2016 Vuelta a Espana preview

The 2016 Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday with three giants of cycling waiting to battle it out for the final Grand Tour of the year.

Tour de France winner Chris Froome, fresh from competing at the 2016 Olympics, will contend with Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana for the Vuelta, both of whom missed Rio to concentrate on the red jersey.

On paper, Contador and Quintana look like the favourites, but who else can challenge this illustrious trio?

The contenders

Froome may be the 2016 Tour champion but his exploits in Rio will have taken plenty from his tank. Finishing 12th in the road race, he then won bronze in the time trial when admitting he had nothing left in his legs.

His powers of recovery will be severely tested on another brutal Vuelta parcours that includes ten new summit finishes.

On past precedents, riders such as Froome with a busy schedule in the lead-up to La Vuelta often do not fare well, and this plays into the hands of three-time winner Contador and Quintana who are both fresh.

Contador’s crash and illness at the Tour forced an early abandonment and he has since had the time to rest and prepare himself for a tilt at a fourth Vuelta title.

Quintana, meanwhile, suffered with a mystery virus during the Tour but recovered to finish on the podium in third.

The Colombian has been unlucky in this race before, having crashed in a time trial when well-placed to win in 2014, and crashing again in the next stage.

Movistar have named Alejandro Valverde as their leader but it is unlikely he will be able to challenge Contador and Quintana is waiting in the wings should he falter early on.

Esteban Chaves is another Colombian looking for Vuelta glory and, after a second-place finish to Vincenzo Nibali in the 2016 Giro, he has geared his season around a Giro/Vuelta run.

Chaves claimed fifth in the 2015 Vuelta in his breakthrough season and it is clearly a race that suits the smiling Orica BikeExhange rider.

Outside challengers include Steven Kruijswijk, who crashed late in the Giro when in the maglia rosa, and Andrew Talansky, who has solely focused on the Vuelta this year.

The other jerseys

The green points jersey is likely to be taken by a pure climber, such is way the Vuelta weights the points on each stage.

This structure has been labelled unfair by several of the world’s top sprinters in recent seasons and consequently there are no notable fast men other than Movistar rider Jose Joaquin Rojas at the Vuelta this season.

Instead, with the mountainous terrain on offer the Vuelta has attracted several of the world’s top puncheurs who may fight it out for the white combined jersey and the blue polka dot king of the mountains jersey in addition to the green.

Puncheurs, or one-day classic specialists, favour short sharp bursts up hills and with the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Simon Gerrans and Zdenek Stybar on show, cycling fans will have plenty to enjoy over the three weeks.

The stages

La Vuelta organisers Unipublic have been sensible this year, with the race mainly based in the mountains of northern Spain and few lengthy transfers between stages.

There are some stonking summit finishes on show, including stage three’s arrival at the Mirador de Izaro, which features an incline of a whopping 29%, a gradient which saw riders climb off and walk in the 2013 Vuelta.

Stage eight sees the riders take on La Camponera, which elevates to 24% in places, while the run in to the stage 17 summit finish takes place on the Mas de la Costa, which averages 15% for 4km and tops out at 22%.

The toughest stage looks set to be the fourteenth, with three category one climbs and the summit finish atop the ‘especial’ category Col d’Aubisque.

There are five official flat stages, while the race kicks off with a team time trial and features a pivotal individual time trial on stage 19.

The Brits

There are a good selection of Brits in the 2016 Vuelta. Chris Froome is the headline act and he is joined on the Team Sky roster by Peter Kennaugh, who surrendered his Rio road race spot to the in-form Steve Cummings.

Simon Yates also enters his first Grand Tour since a ban for a failed drug test – something his team take responsibility for regarding their failure to notify the UCI of his asthma medication.

Yates will have his work cut out to emulate brother Adam, who finished an astonishing fourth in the Tour de France in July.

Young Brits Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural) and Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon-18) both make their Grand Tour debuts to bring the total number of British riders present at the Vuelta to five.

So, that leaves nothing else to do other than kick back with a large glass of Rioja and watch the riders slog it out in 40C heat, go head-to-head in the high mountains and fight for the final Grand Tour of the season.

