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

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F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89