After another crazy week that has eliminated several pre-race favorites, the 2012 Tour de France appears to have become the two-rider battle between Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s Cadel Evans that many expected it to be.
Or has it?
With men like Vincenzo Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andreas Kloden, and Samuel Sanchez positioned near the top of the GC as the race hits the mountains, there are still several men capable of upsetting the apple cart. And with talented teams like Garmin-Sharp, Rabobank, and Europcar gunning for stage wins now, these mountain stages could be faster, more aggressive, and harder for teams like Sky and BMC to control.
In other words, let’s not hand the race to Wiggins and Evans—at least not yet. There’s still room for an upset.
Take Katusha’s Denis Menchov for example. The Russian is actually the most successful grand tour winner in the bunch, having won the Tour of Spain twice and the Tour of Italy once so far in his career. He’s also finished inside the Tour’s top-3 on two occasions. Physically, Menchov should have no problems with the mountains of this year’s Tour de France and he can certainly hold his own in the race’s two long time trials. And with Wiggins and Evans marking one another heavily, Menchov is perfectly poised to add the one grand tour still missing from his palmares.
He’s the perfect dark horse in a race that still contains several of them.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International