Is it really almost July? Do I really smell vast fields of sunflowers swaying in the breeze, crusty baguettes, and escargot? Is it actually almost time for the world’s biggest bicycle race to begin? I still haven’t washed all the pasta sauce stains off my favorite pajamas!
Yes, in less than a week, the Tour de France will begin on the streets of Leeds in the UK, before heading to the open arms of the French nation. With the soccer (football/futbol) World Cup coming to an end in a few weeks, we can all return to obsessing about cycling again! To assist with that obsession, here is a preview to help get your Yellow Fever into full swing.
The Teams (final rosters not confirmed for all teams as of press time):
AG2R- La Mondiale
Last year the French squad nabbed a beautiful win with Christophe Riblon on the double Alpe d’Huez stage. This year, the team hopes to return and grab another win and place a rider in the top 15 on the GC. Their early hopes had been pinned on Colombian talent Carlos Betancur, but thanks to “illness” and terrible form, the Best Young Rider of last year’s Giro will not make his TdF debut. Speculation has been rampant about his mysterious illness and failure to return to Europe, but the French squad has shown in recent years that they have regained an ability to race with panache- just as they did during this most recent Giro.
This team is all about Vincenzo Nibali—110 percent. Though mathematically impossible to give 110 percent, you can bet they will try. Nibali has been relatively anonymous this season, but he can’t be ruled out of the GC picture if he’s in form on time. With only one TT this year, Nibali still remains one of the major GC threats and his team has proven they can help him win a three week race. If he’s ready, he’ll put his aggressive, non-stem-staring style to work to unseat Team SKY. He’s an exceptional climber, so the course suits him well this year.
Losing their title sponsor at the end of the season (again), this Dutch/Belgian squad will be hunting for stage wins and is comprised of guys who are more than capable of riding grimly all day long, banging their heads against the virtual wall. Stage 5’s cobble sections will seem like a vacation and will likely be where they come to life. Hungry to replace their vanishing title sponsor, they’ll be looking to make as much noise as possible during the Tour, in hopes of gaining a new sponsor. I can’t wait to see what that hunger ends up looking like.
Built around young American hopeful Tejay van Garderen, BMC will be leaving former TdF winner Cadel Evans at home, allowing Tejay the chance to finally step into the leader’s role in a three week race. BMC will be bringing a team well suited for the task, and hopefully Tejay will bring good legs and a rabbit’s foot for luck. So far, the lad has shown lots of talent, combined with plenty of bad luck. If he can stay upright and avoid the dreaded Bad Day, he might have a solid shot at a top ten GC performance. If not, look for his teammates to go stage hunting to save the team’s honor.
Cannondale comes to the Tour with a pretty singular purpose; win stages. As a result, it focuses on the talents of the former Green Jersey winner and all around kinda good rider, Peter Sagan. Last year’s heartbreak story of Ted King crashing during the TTT and ultimately getting time cut from the race, will hopefully see redemption with Ted’s return to the race this year. No finer script could be written than to see him win a stage. My chances of winning a stage are only slightly lower, however. So, expect to see Sagan hunt more wins as he pursues the Sprinter’s jersey.
After an excellent Giro with Nacer Bouhanni, FDJ is heading to the Tour to support their other sprinter Arnaud Démare. Bouhanni will be without a contract at the end of this season and it is widely speculated that FDJ can no longer afford him. Not a good recipe for him to have a chance to race the Tour this year, so Démare gets the nod instead for his maiden Tour. Thibaut Pinot will hope to put his fear of going downhill behind him so he can contest the GC battle, and finally provide an answer to the speculation about his potential.
Without a major GC contender, Garmin will instead put its hope on the shoulders of young American Andrew Talansky, fresh off his win at the Criterium du Dauphine. Talansky, nicknamed “pitbull,” is a fierce competitor and has shown great promise. He’ll be supported by a team ready to go to the mat for him, and they’ve proven they can deliver the goods. It’s unrealistic to expect a podium finish from Talansky, but he’s already proven capable of exceeding the expectations of others. Vaughters has a way of getting the most out of riders, so it’s not hard to believe that the team could possibly do something nobody expects.