There is also the chance for an unheralded sprinter to make a name for themselves and watch out for those pesky Brits – Froome, Carthy and Yates could all feature in the top ten on the General Classification if it goes to plan.

But, with Contador, Quintana and Froome all lighting up the front of the race it’s going to be a treat, and my money is on Quintana to emerge victorious.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2016 Tour de France preview – Third time lucky for Quintana?

The 2016 Tour de France rolls off today as the 198 riders begin their 3,535km dash around France with a poignant first stage that finishes in Utah Beach to commemorate the D-Day landings of World War Two.

The battle for the first yellow jersey is likely to be between Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but it is the fight to wear the maillot jaune in Paris on July 24 that is the most appealing.

This Tour looks set to be a tense shake-up between reigning Tour champion Chris Froome and in-form Colombian climber Nairo Quintana.

The contenders

The past few editions of ‘le Tour’ have been ideal for Froome. His Tour victories of 2013 and 2015 combined just the right amount of time-trialling and high mountain passes, although Quintana very nearly snatched victory last season with an astounding attack on the famous Alpe d’Huez.

This year, Quintana will be licking his lips with a more mountainous route and two climber-centric time trials providing plenty of opportunity to put time into his rivals.

Quintana has finished second to Froome in each of the British rider’s wins but this year he looks the stronger of the two.

The Movistar rider has won three stage races this season already, triumphing in the Route du Sud, Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.

Meanwhile, Froome is peaking at just the right time as he looks to win a third Tour and maintain his form for a tilt at the gold medal in the Olympic road race at Rio 2016.

The Kenya-born Brit took victory in the most prestigious warm-up for the Tour de France, the Criterium du Dauphine.

While the clash between Froome and Quintana will dominate the headlines, those writing off two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador do so at their peril.

The Spaniard has quietly gone about his business this season with the goal of timing his form for the Tour, and with his explosive climbing style and unparalleled ability in uphill time-trials he will undoubtedly be on Froome and Quintana’s watchlist.

There is also an intriguing dynamic at Astana where 2016 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be riding in support of 2015 Vuelta a Espana victor Fabio Aru.

The Italians are known to dislike one another but they will be forced to help each other as Astana look to pull a tactical blindfold over their rivals.

Nibali will be gunning for a fast start and if he gets an early lead it will afford Astana the luxury of masking which rider is their preferred leader – giving their rivals two riders to mark instead of one.

Best of the rest

There is no doubting Richie Porte’s quality, but he has a worrying tendency to blow up in the latter stages of a Grand Tour.

He has consistently underperformed on the biggest stage and his exit from Team Sky was an understandable decision given he had been Froome’s wingman and deputy and simply failed to deliver.

The situation at his new team, BMC, is similar to that of Astana’s, as American rider Tejay van Garderen is also in contention for the yellow jersey.

The lanky time-trial specialist comes to the 2016 Tour with unfinished business as illness in last season’s edition cruelly robbed him of a podium spot as he was forced to abandon the race from third place on stage 17.

BMC can afford to place Porte as their leader and, if he’s strong enough, he will most likely keep that status to the end of the race. If he does run out of legs in the third week, van Garderen will naturally be high in the General Classification and the team can then support him instead.

There is also a strong feeling in France that Thibault Pinot or Romain Bardet could have a Tour to remember. Bardet in particular has been in excellent form this season and his demon descending abilities could be a factor on some hairy descents lined up for this Tour.

Pinot has long struggled with time-trialling and descending but the uphill stages against the clock will be more to his liking and he will always be a threat on the major mountain stages.

The other jerseys

Sadly, if Peter Sagan doesn’t win the green jersey it will only be through an accident. The world champion is supreme at picking up intermediate sprint points on hilly stages and he has won the last four green jerseys.

The sprinters will take the majority of the flat stage wins, with Sagan usually in the top five, but the Slovakian’s ability to survive in breakaways and win uphill sprints makes him the overwhelming favourite to take five in a row.

Marcel Kittel is tipped to win the most stages this year, but he will be challenged by fellow German Andre Greipel and British rider Mark Cavendish.

Kittel has been in scintillating form during 2016, often winning stages by several bike lengths and, if his Etixx Quick-Step team can provide a good lead-out train, he will again be untouchable.

