a climb-heavy course, the pundits have named the youthful Nairo Quintana, the brilliant climber from Colombia, as the main favorite, with former Tour winners Alberto Contador, Nibali and Chris Froome as the other top picks.
But it’s possible that none of “the fabulous four” will pull on the final yellow jersey in Paris, so here’s a run-down on all the possible winners, along with my ideas on the strategies that they and their teams should take to maximize their chances.
Alberto Contador (Spain)
Age: 32. Team: Tinkoff-Saxo. Grand Tours ridden: 12. Podiums: 7 (9 before suspension).
After a dominant victory in the Giro d’Italia in May, Contador is attempting to become the first rider since Marco Pantani 17 years ago to do the Giro-Tour double. Only once before has the Spaniard ridden the Tour de France right after finishing the Giro—that was in 2011, the year when he was awaiting a verdict to his eventually losing appeal against his 2010 suspension for a clenbuterol positive. He finished first in that Giro (a result later voided) and struggled with an early crash at the Tour before ending up in fifth behind Cadel Evans.
Team: Contador has planned this year’s campaign much better than he did four years ago: he has brought his strongest teammates from the Giro, including veterans Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso, and added Polish climber Rafal Majka to help him in the high mountains.
Strategy: To win this Tour, Contador will have to ride more conservatively than usual in the first half of the race before making decisive attacks on the most difficult mountaintop stage finishes: Plateau de Beille (stage 12), La Toussuire (stage 19) and perhaps L’Alpe d’Huez (stage 20).
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy)
Age: 30. Team: Astana. Grand Tours ridden: 12. Podiums: 7.
After following the same slow Tour preparation as last year, defending champion Nibali will almost certainly be on the same top form that won him the yellow jersey in 2014. He even retained his national road title last week to keep the red, white and green stripes around the chest of his blue Astana jersey. Having won all three grand tours in his career, Nibali knows exactly what he has to do to win another.
Team: Despite the doping scandals and mini-scandals that have plagued the Astana team, it goes into the Tour with a powerful lineup that includes men for the cobbles stage and the team time trial (such as lowlanders Lars Boom, Jakob Fuglsang and Lieuwe Wetsra) and men for the mountains (Tanel Kangert, Michele Scarponi and Rein Taaramae).
Strategy: Expect Nibali to attempt the same as he did last year: do well on the cobblestones, win an early stage (maybe at Mûr-de-Bretagne) and ride constantly at the front in the high mountains. But, barring crashes, he will have far tougher opposition so that means he may have to surprise the opposition with one or two of his famous long-distance attacks with likeminded riders.
Chris Froome (Great Britain)
Age: 30. Team: Sky. Grand Tours ridden: 9. Podiums: 4.
Nobody can say Froome is not a fighter. He has incredible determination, which combined with his ungainly but highly effective high-cadence climbing style, will make him incredibly hard to beat at this Tour. He showed that fighting spirit at last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné, where he dueled with Tejay van Garderen on the last two stages—both mountaintop finishes—and gained just enough time to deprive the American of the overall victory. Froome said he was at 80-percent fitness then; now, he says he’s 100 percent. He’ll be a hard man to beat.
Team: On paper, Team Sky’s selection for this Tour is just about perfect. Froome has four of the strongest classics riders to help him navigate opening week in Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh, while six of his eight support men are strong in the mountains: Nicolas Roche, Richie Porte, Wout Poels, Leo König, Kennaugh and Thomas. Expect to see these Sky riders at the head of the peloton on stage after stage, controlling breakaways and readying Froome for key attacks.
Strategy: Team boss Dave Brailsford says his squad will “race” more than it usually does at the Tour, but with such powerful riders, expect them to apply the same blitzkrieg tactics that brought victories for Brad Wiggins (in 2012) and Froome (in 2013). If Froome can get through the cobbles stage unscathed and his men can be close to the win in the team time trial, he’ll be ready to shoot for the yellow jersey on the first Pyrenean stage at La Pierre-St. Martin.