This Pro Continental squad contains French favorite Sylvain Chavanel, who has worn yellow in the past and was once considered the best hope France had of winning the Tour. As good as Chavanel is, he’s no GC contender. However, the team has proven they are ready to ride their first Grand Tour and are going with a strong squad. Heinrich Haussler is a former Tour stage winner and is showing signs of his former semi-greatness that had people planning big things for him. After a few rough, lean years, it looks like Haussler is returning to form and capitalizing on a little maturity.
Well, he had a crappy Giro and had to abandon early, but Joaquim Rodriguez is back at the Tour. Purito is allegedly not concentrating on the GC, which has evaded him at every opportunity, and could possibly be freed to look for stage wins. Rodriguez is the perpetual “also ran”, racing brilliantly and yet never pulling off the win at a Grand Tour. Between “bad days” and bad luck, he’s been kept off the top step of the podium. The rest of the Katusha team, especially Luca Paolini, has proven to be expert opportunists. If things go unexpectedly well for Rodriguez, he could still find himself in the GC hunt, and with nothing to lose, he will certainly be liberated to try.
As the home of World Champion, Rui Costa, and the oldest ever winner of a Grand Tour (Chris Horner—2013 Vuelta), Lampre could prove to be an exciting dark horse in the race. Sadly, Horner had a horrible training crash before the Giro, where he was initially expected to lead the team. Costa has proven that he is ready to race, after a nice three-peat win at the Tour de Suisse. Merida will have a very experienced team at the Tour to support Costa, and is expected to have Horner along with him. Given Horner’s uncanny tactical genius, Lampre can not be ignored.
Despite any attempts to make you think they are bringing a GC contender to the race with Jurgen van Den Broeck, this team is hunting stage wins with Andre Greipel. Jurgen is a talented rider, but he’s no Lucien Van Impe, the last Belgian to win the Tour (1976). Greipel says that the Green jersey is not as important as stage wins to him, so don’t expect to see him waste energy chasing intermediate sprint points, so he can save his sprint for the end of the stage. Australian lunatic (is there any other kind?), Adam Hansen continues his incredible streak of consecutive Grand Tour starts, with this Tour being his ninth.
Alejandro Valverde may not be the prototype GC contender, but he often finds himself in contention. He managed to win the 2009 Vuelta, so he knows how to deal with the pressure of leadership. That win, was however, prior to his doping ban that stemmed from his connection to Operacion Puerto. Without a pure climber like Nairo Quintana to help him out, he’ll be hard pressed to really challenge for the final podium. That said, he’ll have a strong team at his disposal, even if he finds himself isolated at the end of tougher climbing stages.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step
OPQS for short, because spelling out the full name is obnoxious, might not have anybody to contend for the GC, but you can bet your arse they’ll be contending for lots of stage wins. Mark Cavendish is the team’s golden pony and they will be fighting hard to get him another Green jersey. Last year, Cav was upended by the superior Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), so you can bet he will be heading into this Tour with much greater intensity and drive. However, if he should falter, the team also has Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, World TT champ Tony Martin, and the increasingly impressive Michal Kwiatkowski. The cobbles of stage 5 will undoubtedly be high on their list of priorities, so they can be expected to push the pace and hunt the stage win. The true GC contenders will be wise to watch OPQS closely, or they may suddenly find their ambitions sunk before the Tour truly begins.
Orica could be forgiven if they show up to the Tour a little hungover from the Giro. After winning the opening TTT and putting Svein Tuft into the Maglia Rosa, they managed to keep Michael Matthews in pink for six days, including a stage win. Lacking a GC contender, they do have Simon Gerrans and Matthews to headline the team. One can never count the Aussie team out, and they’ll certainly be looking for chances to grab stage wins. Last year’s drama surrounding the team bus and finish line scaffolding will hopefully be forgotten.