The King of the Mountains classification is likely to be won by a GC contender, just as Froome did last year.

Failing that, a rider who is consistently in the breakaways can mop up points for being the first man over the summit. However, with the majority of points weighted for summit finishes, a pure climber is more likely to win the polka dot jersey.

The white jersey, given to the highest-placed rider under 25, is the most open for years after Quintana recently turned 26, but expect the winner to come from this trio of Warren Barguil, British rider Adam Yates or Louis Meintjes.

The stages

The 2016 Tour is full of mountains and consequently the warm-up races have been too, most noticeably with a focus on uphill time-trials.

Stage 12 stands out as the best stage in the race as the riders ascend the legendary Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.

Froome has also earmarked this as the most attractive stage and given he beat Quintana convincingly on Ventoux in 2013 he will fancy his chances once more.

The back end of the Tour is usually slanted upwards and this edition is no different. Stages 17, 18, 19 and 20 are Alpine monsters, traversing Switzerland and then back into France.

With 54km of time-trialling to be done, including one uphill and the other with two tricky climbs, time gaps will quickly appear in the GC race.

The Brits

There is a ‘magnificent seven’ of British riders in this year’s Tour. Team Sky boast four of those with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.

Team Dimension Data have two in the shape of Mark Cavendish and Steven Cummings, while the relatively unknown sprinter Daniel McLay makes his Tour debut for the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.

Denouement

As always there is plenty to look out for in the Tour this year. There are races within the race, races within each classification and there will be plenty of cat and mouse too.

It will be hard to take your eyes off the GC battle though. Froome, Quintana and Contador will be cutting shapes on some brutal mountain passes and it could come down to who handles the time-trials better than the others.

But there is a lingering feeling when looking over the parcours that this could well be Nairo Quintana’s year. On the Alpe d’Huez last season he will have sensed a weakness in Froome and the Colombian’s sparkling form this season gives him his best shot yet at climbing into yellow.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2015 Tour de France preview: Big four set to do battle

The 2015 Tour de France begins on Saturday in Holland as cycling’s ‘big four’ start their hugely-anticipated fight for the most coveted Grand Tour of the season.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will be up against 2013 winner Chris Froome, 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.

This elite quartet only face one another on very rare occasions, so to have each of them prepared for a tilt at the General Classification victory is a mouthwatering prospect.

The contenders

As the reigning champion, Nibali arguably has the most to lose. The cycling community is under no illusions that his eight-minute win in the Tour last year was significantly enhanced by mid-Tour injuries to Froome and Contador.

Nibali has also been labelled as the weakest of the quartet, but having won all three Grand Tours this is a grossly unfair tag to pin on him.

Early indicators on a likely victor are swayed slightly by June’s week-long Criterium du Dauphine.

Froome came away as the stronger rider after being given a big scare by Tejay van Garderen, who is showing signs of delivering the big Tour performance his talent demands.

Nibali played a very tactical race, pushing no further than he wanted and attacking on a wet stage to briefly take the yellow jersey before losing it on another mountainous stage.

Contador and Quintana elected to race the Route du Sud and Contador, fresh from his Giro d’Italia win, narrowly beat the Colombian to boost his hopes of a Giro-Tour double.

If Contador did manage to win in Paris on the 26th July he would become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour brace.

For the mysterious Quintana, this is an opportunity to scare his closest rivals.

The diminutive Colombian has been training at home in the Andes and has picked his races very precisely. His massive accelerations are perhaps the strongest on the roster and he will be backed by his sneaky and astute Movistar team.

In many people’s opinion, Quintana is the favourite for the Tour with Froome a very close second.

Froome’s playground of the time-trial has been reduced, with the opening 13.8km TT and the team TT on stage nine the only chances to gain GC time against the clock.

His Dauphine win suggests he is in the ideal place to step up his Tour preparations and he won’t fear Quintana having left him for dead on the legendary Mont Ventoux ascent in 2013.

The Stages

The first stage in Utrecht is too long to be called a prologue, but the tiny distance will still favour the specialist time-triallers with Tom Dumoulin hoping to become the first Dutchman for over 20 years to wear the maillot jaune.

