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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: A.S.O./X.Bourgois






30.06.2015 @ 13:40 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With the 2013 Vuelta a Espana being the notable exception, every grand tour since the 2012 Vuelta has been won by either Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana. However, the fabulous four have never been gathered for a big battle in a three-week race but now it is finally time to find out who’s the best. The four giants spearhead an almost all-inclusive line-up of grand tour stars that will battle for the title in the world’s biggest race, the Tour de France. takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.


The 2012 and 2013 editions of the Tour de France evolved into pretty one-sided affairs that were completely dominated by a seemingly invincible Sky team. In 2013 Chris Froome was in a class of his own and already from the very first mountain stage it was clear that only bad luck could prevent the Brit from winning a maiden Tour title.


Last year a reinvigorated Contador gave hope of a much closer battle and everybody was looking forward to a huge duel between Froome and the Spaniard. However, both had crashed out of the race even before they had done a major mountain and we missed out on the opportunity to find out who’s the best. Instead, it was Vincenzo Nibali who firmly established himself as one of the leading grand tour contenders with a dominant ride through France to become one of the select few that have won all three grand tours.


With Nairo Quintana confirming his huge potential by winning the 2014 Giro, the list of grand tour giants has suddenly been extended to four. While they have occasionally clashed, they have never been gathered at a grand tour before they all roll down the start ramp in Utrecht on July 4 to start a huge battle that will hopefully make up for last year’s disappointment and crown the leading grand tour rider.


However, the four stars won’t have it their own way. The start list includes almost every big grand tour rider in the world and it is not a foregone conclusion that the race will be dominated by the four favourites. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet have both stepped up their level a further notch after last year’s splendid showings and Tejay van Garderen has clearly matured into a serious podium contender. Andrew Talansky is still knocking on the door for his big grand tour breakthrough and alongside Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, he is part of a formidable Cannondale-Garmin trio. Veterans Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde have both had great seasons and seem ready to challenge the best and it would be unwise to rule out another super performance by last year’s runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud. Finally, Richie Porte looms as a strong joker who is ready to strike if Froome falters. has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to 5 of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the big 5-star favourite.


Chris Froome (*****)

A sports career is usually littered with lows and highs but rarely has an athlete gone through such a turnaround as Chris Froome has during the last few years. Having suffered from bilharzia for a long time, the Kenyan-born Brit went into the 2011 Vuelta a Espana with lots of uncertainty about his future career and didn’t know if he would be able to continue at the highest level. Less than two years later he had turned himself into the world’s best stage racer, in 2013 he took his first Tour de France victory and after a disappointing 2014 season he again goes into the biggest race in the world as the obvious favourite. Being an outstanding time triallist and the greatest climber, the Brit masters all disciplines that usually decide a grand tour and has firmly taken over the position that Alberto Contador occupied a few years ago.


It was his hugely surprising second place at the 2011 Vuelta that suddenly marked Froome out as a possible grand tour contender at a time when his future cycling was questioned. However, after his teammate Bradley Wiggins had dominated the spring season and he had been set back by illness, he still flew under the radar as he went into the 2012 Tour de France. In that race he quickly emerged as the strongest climber in the race and even though Wiggins’ superiority in the time trials would probably have given him the win in any case, Froome would definitely have been a lot closer if he hadn’t been forced to ride in support of his captain.


The performance marked a turnaround that saw him step into the clear leadership role at the world’s biggest team and he promptly delivered on his promises. After Wiggins’ dominance in 2012, Froome was the outstanding rider in 2013 when he won the Tour of Oman, Criterium International, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphiné on his way to taking one of the most superior Tour de France victories in recent years.


Going into the 2014 season, it seemed that nothing would be able to stop the formidable Brit. However, after he won the Tour of Oman in the early part of last year, very little has gone according to plan for Froome. It all started when he fell ill before Tirreno-Adriatico and even though he bounced back with another win in Romandie, he was clearly not at his former level.


He seemed to be back on track in last year’s Dauphiné where he beat an in-form Alberto Contador in both the opening time trial and the first mountain stage. For the first time in a year, he looked like the rider who won the 2013 Tour but his progress was again disrupted when he crashed on stage 6, one day before the queen stage. Suffering from his injuries, he was distanced in the final two stages and ended the race outside the top 10.


His series of bad luck continued in the Tour de France where he broke his wrist one day before the stage on the cobbles. Unable to hold the handlebar properly, it was no surprise that he crashed again one day later and had to leave the race. He managed to get into a decent form for the Vuelta but he was clearly not at his best. Unable to launch his usual attacks, he time trialled his way up most of the climbs to limit his losses and did an unusually poor time trial. He bounced back with two solid rides towards the end of the race that was enough to move into second at the end of the race.


Many wrote Froome’s below-par Vuelta down to a lack of form after his Tour crash but unfortunately the downward trend has continued in 2015. It all started on a high when he won an exciting battle against Contador at the Ruta del Sol. However, that victory has later lost a bit of value as it has been revealed as the Spanish rival has been below his usual level throughout the entire season. Froome again had to skip Tirreno-Adriatico due to illness and unlike last year he was unable to get into a decent form for the Volta a Catalunya. In fact, the consistent Brit was a shadow of his usual self in the Spanish race where he finished an anonymous 71st and it was only the victory for teammate Richie Porte that prevented it from being a total disaster.


Froome headed to Tenerife for his usual altitude training but his series of bad luck continued when he crashed in Fleche Wallonne which he did to prepare for stage 3 of the Tour. However, the alarm bells started to ring much louder when he failed to defend his Tour de Romandie title after riding a time trial that was of the same poor standard as the one he did in last year’s Vuelta.