It’s hard to tell what the biggest story about the team will be; the constant in-fighting between 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins and 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome, the never-ending murkiness of the team’s drug policies versus their own dubious usage, or the potential “I told you so” grins from Wiggins if Froome/ SKY fail to win a third consecutive Tour. SKY has become synonymous with mechanically precise, robotically boring racing. “Marginal gains” are the battle cry, and the results have made their brand of racing increasingly popular, with other teams, even if mind—numbingly boring to watch. Chris Froome’s stem staring has become almost as painful to watch as his awkward pedaling. The interior subplots within the team may prove the most interesting part of this year’s Tour, especially if Wiggins getting omitted from the Tour roster leads to the team failing to win. With Sir Brad’s enormous popularity within the UK, and the race beginning on British soil, leaving Wiggins off of the team is likely to be as unpopular from a PR perspective as potential sporting one. Danny Pate received the final nod, and he’s a very deserving rider (and excellent guy), but it’s damned hard to deny the value of Wiggins as former winner of the Tour and top ten at this year’s Paris-Roubaix. If Froome hits the deck on stage 5, hurting his chances for the GC win, I can only imagine the glee that will fill the mopey soul of Bradley.
Kittel, Kittel, Kittel. Did I mention Kittel? Oh, and Degenkolb. Giant-Shimano is coming to the Tour with one purpose only; win as many stages as possible. That responsibility falls squarely on the broad shoulders of Marcel Kittel, who managed to beat Mark Cavendish into the role of “the other sprinter” at last year’s Tour. Having John Degenkolb as his backup and part of the leadout train means that Kittel only needs to focus on having his jersey zipped up in time for the finish line photos. In an attempt to satisfy the title sponsor of the team, Giant-Shimano will also bring Chinese rider Cheng Ji to the Tour as the first ever Chinese rider to start the race. Whether he makes it to the finish in Paris or not is the bigger question surrounding his selection.
Thomas Voeckler’s team is always, somehow, an active participant in the race. Voeckler has been a darling of the Tour and the French public since wearing yellow for 10 days during the 2004 edition. He can always be counted on to go on suicide attacks, hunting stage wins, wagging his tongue wildly in the wind. It’s both endearing and oddly bizarre. His young teammate Bryan Coquard is a promising sprinter, hoping to earn a stage win. One thing is for sure, you can expect to see the boys in green looking for stage wins at every opportunity.
Alberto Contador has shown already that he is ready and willing to go toe to toe with Chris Froome and SKY. He may not have the strongest team to support him, but he’s got experience and great tactical timing. As one of the best climbers in the world, he’s got to have Froome worried. The lack of TT miles in this Tour definitely benefits El Pistolero, more than Stem Boy. The battle between Froome and Contador has been overhyped since the announcement of the race’s route, but Contador seems to relish the title of most likely to defeat Froome. Before his doping ban, Contador was widely regarded as the most talented stage racer of his generation. He’s not been as dominant since his return, but flashes of his former brilliance have been emerging. If he can get a TUE for Spanish Beef, his chances might increase significantly.
Trek Factory Racing
Jens Voigt’s last Tour (#17) might be the team’s biggest story this year. Fabian Cancellara is the odds-on favorite, outside of Niki Terpstra, to win stage 5 on the cobbles. Otherwise, the only other story is the relegation of Andy and Frank Schleck to stage hunters, rather than GC contenders. Neither Andy nor Frank have been able to regain anything that resembles the form they once had when they contended for the podium. They also aren’t riding for Johan Bruyneel anymore, so that might be part of it. Trek has a talented team, obviously, but they lack a true GC contender and will be at the Tour to hunt for stages. Neither Schleck seems ready, so the team’s hopes lie heavily on Cancellara and Voigt.
Once one of the most successful teams in the sport, Cofidis is a mere shell of its prior greatness. It’s easy to look at the team’s preliminary roster and ask, “who are these guys?” Suicide breaks for TV time will be the likely story for the team this year (again). Without a GC pretender or even a good sprinter, the team will be looking to get lucky with a break, possibly on one of the two rest days. But hey, it could be worse, right? Yeah, probably not.