A tricky stage two takes place along the coast of the Netherlands, with crosswinds set to tear the race apart.

Stage three will traverse the Mur-de-Huy with gradients of 19%, before a brutal day over the cobblestones on stage four will undoubtedly separate the GC contenders.

From there, the sprinters will contest three flat stages before the race ramps upwards on stage eight and the opening week finishes with the intriguing team time-trial.

The second week looks horrendous, with the first summit finish on the ‘Hors categorie’ Col de Soudet on stage ten starting a run of imperious Pyrenean stages that will provide the perfect battleground for the big four.

Stage 11 features six categorised climbs and will pass over the highest point of the race – the Col du Tourmalet – which tops out at 2,115m.

If those two Pyrenean beauties weren’t enough, the last of them features two category one climbs and a final slog up the Hors categorie climb to Plateau de Beille.

The race then takes a breather before rolling over a stage featured in the Dauphine, a testing trip to Pra Loup, with a technical descent deep into the stage that could spell carnage.

The riders will definitely know they’re in the Alps when they hit the next stage, with seven categorised climbs.

Stage 19 is the penultimate mountain stage, but features over 70km of climbing before the queen stage, which finishes atop the classic Alpe d’Huez.

ASO, the Tour organisers, are hoping the winning move will be made on the slopes of that famous mountain, and it would certainly be spectacular if those hopes came true.

The Brits

A big British contingent will grace the Tour this year, with ten riders taking the start. Five of them ride for Team Sky – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – while Mark Cavendish, Alex Dowsett, Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Steve Cummings complete the line-up.

Realistically, Froome will be the Brit with the most to gain. His British team-mates will be riding in full support for him and, unless anything happens to their leader, they won’t chase stage wins.

Cavendish will naturally be a threat on the sprint stages and he needs three more victories to equal the great Bernard Hinault on 28 stage wins and move joint-second on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx.

Look out for the Yates brothers too, who have been given the licence by their team Orica GreenEdge to hunt for stage wins. Simon also finished an impressive fifth in the Dauphine and could sneak into the top three young riders overall.

The jerseys

The yellow jersey is almost certainly an exclusive battle between the big four, but van Garderen has enough about him to keep pace with them – just how much of a challenge he puts up is unknown, but his Dauphine exploits mean he cannot be ruled out.

Nor can French duo Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who are leading home hopes again and who will keep improving as France searches for a first home-grown Tour winner in 30 years.

The white jersey, given to the best young rider, will almost certainly go to Nairo Quintana, as will the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey if he cannot claim yellow.

The green jersey, given to the best sprinter, is going to be a fight between Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff, but with more points on offer for flat stage wins, don’t discount Cavendish.

A la Cartè

Some interesting little additions have been made to the Tour this year, with time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds available to the first three finishers on stages two to eight.

The 2015 Tour will also see the first African-based team compete. MTN Qhubeka have long been competing in and around the World Tour, but this is their first full season on the books and they will look to make a big impact with Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot going in search of a stage win and possibly the polka dot jersey.

But the sub-plots, for once, are just that as the big-four showdown finally happens.

Cycling fans have waited for years for a GC line-up as massive as this, and it has now come to pass.

Let’s hope the racing lives up to the hype.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2015 Giro d’Italia preview

Normally, a Giro d’Italia would attract a good selection of the biggest names in cycling. This year, however, they all seem to be concentrating on a particularly inviting Tour de France.

That leaves Alberto Contador as the red-hot favourite to secure his second Giro triumph and take home the famous maglia rosa.

Take nothing as read, though. Contador has had an unspectacular start to the season and has been beaten by the likes of Italy’s Fabio Aru and Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran already this campaign, and the three of them will again face each other in the first Grand Tour of the year.

The contenders                                                                                

Contador, Aru and Uran are exceptional climbers. Spain’s Contador is the class act of them all, and his time-trialling is still good enough to put time into his General Classification rivals.

In Uran, Contador faces the biggest threat to his hopes of a seventh Grand Tour victory.

The Etixx-Quick Step leader has improved significantly in recent seasons and finished second behind compatriot Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Giro.

Aru, who claimed third place in 2014, is also a big danger but his time-trialling lets him down. This aspect of the race is especially important in 2015 because there is a gigantic 59.4km time trial at the end of the second week.

