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

Advertisements

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

Sky’s Tour bid rests with Froome – Tour de France 2013 preview

A peloton of 198 riders will amass for 21 leg-crushing stages of the 100th Tour de France on Saturday – a journey over three weeks that will lead the greatest annual sporting event in the world over a distance of 2,115 miles.

To celebrate the centenary of cycling’s most iconic race, the organisers have compiled a route that takes in the legendary mountainous climbs of Alpe d’Huez (twice on stage 18), and Mont Ventoux – with the Tour culminating in a sunset finish on the Champs –Elysees in Paris.

For the first time in the race’s history the island of Corsica will feature when it hosts the opening three stages or ‘grand depart’ of the race.

The Pyrenees will also be navigated in the first week before the infamous Mont Ventoux ends the second with the Alps looming large in the third.

It is a truly brutal Tour and with the addition of three time-trials (one team and two individual) the 100th edition of this race is one of the most eagerly anticipated.

Once again, Great Britain has a pre-race favourite in Team Sky’s Chris Froome.

With 2012 winner Sir Bradley Wiggins unable to defend the famed yellow jersey because of a knee injury, cycling has been starved of what would have been a momentous rivalry.

Wiggins had planned to defend his crown after the recent snow-hindered Giro d’Italia – but Froome had long been placed as Sky’s team leader for the Tour, and the friction between the two riders has been uncomfortably evident ever since.

The source of the pair’s inclement relationship is widely reckoned to be the 2012 race when Froome, the stronger climber of the two, demonstrated his strength by attempting to leave Wiggins on a couple of crucial stages – only to back down and support him to victory in a further display of loyalty to the team.

For 2013, Wiggins was earmarked to be Froome’s right-hand man, but his subsequent withdrawal has saved Sky from a glut of unwanted media attention.

The duo’s Sky team-mate, Australian rider Richie Porte, will instead support Froome in the high mountains and will be the team’s back-up plan should Froome suffer injury or huge time losses.

Froome’s form has been exemplary in the run up to the race, with the Kenya-born Brit winning four out of five stage races this season – including the Criterium du Dauphine and the Criterium International, both of which are good indicators of a rider’s Tour de France form.

In doing so, Froome has emulated Wiggins’ performances of 2012 – and he will hope to provide the same end result.

But he will face strong competition from Spain’s Alberto Contador, twice a winner of this event, and his Team Saxo Bank –Tinkoff Bank squad.

Contador has seasoned Tour riders such as Nicholas Roche, Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger at his disposal but Sky, who will rely on Kanstantsin Siutsou and David Lopez alongside Porte in aid of Froome, will be confident of holding off the diminutive Spaniard.

Other contenders for the General Classification victory include the aggressive Spanish duo of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, along with promising Colombian rider Nairo Quintana – who will vie with BMC’s Tejay van Garderen for the best young rider’s white jersey, or ‘maillot blanc’.

Cadel Evans, who enjoyed a fine podium finish in the Giro, will also be in contention – as will the dangerous trio of Jurgen van den Broeck, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who last week won the British National Road Race Championships, has the chance to write his own piece of history during his quest for the green sprinter’s jersey.

He is currently fourth on the all-time list of Tour stage wins with 23, just 11 behind the great Eddy Merckx. A healthy six stage wins for the ‘Manx Missile’ would propel him above French legends Bernard Hinault and Andre Leducq into second on that list.

However, Cavendish could be the first rider to wear the ‘maillot jaune’ as the Corsican first stage seems custom-made for his explosive sprinting abilities.

Last year’s winner of the green jersey Peter Sagan will be Cavendish’s main threat, as the Slovakian is a stronger climber than the Briton and may look to escape on the hillier parcours later in the Tour to claim vital intermediate sprint points and maybe a couple of stage victories – just as he did last year.

One of the Tour’s most interesting sub-plots is the King of the Mountains classification, which is always unpredictable as the best climbers tend to stay in the peloton to conserve energy rather than chase the points on offer for cresting the summit of each categorised climb.

As a result, France’s popular Team Europcar member Tommy Voeckler – not renowned for his climbing – got himself into several breakaways last season to mop up the points on offer and claim the polka dot jersey.

Cycling fans will also be glued to the fortunes of current world champion Philippe Gilbert, French cult hero Voeckler, Andy Schleck – making his Grand Tour comeback after a fractured pelvis – and German sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, who will provide a stern test for the likes of Cavendish, Sagan and Matt Goss in bunch sprint finishes.

But the hundreds of millions of eyes watching this inspiring event will likely be watching Froome and his battle with Contador.

While it is not the Froome vs. Wiggins clash the cycling community had so relished, it promises to be a fascinating match-up – and one which is worthy of the centennial staging of this colossal race.