Nairo Quintana (Colombia)
Age: 25. Team: Movistar. Grand Tours ridden: 4. Podiums: 2.
For a man who has lived most of his life at 10,000 feet elevation in the Andes, altitude training is unnecessary as such. That’s why he again prepared for the Tour at home—and he showed that it didn’t take long for him to get back into the rhythm of European racing by matching Contador on the only significant mountain climb of the recent Route du Sud (he finished second to the Spaniard in the four-day stage race). He’s the smoothest, most natural climber of all the contenders, but he has never had to deal with the media and fan pressure as top favorite at the Tour.
Team: Quintana will have Movistar team captain Alejandro Valverde as his personal Tour guide, both before and after each stage, and on the mountain stages. Valverde’s experience—this is his 17th start in a grand tour—will greatly enhance Quintana’s chances of victory, as will the presence at his side of fellow Colombian climber (and a friend since childhood) Winner Anacona.
Strategy: The toughest challenge for Quintana (and his team) will be reaching the first mountain stage (stage 10) without losing significant time to the other favorites—though the presence of strong time trialists Jonathan Castroviejo, Alex Dowsett and Adriano Malori will help Movistar ride a good stage 9 team time trial. This will almost certainly be a Tour won by seconds rather than minutes, so if Quintana is in a time hole he will have to ration his efforts on all those mountaintop-finish climbs and try to eat back time stage by stage rather than go for knock-out blows in the Pyrénées.
Ryder Hesjedal (Canada)
Age: 34. Team: Cannondale-Garmin. Grand Tours ridden: 15. Podiums: 1.
Hesjedal is one of three leaders at Cannondale-Garmin along with American hope Andrew Talansky and Irish climber Dan Martin. Though team boss Jonathan Vaughters has said Talansky is the true GC contender, the Canadian comes to the Tour after showing the best climbing form of his life at the Giro d’Italia—perhaps even stronger than when he won the Giro three years ago. Hesjedal, assuming he can avoid the crashes that have often blunted his chances in the grand tours, should have a great Tour.
Team: This is a team with good balance for the whole Tour, and its free-form nature fits perfectly with the mindset of Hesjedal and co-leaders Talansky and Martin. If all three of these men are climbing their best, they have the ability to ignite the Tour in unexpected places.
Strategy: Aggression is the hallmark of this American team, and Hesjedal proved at the recent Giro that he is not afraid of being the most aggressive. But to finish top five or even on the podium Hesjedal will need to make wise choices on when to attack.
Rigoberto Urán (Colombia)
Age: 28. Team: Etixx-Quick Step. Grand Tours ridden: 11. Podiums: 2.
With all the hullabaloo surrounding his countryman Quintana, the name of Colombia’s most experience grand tour racer has fallen below the radar. And yet Urán, who placed second at the Giro in 2013 and 2014, has the ability to match the best at the Tour. He’s still upset at how Quintana took the Giro’s pink jersey from him on the snowbound descent of the Stelvio last year; and this year Urán came strong at the very end of the Giro, which could inspire him to do well at the Tour alongside his Etixx teammate and reigning world champion Michal Kwiatkowski.
Team: The Etixx team is focused on getting stage wins for sprinter Mark Cavendish, who is starting this Tour as light as he has ever been to give him a chance of winning hilly stages that don’t suit the heavier sprinters. This will keep the spotlight off of Urán, who will likely get stronger when the Tour reaches its toughest climbing days in the Alps.
Strategy: Urán needs to remain below the radar in the first half of the Tour but not lose too much time in the process. Still in his 20s, the Colombian combines youth and experience that should help him climb the standings in the third week.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain)
Age: 36. Team: Katusha. Grand Tours ridden: 18. Podiums: 4.
