As the 102nd Tour de France gets underway in the compact streets of the Dutch city of Utrecht on Saturday, it will mark the beginning of what promises to be one of the most exciting battles for the famed yellow jersey in years.
One year after Vincenzo Nibali claimed road cycling’s biggest prize, the Italian is one of three favourites in contention, with Britain’s Chris Froome, winner in 2013, and Spain’s Alberto Contador, champion in both 2007 and 2009, the most likely to dethrone the Astana rider.
Outsiders, most agree, have only the faintest hopes of taking the crown.
Of the top three, Froome, the wiry Kenyan-born leader of Team Sky, is perhaps looking in the best shape, coming into the Tour on the back of victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in June. The 30-year-old, always a determined competitor, will also be spurred on by memories of his disastrous bad luck in last year’s Tour, when he was forced to retire on just the fifth stage after crashing for the third time in two days.
In contrast, Nibali’s build up to the Tour has been marked by less-than-stunning form despite some flashes of his true capabilities during the Dauphiné. He was in a similar rut, however, coming into the 2014 Tour, which didn't turn out too badly for the so-called Shark of Messina, but he will need to ride with great cunning and guile if he wants to repeat last year's win.
Contador, in fact, is the only rider of the current crop to have won two Tour titles -- and the Spaniard looks to be in something approaching the form that took him to victory in both 2007 and 2009. A convincing winner at this year’s Giro d’Italia, thanks largely to strong climbing, El Pistolero will be hoping for a repeat performance on the slopes of the Alps later in the Tour. The only question mark against Contador is whether he has peaked a little too early in the season.
The greatest threats
But there are other threats.
All three former champions will need to be on their guard for a man who has convinced many he could soon join their exclusive club: Colombia's Nairo Quintana.
The young rider, who finished second in 2013 before winning the Giro the year after, is more than just a dangerous outsider. Having skipped last year’s Tour to focus on the Giro, the Movistar rider, at the age of just 25, is capable of adding another Grand Tour victory to his list of accomplishments, with superb climbing skills that make him a formidable challenger among the mountain stages in the second half of the Tour.
France’s Thibaut Pinot, also 25, is another young rider from whom much is expected, having taken third place in 2014. The best of the homegrown talent in this year’s race, the FDJ rider will be carrying with the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders. With regard to his performances in the Tours de Romandie and Switzerland this year, he has shown he is capable of competing with the best on mountain stages. This year’s route is also tailor-made for Pinot with an almost total lack of individual time trialling to confront - so often the Frenchman’s undoing. Only today’s prologue in Utrecht will be testing riders against the clock.
Finally, there is one more man with designs on upsetting the favourites: the American, Tejay Van Garderen, who pushed Froome to his limit in the Critérium du Dauphiné and finished a mere ten seconds behind him. At 26, Van Garderen is the most experienced of the Tour’s younger riders. Having finished fifth in both 2012 and 2014, the BMC man will be looking to establish himself as a real contender this year. To do this, however, he will need above all to show a consistency that has been lacking in the past, when many of his past Grand Tours fell apart thanks to major time losses on single stages.
This article was translated from the original French.
Date created : 2015-07-04