Aside from that trio, an unexpected wildcard has thrown himself into the mix.

Ilnur Zakarin, who has served a two-year ban for doping, leapt to the attention of the cycling world last week when he won the Tour de Romandie, beating Grand Tour winners Chris Froome and Quintana in the process.

The 25-year-old Russian has lost 10kg of weight since his ban to strip down to GC material and possesses a nifty time-trial – even giving former TT world champion Tony Martin a severe scare at the Romandie.

Whether Zakarin can challenge for the duration of the epic 3,486km journey from Liguria to Milan remains to be seen, but he will be a marked man – both by riders and a doping-obsessed media.

Readers may also be confused as to why Richie Porte doesn’t feature as a contender.

He has been guilty of some shocking collapses in Grand Tours in recent years, falling off the pace on innocuous climbs when tasked with being Chris Froome’s wingman.

The Australian has a lot to prove and must rebuild his reputation with a solid Giro performance.

The sprinters

With big-name sprinters Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish not contesting the Giro, the muscular presence of Andre Greipel is favourite to claim the red sprinter’s jersey – or points jersey.

Greipel and his fellow sprinters will find the parcours difficult, with only three officially flat stages to battle for.

That suggests the hilly route of the Giro could favour a punchier rider, with early favourites for stage wins being Australia’s Michael Matthews and classics specialist Tom Boonen.

Other sprinters including Team Sky’s Elia Viviani and Movistar’s Juan Jose Lobato will be looking to minesweep the peloton for lead-out trains as the bulk of their teams protect GC riders.

The Brits

Disappointingly for British cycling fans there is not a single British rider in the 2015 Giro. Team Sky, the usual proponents of British riders, seem to be massing their star Brits for a tilt at the Tour de France, with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard all set to feature.

Team Sky have thrown their weight behind Aussie Richie Porte for the Giro, and he can count on support from workhorses Vasil Kiryienka and Bernie Eisel before super-domestiques Leopold Konig and Mikel Nieve chaperone him through the Dolomites.

The fun zones

In usual Giro fashion, the lovely organisers have schemed a brutal route across Italy.

The 21 stages include a mammoth 264km trip on stage seven, a 236km in mountainous roads on stage 19, and the harsh 59.4km TT chucked in for good measure.

No less than six summit finishes adorn the Giro this year, with the queen stage being the long slog to Sestriere, featuring an ascent of the Colle delle Finestre, the last half of which is raced over gravel – making the quest for forward momentum that little bit more difficult.

All things considered, Contador is rightly the favourite for Giro glory. His Tinkoff-Saxo team is arguably the strongest in the race and he will have Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso at his disposal for the mountains.

The Spaniard’s going to take some beating.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress neilwalton089

2014 La Vuelta a Espana preview – Quintana lines up Giro/Vuelta double

Nairo Quintana will start the 2014 La Vuelta a Espana on Saturday bidding to secure a rare double feat.

If the Colombian Movistar rider wins he will become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta in the same season after Eddy Merckx (1973), Giovanni Battaglin (1981) and Alberto Contador (2008).

Of course, Quintana will have to battle Contador himself to carve his slice of history after the Spaniard withdrew from this season’s Tour de France with a fractured shin bone.

Contador’s quicker than expected recovery has convinced his Tinkoff-Saxo team that he is 100% fit for a tilt at earning a third Vuelta win, but there is another huge challenger for the win.

Britain’s Chris Froome who, like Contador, also withdrew from Le Tour after sustaining a broken wrist and hand, is perhaps Quintana’s closest rival for the Vuelta this year.

After making an almost unnoticed comeback from contracting the bilharzia parasite, Froome blasted his way to prominence with second place at La Vuelta in 2011, a heartbreaking thirteen seconds behind Juan Jose Cobo.

With three Grand Tour superstars in the race, La Vuelta’s route will be a constant battleground for them as it features no fewer than eight summit finishes and just five flat stages out of 21.

There are also three time trials, one team and two individual, with the final 10km time-trial in Santiago de Compostela breaking a 21-year-old streak of finishing La Vuelta in Madrid.

