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 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

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.