The oldest of the main contenders, “Purito” Rodriguez is another top climber who has barely been mentioned in the pre-Tour hype. But he has had podium finishes in all three grand tours, including third at the Tour two years ago behind Froome and Quintana. The Spanish veteran is sure to aim at winning the first week’s hilltop stage finishes on the Mur de Huy and Mur-de-Bretagne, and that would help him he’ll reach the high mountains in a good overall position.
Team: The Katusha team will be eager to get its Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff an early stage win, but this is a well-balanced squad that will also be able to help Rodriguez when the going gets tough.
Strategy: Rodriguez will have to use all his experience and tactical nous to be in a position to match the top favorites, but the repetition of hard mountain stages will be to his advantage—as will the acceleration he can show on the steepest climbs.
Tejay van Garderen (USA)
Age: 26. Team: BMC Racing. Grand Tours ridden: 5. Podiums: 0.
His recent close second place to Froome at the Dauphiné, along with the mountaintop stage wins he has scored the past two years in the Volta a Catalunya and USA Pro Challenge, have given van Garderen the confidence to step up from the two fifth places he has already taken at the Tour. Despite being only 26, the lean American is no longer a young hope but a seasoned professional who has all the qualities needed to challenge the best for the Tour podium.
Team: The BMC team has tremendous horsepower in men such as stage one winner Rohan Dennis, Daniel Oss, Michael Schär and Danilo Wyss that could earn them victory in the team time trial—and so put van Garderen close to the yellow jersey before the big mountain stages. And on the climbs, Spanish veteran Samuel Sanchez and Italian Damiano Caruso, along with Dennis, will allow the American to tackle the finishing climbs in good shape.
Strategy: Perhaps van Garderen’s biggest challenge is to avoid crashing—which handicapped him last year. Assuming he does reach the mountains unscathed, he will have to pace himself like he did at the Dauphiné and avoid going into the red zone on the mountaintop finishes.
Thibaut Pinot (France)
Age: 25. Team: FDJ. Grand Tours ridden: 5. Podiums: 1
The French have huge expectation for last year’s best young rider and third-place finisher, but this year’s Tour has a much more formidable lineup. On the positive side, Pinot scored prestigious mountaintop stage wins at the recent Tour de Suisse and earlier Tour de Romandie, which have boosted his confidence ahead of this Tour. On the flip side, he is not the best rider going downhill and so he may end up shooting for stage wins rather than the podium.
Team: Pinot’s FDJ squad is not the best equipped for helping its leader on the flatter stages and so he’s likely to lose time on both the cobbled stage and the team time trial. And in the mountains his main support will come from FDJ’s only non-French rider, Swiss climber Steve Morabito.
Strategy: Pinot is a gritty rider with a keen sense of tactics, but he will need to focus on staying with the better descenders like Contador and Nibali to have a chance of another podium. His biggest ally, besides his climbing skills, will be the support of a French public that truly believes he has what it takes to be a Tour winner one day.
Romain Bardet (France)
Age: 24. Team: AG2R La Mondiale. Grand Tours ridden: 2. Podiums: 0
Smart, intelligent and a great tactician, French climber Bardet looks certain to be stronger than his out-of-form team leader Jean-Christophe Peraud—last year’s Tour runner-up. Unlike Pinot, Bardet, the youngest of the top 10 contenders at 24, is a great downhiller. He showed that at the Dauphiné when he won the stage into Pra-Loup (a stage that will be repeated at the Tour) thanks to gaining a minute on the Col d’Allos descent ahead of Froome and van Garderen.
Team: The AG2R La Mondiale team has great experience and a nice mix of veterans and young riders, but it doesn’t have the power to match the best in the team tine trial. But if Peraud can find better form by the Alps he will be invaluable in helping Bardet on the climbs, along with his French teammates Christophe Riblon and Alexis Vuillermoz.
Strategy: Bardet knows he is still too green to win the Tour, so he would be smart to follow (and learn) from climbers such as Contador and Nibali, which would ensure his gaining a top overall finish, while giving him the opportunity of taking a prestigious stage win.
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