The 12.6km team time-trial kicks off the Vuelta in Jerez, before the race winds through southern Spain in a mixed opening parcours.

The opening nine stages before the first rest day are composed of two mountain stages, three hilly stages, three flat stages and the team time-trial.

Race organisers Unipublic have seemingly decided to incorporate all four types of parcours to add early uncertainty to a race which gets down to business in the second week.

After the opening rest day, the riders tackle a 34.5km time-trial to Borja – which could expose Quintana and play into the hands of strong time-triallists Contador and Froome.

But the Colombian could retaliate to any potential time losses incurred against the clock when the race hits the mountains of northern Spain.

Stage 11 includes a summit finish before stages 14, 15 and 16 loom large.

That trio of mountainous stages looks set to decide the race and, with time bonuses available throughout La Vuelta, the main general classification (GC) riders will be attacking for maximum gains.

Stage 16, with its five first category climbs includes a destructive sting in the tail.

Traversing the highest point of the race, the riders will encounter the summit finish to La Farrapona, Lagos de Somiedo which tops out at 1,715m.

The final week looks progressively harder, but not as taxing as the middle week.

A flat-looking stage 17 is followed by two medium mountain stages and a mountainous penultimate stage ending in a highest-category summit finish in Puerto de Ancares before the 2014 Vuelta ends with a zippy 10km time-trial.

Quintana looks ideally placed to win the Giro/Vuelta double, but with Contador and Froome bailing from the Tour de France in its opening week they should be fresh and ready to salvage an esteemed result from their season.

Other noteworthy contenders include Joaquim Rodriguez, who has used the Tour to prepare for the Vuelta, and Alejandro Valverde but reigning Vuelta champion Chris Horner has been withdrawn voluntarily by his Lampre-Merida team.

The 42-year-old delivered an abnormally low cortisone level and, although that level is not illegal under UCI rules, Lampre have acted upon the Movement for Credible Cycling’s (MPCC) regulations and pulled him out without external request. 

Elsewhere, rising star Wilco Kelderman is also a serious danger to the established GC contenders after a superb seventh place in the Giro, while Rigoberto Uran will also demand respect after a second-consecutive second-place at the Giro.

There is healthy British representation this year, with Garmin’s David Millar recovering from his late Tour relegation to aid Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin in their bid for a top ten finish.

Orica Greenedge’s Adam Yates, winner of the Tour of Turkey this year, will make his Grand Tour debut after watching brother Simon compete in the Tour de France in July.

Team Sky are fielding a trio of Britons in Froome, Tour of Austria winner Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – indicating the presence of plans B and C should Froome’s form deteriorate.

Of course, the British team will be hoping to recover from a disastrous Tour which saw the absence of an alternative plan hopelessly exposed by Froome’s withdrawal.

But the pointy end of the race will likely involve Quintana, Contador and Froome. Rodriguez could also be together with them and that could form an interesting dynamic as happened in 2012 when Froome was attacked by a Spanish alliance of Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez.

Race favourite Quintana appears to warrant his candidacy as the best of the contenders, but much depends on the form of Froome and Contador. Have they recovered enough fitness after their injuries to challenge the diminutive Colombian?

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 Tour de France preview – Can Froome beat Contador?

The 2014 Tour de France rolls off on Saturday as defending champion Chris Froome enters into combat with two-time winner Alberto Contador.

‘Le Tour’ is set to weave through Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London as the first three stages start and finish on British roads, and race organisers ASO will hope to see the ‘Grand Depart’ culminate in a spectacular sprint finish on The Mall.

There are also four British riders in the race: Froome, Mark Cavendish, Froome’s Team Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas and Orica Greenedge’s Simon Yates – a surprise inclusion in the Australian squad.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme has certainly made sure the British stages will pack a punch, with the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate featuring three categorised climbs before the sprinters’ teams have a chance to pull any breakaway back in time for a sprint finish in Harrogate.

Of course, the winner of this stage will take the ‘maillot jaune’ and, with Harrogate being the birthplace of his mother, Cavendish will be hoping to win and become the seventh British rider in history to have worn the yellow jersey.

He will face huge competition from arch-rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, but the estimated one million fans expected to line the roads will push Cavendish on to what he hopes will be a memorable win.

