The 100th edition of the most famous cycle race in the world begins this weekend in Corsica. If your idea of fun is watching a couple of hundred lycra-clad men riding for 6 hours per day then this is the sport for you. The grand tours are a bit like Test Cricket; long periods of apparent boredom followed by moments of intense drama. Yet it makes compelling viewing. If watching skinny blokes riding around the French countryside understandably doesn’t float your boat, then watch out for the nutters in the crowd. You can always trust a Frenchman to look like an absolute buffoon and there are plenty of cycling-mad head cases who line the route day after day. Spotting them is a sport in itself. Anyway, after this blog’s abysmal recent attempts to predict the winner of major sporting events, it is clear that our talents lie elsewhere. Instead I will run down the movers and shakers who may or may not possibly potentially be contenders for this year’s prize.
This year’s Tour de France will feature no less than 11 mountainous stages (two more than last year) and only two time-trials (one fewer than last year) meaning the maillot jaune will probably be worn by a climber in Paris. Of these, Britain’s Chris Froome has been mooted as the favourite. He has won all but one of the races he has entered, and that was a 2nd place in the Tirenno-Adriatico. The Tour of Oman, the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium de Dauphiné and the Critérium International have all seen Froome gracing the top step of the podium and rather like Bradley Wiggins last year he has raced sparingly but successfully to ensure he is in top shape for Le Tour. Froome probably could have won last year but he was obliged to help team leader Wiggins up the climbs rather than go for glory himself. Wiggins however is injured so Froome is top dog at Team Sky and they will be putting all their resources into winning consecutive Tours for British riders.
Alberto Contador is another who is tailor-made for this year’s course. Weighing less than a leaf he has the perfect physique for tackling the brutal Alpine climbs. Of course the Spaniard has twice won the Tour in 2007 and 2009 but was stripped of his 2010 title for a positive drugs test and received a two year ban. There is significant evidence that Contador was doping years before he was caught as he has links to the disgraced blood-doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes – the man who powered Lance Armstrong to his drug-induced Tour victories in the early 2000’s. For a man who won the Tour de France during its dark days of systematic doping, I find it hard to believe Contador was riding clean. Nevertheless he announced his comeback by winning the Vuelta a Espana last year but Froome has had the measure of him this season, finishing above him at the Critérium de Dauphiné, the Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Oman.
Another Spaniard, Joquim Rodriguez has been showing great form in the past four seasons. He finished last year as the top-ranked cyclist in the world (ahead of Wiggins) with podium finishes in both Giro d’Italia (where he won the points race) and the Vuelta. This will only be his second Tour de France, his only other appearance coming in 2010 when he finished a very creditable 7th. He has had some solid top-10 performances this season in Oman and the Tirenno-Adriatico and two second places in both the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Volta a Catalunya. Rodriguez is a very solid rider with no real weakness – he will no doubt be featuring in the top-10 at some point during the Tour.
Australian Cadel Evans has serious history in this event. Winner in 2011 he also has two second place finishes to his name. At the age of 36 his best days may be behind him but he showed he still as the ability to tough it out with the best by finishing 3rd at this year’s Giro. He got found out a bit on the climbs last year and with this year’s edition featuring more mountain stages he has his work cut out. Indeed he may have to share the BMC team leader responsibilities with up-and-coming American sensation Tejay van Garderen. In only his second Tour de France he finished 5th overall and won the young-rider classification at the tender age of 23. Now one year older and wiser, the man from Tacoma, Washington has already won the Tour of California this season and followed it up with a string of impressive results (3rd in Critérium International and 4th in Paris-Nice). Equally strong on the climbs and the time-trials, the American has the tools to mount a real challenge this year.
Leading the French charge will be the precocious Thibaut Pinot who, despite being the youngest rider in the tour in 2012, managed to finish 10th in the GC. He also infamously won Stage 8, in the process negotiating seven categorised climbs crossed the line with a 26 second advantage. He will be joined by Thomas Voeckler, a favourite with the home crowd who won the polka-dot jersey at last year’s Tour for the best climber and also finished fourth in the GC in 2011. The course set-up this year will most definitely play into his hands and he will feature strongly.
In terms of the sprinters it will be a three-way fight between Britain’s Mark Cavendish, André Greipel of Germany and the Slovakian Peter Sagan. Cavendish will have the whole of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team working for him throughout the tour, a luxury he most definitely didn’t have whilst riding for Sky and Bradley Wiggins last year. Fresh from his victory at the National Road Race Championships last week in Glasgow, Cavendish has been in sparkling form this season, winning the points jersey at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Qatar. Attempting to hang on to the lycra-tails of the Manx Missile will be André Greipel, winner of the points classification at the Vuelta a Espana in 2009. Greipel won three times at the 2012 tour so he is certainly no slouch in the saddle. His 2013 results so far have also been pretty impressive: three stage victories in the Tour Down Under and two victories in the Tour of Turkey. Defending the points jersey will be Peter Sagan who has a pretty impressive CV for a man of 23 years: three consecutive points victories in the Tour of California, the points jersey in the Tour of Oman last year, and also the points jersey in the Tour de Suisse this year. Further 2013 results include stage victories in the Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Oman. It will be interesting to see how he copes with fully-prepared Mark Cavendish in Le Tour given that he won the points jersey last year at a bit of a canter.
Rather surprisingly, last year’s 3rd place finisher and the winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, Vincenzo Nibali has decided not to race. He is a formidable climber who would have had a good chance of at least a podium, but his absence throws the race wide-open and will definitely increase Chris Froome’s chances. Whoever has the honour of standing on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysées in three weeks’ time will most definitely have earned it. Let’s just salute the 200 or so nutjobs crazy enough to ride 200km every day for the next 21 days. Rather them than me.