As always, Froome has been preparing himself in Tenerife and his confidence got an important boost when he won the Criterium du Dauphiné. However, while the win seems to be nice on paper, the performance was again far from his usual level. With Vincenzo Nibali being far from his best condition and Nairo Quintana and Contador both skipping the race, Froome would usually have been in a class of his own on the climbs. There was no doubt that he was the strongest in the race but the race came down to a nail-biting affair as he only managed to beat Tejay van Garderen by a few seconds. He even had the unusual experience of being passed by the American in the first mountain stage. The BMC leader may have improved his level but Froome should still have been superior in that race.


It may seem strange to make Froome the biggest Tour favourite at a time when he has clearly not been his dominant self. However, none of his key rivals Contador, Quintana and Nibali have been at their usual level either. In fact, the poor performances by the four big favourites make the race more unpredictable and exciting than one would initially suggest. This could open the door for a surprise but looking at the pure facts, Froome simply has to be the favourite.


When the course was unveiled, Froome initially played with the idea of skipping the race, lamenting the lack of time trialling. Evidently, the Brit would have been favoured by more time trialling and there is no doubt that the massive amount of climbing will put the main contenders on a more level questioned. However, as Contador rightly pointed out, it is a big mistake not to regard Froome as a climber. In fact, he was by far the strongest climber in both the 2012 and 2013 Tour and has been so in every race where he has been at 100% of his strength. It is no coincidence that Contador constantly refers to the Brit as his biggest rival after describing his attacks at the 2014 Dauphiné as the strongest he has ever seen.


If it all comes down to a battle in the mountains and he can return to his best level, Froome will be very hard to beat. However, before he gets to the first major climb in the Pyrenees, he has to survive a dangerous first week and this is where he can be put under pressure. Froome is no bad bike-handler but no one can deny that he is crashing a lot more than the average professional. With the first week being made up of a series of classics, the fight for position will be of utmost importance and this is definitely not one of Froome’s assets. Furthermore, the Sky team has appeared rather disorganized in the flat stages as opposed the solid blocks that the Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo teams have formed.


The biggest obstacle will be stage 4 on the cobbles. Last year Froome never rode a single metre of pave and so no one really knows how he will handle the challenge. Contador rode poorly on the rough surface and Quintana didn’t shine when he tested himself in the classics. On paper, Froome should be better suited to this terrain than those two riders but he may have a hard time keeping up with Nibali who showed his class in 2014. However, the biggest challenge will be to stay upright and avoid the many crashes that are likely to mar the race. This stage can do more damage than a mountain stage and could potentially ruin Froome’s race.


On paper, Froome is more explosive than Nibali, Quintana and Contador and he won’t suffer on the many punchy finales in the first week. Even though he has been time trialling poorly in 2015 and the first stage is way too technical to suit him well, he should still put time into his key rivals on the opening day. If he can get to the finish of stage 8 unscathed, we will get into his terrain and here he will be hard to beat.


The team time trial is an important challenge. Sky have always been among the strongest but they have rarely been on the top step of the podium. This year they have worked specifically on this discipline but their results have been mixed. They won the Tour de Romandie TTT but a frustrated Froome shook his head several times after his team had lost 35 seconds to BMC in the Dauphiné TTT.


Compared to that race, the line-up will be bolstered by Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas and Sky should be among the best in stage 9. Tinkoff-Saxo, Astana and Movistar also have some of the strongest teams for this discipline but on paper the Brits should be better than at least the Russians and the Spaniards.


With Richie Porte at his side, Froome definitely has the strongest lieutenant of all the favourites as the Australian would be capable of finishing on the podium himself. With Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels, Leopold König, Peter Kennaugh and Nicolas Roche also at his disposal, he can count on what is probably the strongest team in the mountains. Ian Stannard, Thomas and Luke Rowe have plenty of classics experience and should take care of him in the flats so he could definitely not have asked for a better team.


Much has been said about Froome’s descending skills and Nibali and Contador have both proved that they are ready to use the downhill sections to their advantage. However, it is hard to find any solid foundation for the suggestion that Froome is a poor descender. In fact, he has never been dropped on a descent in a major stage race and he matched Contador’s many attacks in the 2013 Tour de France. In fact, it was the Spaniard who brought both of them into difficulty when he went down on the descent from the Col de Manse while Froome rode flawlessly down the climbs. Of course he is no Nibali so the descents could pose a threat for him, especially in wet conditions, but he is unlikely to lose the Tour in this terrain.


Another issue is Froome’s ability to recover. The Brit has only completed five grand tours as a GC contender and in two of them he has faded towards the end. It was less of a surprise in the 2012 Vuelta which he did on the back of a hard Tour-Olympics double but his drop in performance in the 2013 Tour is harder to explain. While he was in a class of his own in the first two weeks, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez seemed to have the upper hand in the Alps and he only narrowly won a time trial where he should have crushed the opposition.


Our concerns may be unjust but Froome still has to fully convince us that he can keep his exceptionally high level for the duration of a grand tour and those concerns offer some hope for his rivals. Furthermore, he still has to return to the level he showed in 2013 and on certain occasions in 2014 and he needs to survive a very dangerous first week of the Tour. However, if he is back at 100% and gets to the first Pyrenean stage within striking distance of yellow, no one is going to match Froome in the mountains and then it will be hard to prevent the Brit from firmly reclaiming his position at the top of the grand tour hierarchy.



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