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

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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

Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.