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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2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

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.