Stage two, however, might prove too much for the sprinters to defend the yellow jersey as an astonishing nine categorised climbs punctuate the 201km route from York to Sheffield.

Prudhomme, devious as ever, has saved the steepest of those nine hills to feature just three miles from the finish – a short, agonising 800-metre climb up Jenkin Road which boasts a crushing 33% gradient at its steepest section.

With nine climbs packed into the second stage it resembles a one-day classic race where time gaps between the general classification (GC) riders will almost inevitably open up.

Viewers can expect the ‘puncheur’ riders such as Trek’s Fabian Cancellara, Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke and Omega-Pharma Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra to fight it out into Sheffield for the stage win.

Stage three is a sprinter’s stage, with a meek maximum elevation of 108 metres and a high-octane finish in London where Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel will again lock horns for a prestigious win.

With 2014 also marking 100 years since World War One began, ASO have plotted a 155.5km route through Belgium and northern France which starts in Ypres and finishes in Arenberg – both of which witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths during WW1.

The commemorative stage also has another huge significance for ‘Le Tour’ as it forces the riders through nine sections of punishing cobblestones totalling 15km.

If stage two was responsible for opening time gaps then the cobblestones on stage five could potentially blow them apart and even wreck a GC contender’s race – as happened to Frank Schleck in 2010 when the Luxembourg rider fell and broke his collarbone on a treacherous cobbled section.

Stage seven will provide a tricky test towards the end with two fourth-category climbs in the final 17km, but the sprinters should avoid the inevitable attacks from the puncheurs to contest a sprint finish into Nancy.

The race will have entered eastern France on stage eight, with a trip to the scenic Vosges mountain range providing the entertainment on the next three stages.

Stage eight features the first of five summit finishes in the 2014 Tour, and it will bite the riders hard with an average gradient of 10.3% as the route tops out in Gerardmer la Mauselaine.

With seven categorised climbs on stage nine – including a first category climb at le Markstein – the GC riders will need to be aware of potentially pivotal attacks from their rivals before a 35km descent into Mulhouse.

Ahead of the first rest day, Prudhomme will hope for some fireworks on stage ten which features another six categorised climbs before arriving at la Planche des Belles Filles – the scene of Chris Froome’s maiden Tour stage win and a climb which tops out with a massive 20% gradient.

Once the rest day is completed, the race storms into the Alps as the climbs keep coming. Eight more climbs spread over two stages precede the first two mountainous stages.

If Contador and Froome have serious ambition to win the race, these two stages could be pivotal.

A summit finish at Chamrousse is the first ‘hors-categorie’ climb of the Tour and lasts a draining 18.2km.

Stage 14 reinforces an energy-sapping day with a visit to the highest point of the race, the Col d’Izoard, which tops out at 2,360m above sea level and lasts 19km with an average gradient of 6%.

The peloton is not done there, though. A summit finish in Risoul lasting 12.6km will confirm the strongest climbers in the race and will set the Tour up for a final blast into the Pyrenees.

Once they get there three perilous mountain stages await them.

On stage 16, the peloton must navigate four small climbs before the stage tops out on the Port de Bales climb, a highest-category ascent, before descending into Bagneres-de-Luchon.

Froome could be susceptible to an attack by Contador on this stage as the Spaniard is a better descender and, if he has team-mates around him to help isolate the British rider, the Tinkoff-Saxo man could steal a few seconds.

Stage 17 is another monster with three first-category climbs, including the Col de Peyresourde, stacked before a summit finish to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet.

If that wasn’t enough, the battle between Froome and Contador could erupt on stage 18 as the peloton tackles the legendary Col du Tourmalet before a summit finish in Hautacam.

In a route many expect to favour Contador with 63 categorised climbs in total, the organisers have thrown a lifeline to Froome with a 54km time-trial from Bergerac to Perigueux.

The finish is reminiscent of the 2011 Tour when Cadel Evans won the race with a superb time-trial in the penultimate stage to overhaul a big gap to Andy Schleck. Will Froome be in the same position?

If he is, Contador will be a much harder obstacle to overcome as his time-trialling is almost a match for Froome’s.

