It is time to fire up the blog again. Le Tour de France est presque sur nous mes enfants. Next Saturday on the 30th of June one hundred and ninety-eight riders set off from Liège in Belgium in the hopes that one of them will pull on that final maillot jaune on the Champs-Élysées three weeks later. It is starting a week earlier than it normally would because of some silly multi-sport event that London is staging the following week.
(More London-based whines about the Olympics will follow over the next month or two.)
One hundred and ninety-eight riders start but only one can win, so who is it likely to be? I can tell you who it wont be. It won’t be Andy Schleck, he is out with a fractured pelvis sustained in a fall in the Criterium du Dauphine. It won’t be Alberto Contador, he is banned until August because of doping violations or eating a dodgy steak, depending on whose story you believe. It won’t be Mark Cavendish, he will lose twenty minutes the first time the road tilts seriously upwards and at least another twenty on every subsequent occasion.
This years route goes clockwise round the country, with the Alps coming before the Pyrénées.This is normally reckoned to favour the all-round riders like Cadel Evans against the pure climbers like Frank Schleck. This year’s course also features two long individual time-trials for the first time in a few years. All in all including the prologue there is about 100km of racing against the clock. Again this doesn’t help the climbers. The climbers will have to think about how they are going to win this years tour. I don’t think the will be able to wait to the final climb of the day before they attack, because they won’t gain enough time that way. They will need at least three minutes over the likes of Cadel Evans or Bradley Wiggins going into the final time trial to have a hope of winning. The moyen montange stages could prove to be crucial. The other stage that I think will be important is Stage 16. This the classic Pyrénéan stage from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon as won by Robert Millar back in 1983.
So who is going to win? For the first time, probably ever, we have a British rider, Bradley Wiggins, with a realistic chance of overall victory. Some bookmakers have him odds-on to win, which is ridiculous. There are far to many variables in a three-week stage for any rider to be odds-on to win it. Wiggins isn’t Frankel, streets ahead of the opposition, he is one of about five or six riders with a realistic chance of winning the race. They are in my opinion, and in no particular order; Cadel Evans (last years winner), Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal.
Cadel Evans (BMC) (Aus) has been there done that and last year finally got the tee-shirt. There will be no doubt about who is the BMC team leader and what the teams object is. He is strong, determined, more than a good enough climber to stay with the best in the mountains, and even if he can’t always match the sudden accelerations of the pure climbers, has repeatedly shown the ability to drag himself back up to them and limit his losses. He is also one of the peleton’s better time-trialists, especially at the business end of a three-week tour. This years course probably suits him even better than last years. However last year he was one of the oldest riders ever to win the Tour de France and this year he is one year older. At the Critérium du Dauphiné he did not seem to be at full form, but neither was he at his best last year, besides there is a saying in the peleton “Good Dauphiné, bad Tour, bad Dauphiné, good Tour”, meaning that it is possible to peak too soon.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) (Gbr) had a good Dauphiné, he won it. He has also won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie this year. He is undoubtedly the man in form. He is a similar rider to Evans, in that he is a good climber albeit one who generally prefers to climb at a steady pace and he is probably the best time-trialist in the world at the moment. If he is within three minutes of anyone bar Cadel Evans at the start of the final time-trial I will expect him to in Yellow by the end of it. I think that he can even give Evans a minute. In the three races that he has won this year he and his team have made controlling the race look easy. However in the races up to now the team has been wholly dedicated to making sure that Wiggins is on the top step of the podium. In the Tour Mark Cavendish will be looking for stage wins and probably trying to keep the Green (Points) Jersey that he won last year. The riders required to take care of “Cav” and lead him out in the sprints are not the same type of rider that Wiggins needs in the mountains. Possible conflict there.
Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) (Lux) is one of the climbers in the race who could win it. Normally he is slightly in his younger brother Andy’s shadow. Andy being out injured perversely could actually help Frank. Last year they had a tendency to try to make sure that one brother’s attack wasn’t putting the other brother into difficulties, so when they did attack in the mountains, they didn’t persist, allowing the other riders to come back to them. This year when he goes, he wont have to worry about his little brother being left. Having said that, he is generally not as strong a climber as is brother and in last years final time trial he lost 2:34 to Cadel Evans over a course that was 11 km shorter than this years. In addition, rumour has it that he (and Andy) are not happy with their current team and the Team Manager (Johan Bruyneel) in particular. So while I think that Frank Schleck might influence who wins I don’t think that it will actually be him who stands on the top step in Paris.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) (Ita) is another rider whose main strength is his climbing, but he also rides a reasonable time-trial, if not in the same league as Wiggins and Evans. He has won a Grand Tour before, the 2010 Vuelta d’Espana (Tour of Spain) so he knows how to defend a lead if necessary. Liquigas’ normal tactics in the mountains seem to be set a high but steady pace to make sure that there are no surprise attacks and then for the leader to try to nip off at the end. This plays right in to the hands of the likes of Wiggins and Evans, both of whom are quite happy to sit behind anyone who is setting a steady pace, almost no matter how high. What they find more difficult is a pace that is constantly changing, having to constantly put in an extra effort to drag themselves back up to an attacker. In this years Giro d’Italia those tactics didn’t do the eventual winner any harm.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) (Can) won this years Giro d’Italia in the final time-trial. A similar rider in many ways to Evans and Wiggins, this years course should suit him. He rides for a team that works as a team, and regards a victory for anyone on the team as a victory for the team. He will have some of the most experienced riders in the peleton working for him, but the Tour de France is a step up from the Giro, and we will also need to find out if he has fully recovered from the Giro, something that might not become apparent until the third week.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) (Ned) is a tall skinny Dutch climber with a reasonable time-trial. He won this years Tour of California with a superb attack on the principle mountain stage, so his form is there. The Tour of California, however doesn’t attract a very strong field because it takes place at the same time as the Giro. A fourth place at the recent Tour de Suisse show that he is still up there. His main problem, however is a tendency to fall off.
Because the course suits all-rounders rather than climbers, and because the two climbers (Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador) who are able to disrupt the equilibrium of the all rounders in the mountains are both out of the race, this is how I think the final podium will be. It’s an all Commonwealth affair;
First Bradley Wiggins Second Cadel Evans Third Ryder Hesjedal
Of course a rider could appear, if not exactly from nowhere, but from below the radar, and surprise us all. Last year’s White Jersey winner Pierre Rolland is one who springs to mind.
I shall have a look at the Green (points) Jersey and the Polka-dot (King-of-the-Mountains) Jersey competitions in my next post.