This wildcard invite likely has a better chance of getting a stage win than a few of the bigger teams (hint: Cofidis). Though lacking sheer firepower or a big name rider, the team is very aggressive and they are unafraid of failure. Simply being in the race is a victory for them, which removes pressure and allows them to concentrate on racing. I personally can’t wait to see what they do, and will not be shocked if they take a stage or two while the bigger teams stare at each other.
Another wildcard, NetApp-Endura has a legitimate shot at doing something worth watching. They’ve quietly built their humble program into one that routinely shocks the bigger teams. With a good mix of veterans and youngsters, the team looks poised to make the most of their Tour debut. In fact, all nine riders selected for the race will be in the Tour for the first time in their careers. Talented climber Leopold Konig has gotten the nod as the team’s GC leader and will be supported by some strong riders. It won’t be an easy task, for certain, but the NetApp riders hope to do more than just finish the race.
The Maillot Jaune
It’s clear that the Tour is Chris Froome’s to lose, but he certainly could lose it. Though he’s the top pick to win, he has to contend with an on-form Contador, a dangerous Nibali, and a host of lesser challengers with a desire to prove themselves and less to lose. However, Froome’s biggest obstacle to repeating might very well be the implications and raised eyebrows surrounding the team’s potentially murky interpretation of doping rules. Will that undermine his defense? Possibly. It can’t help his, or the team’s ability to concentrate on the actual racing.
The other major GC players, Contador and Nibali, arrive with strong teams to support them. But, not only do they have to figure out how to crack the SKY team, they have to keep an eye on teams like Garmin (Talansky), BMC (van Garderen), Lampre (Costa/ Horner) and Movistar (Valverde). It’s hard to say that the GC picture is “wide open”, since Froome is the clear favorite and has the strongest team on paper, but there are already cracks in the defense- and you can bet the other teams smell blood in the water.
The Green jersey
The Green jersey, or Points, Sprinter’s jersey, hasn’t seen such an impressive list of potential contenders in years. Cavendish, Kittel, Greipel, Sagan, Matthews, and a few lesser riders like Demare, Coquard, or even Degenkolb. It’s hard to see a clear cut leader for the jersey, but Kittel has shown he is ready to defend his success of last year. Sagan wants another green jersey, but Cavendish has made it clear that he would like to both win stages and the jersey again. Greipel can not be ruled out, but he’s never focused on the jersey, just the wins. Matthews had a great run at the Giro, surely boosting his confidence, which makes him dangerous. All that means that the battle for sprint wins will be aggressive and fast, and likely with several crashes, as leadout trains battle for position to deliver their anointed leaders. Can Cav regain his earlier dominance? Will Kittel pick up where he left off at the Giro? Will Greipel capitalize on the Cavendish/ Kittel battle? Can Sagan outfox the “true sprinters” and finish in green again?
The Polka Dot jersey
Maillot Pois! Without a clear cut rider like Nairo Quintana, last year’s winner, the Climber’s jersey will potentially be a wide open contest. It could end up on the back of somebody like Nibali, if he attacks on the climbs on his way to trying to win the race. Or, if he takes his new responsibility to heart, Andy Schleck could be a great candidate. Voeckler might take another stab at the jersey. Riblon? Atapuma (BMC)? maybe even one of the powerful domestiques like Roche (Tinkoff) or Porte (SKY)? With all the climbing in this year’s race, it should be a battle all the way to final climb of the race. They might be weighing their lettuce at night and drinking diet water, but their ability to go uphill is often a thing of beauty to watch- even if they sound like a wind chime when they fall down.
July 5th. Big day. Mark your calendar, set your alarm, find a good European online feed to watch, and let’s all gather around the golden tunic of the oldest and most storied Grand Tour. Three weeks. It’ll be over before you know it. Thank God we have the Vuelta to look forward to in September!
Vive le Tour!