Of course, the race traditionally finishes on the Champs-Elysees and Marcel Kittel will be favourite to repeat his 2013 victory – even with competition from Cavendish and Greipel.

So, on a route that is more suited to Contador than Froome, Team Sky’s leader will have to emulate the form he showed earlier in the year to overcome the dangerous Spaniard.

The trouble for Froome is that illness at the Criterium du Dauphine – the best indicator of Tour form – may have hampered his pre-Tour fitness and there are genuine concerns for the Brit as he comes up against a fully-fit, on form Contador.

The Dauphine also saw the emergence of American rider Andrew Talansky, whose late breakaway stage win helped capture the best stage-race victory of his career.

Alejandro Valverde is also a formidable threat, and the punchy, hilly nature of the Tour will favour him after he enjoyed a wonderful classics season – victory in La Fleche Wallonne is his highlight so far.

Much has also been made of Tejay van Garderen and Jurgen van den Broeck, who will almost certainly challenge for a podium spot alongside Talansky and the relentless Vincenzo Nibali.

Undoubtedly, the key to the Tour will be staying out of trouble. If Froome and Contador can survive stages two and five then the 2014 Tour could morph into a battleground with a series of pulsating duels in the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2014 Giro d’Italia – Quintana favourite to claim first Grand Tour win

Colombian star Nairo Quintana will begin the Giro d’Italia as favourite to win the 97th edition of a race which will journey to Northern Ireland and Ireland for the first three stages.

Quintana’s favouritism for the maglia rosa is well substantiated as perhaps the most lung-bursting Grand Tour of them all features an enormous final week involving a climb of the legendary Passo dello Stelvio and a queen-stage summit finish atop the infamous Monte Zoncolan, which features gradients of 22%.

However, in the absence of the Tour-bound Chris Froome, current Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali and in-form Alberto Contador the 2014 Giro looks wide-open with any one of ten riders in with a realistic chance of clambering onto the top step of the podium in Trieste on 1 June.

Riders of the calibre of Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez will be a serious danger to Quintana and his Movistar squad, while Cadel Evans cuts a rejuvenated figure after victory at the Giro del Trentino in April.

The Spaniard, like Quintana, will be hoping to win his first Grand Tour after coming agonisingly close in 2012 when he lost the Giro by 16 seconds to Ryder Hesjedal.

Michele Scarponi, a former Giro winner by default, will also contest the three-week event for new team Astana, and there is also some attention surrounding Domenico Pozzovivo who some believe is flying under the radar after a series of impressive top ten finishes in stage races and classics this season.

Rigoberto Uran, who left Sky to join Omega Pharma – QuickStep in search of Grand Tour assaults, should also feature prominently in a race he finished second in last year.

There will also be a huge spotlight cast upon Dan Martin, Peter Deignan and Nico Roche as the Irishmen line-up in Belfast for the opening two stages before traversing the border south to Dublin for the third stage.

Other outside shots include Polish duo Rafal Majka and Przemyslaw Niemiec, while Belkin’s young prospect Wilco Kelderman is my tip for an unexpected top ten finish.

Despite the 12 stages in the medium and high mountains, there are seven opportunities for the sprinters to take stage victories and of the sprinting contingent in the race there are none more imposing than Marcel Kittel.

The German will be using the Giro as a leapfrog onto the Tour de France but with such a punishing parcours he might enter le Tour tired which could play into the hands of arch-rivals Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel.

Italian sprint interest will centre around Cannondale’s Elia Viviani who will challenge Kittel in good spirits after two stage wins at the recent Tour of Turkey.

Finally, there is a limited British interest in the Giro with only Sky’s Ben Swift competing in the first Grand Tour of the season.

Swift has proven his mettle this year after a breakthrough podium in the Milan-San Remo classic, and he will be given the chance to ride for himself on stages of similar parcours, meaning he will target medium mountain stages with a climb late in the stage followed by a sprint finish.

So, while on paper Quintana and Rodriguez head the field, there are several riders who have the quality to spring a surprise and claim the coveted maglia rosa.

Many are suggesting the Giro will be won on the final week, possibly even the penultimate stage. Quintana vs Rodriguez vs Evans on the Zoncolan, anyone? Yes, please!

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89