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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: Sirotti








30.06.2015 @ 16:00 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 4-star riders that may be seen as the main challengers to the race's biggest favourite.


Vincenzo Nibali (****)

For several years, the cycling-mad nation of Italy has been longing for genuine Tour de France contender that could realistically challenge for the top step of the podium in Paris. 10 years ago they seemed to have found the perfect candidate but the Operacion Puerto brought an end to Ivan Basso’s hopes of ever winning the biggest race in the world.


Hence, Vincenzo Nibali is a godsend for a country that has been struggling for the last couple of years. By winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, he showed signs that he could go on to become a serious Tour de France contender but it was his dominant performance in the 2013 Giro d’Italia that elevated him from podium candidate to a potential winner of the race. In between his two grand tour victories he may have finished on the podium in the Giro twice and in the Tour once but in neither of those races he was close to the win.


That all changed in 2013when he claimed the Giro in a superior fashion that was reminiscent of the greatest performances in the grand tours. At no point, the Italian seemed to be under pressure and his dominant stage victories in the mountain time trial and on the steep Tre Cime di Lavaredo put him up there with the very best climbers.


Already moments after he had stepped down from the podium in Brescia, Nibali made it clear that his intention was to target the Tour de France in 2014. Before that, he set his sights on a Worlds win on home soil and finished second in the Vuelta despite partly using it as preparation of the race in Florence. In the battle for the rainbow jersey, he was arguably the strongest rider but a crash and team tactics meant that he had to settle for fourth.


Despite his impressive palmares, Nibali was still the outsider for the 2014 Tour which was widely expected to come down to a battle between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Furthermore, Nibali who has been known as an ever competitive and very consistent athlete, had had a mediocre spring season to say the least. In fact, his performances had been so poor that Astana manager Alexander Vinokourov had sent a critical letter to all riders, complaining about the lack of results.


Nibali showed his first signs of form when he won the Italian championships after a hugely exciting battle against Davide Formolo but he still saw Froome and Contador gather all the pre-race attention before the Grand Depart in Leeds. However, it was the Italian who drew the first blood in the second stage to Sheffield when he made a late attack in the flat finale to distance his key rivals by a second and move into the yellow jersey.


The lack of reaction from Froome and Contador was a clear sign of Nibali’s status of being an outsider and not a favourite but it was soon evident that the Italian was a genuine contender. After Froome had crashed out of the race, the Italian put in a remarkable performance on the cobbles where he distanced specialists like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan in the finale and put a massive 2.35 into a suffering Contador. When the Spaniard also left the race in an ambulance, the rest of the race was a pretty one-sided Nibali show, with the Italian taking the most dominant Tour win since Lance Armstrong and winning no less than four big mountain stages, including mountaintop finishes in all three mountain ranges that were visited by the Tour.


Even before he had been on the podium in Paris, Nibali’s win had been questioned by cycling fans who claimed that he had only benefited from the bad luck of the pre-race favourites. However, it is an unjust assessment of Nibali’s performance. Before the race-ending crash, Nibali had followed Contador pedal stroke for pedal stroke in the first mountaintop finish in Gerardmer and compared to the rest of the rivals, he was in a class of his own throughout the entire race, only showing a brief sign of weakness in the very final metres of the Port de Bales where Thibaut Pinot briefly distanced him. Team Sky who are known for their meticulous preparation and use of data, have analyzed the numbers and admitted that it would have been hard for Froome to beat the Italian.


Despite being the defending champion, Nibali has again flown under the radar for the 2015 edition. His spring season has again been mediocre and it’s a strange turnaround for the Italian. In the past, he was one of the select few riders who won races from February to October but nowadays he is the only grand tour star who seems to focus only on the Tour.


In fact, it was not his intention to end the spring without any major win. He admitted to having made mistakes during the 2013-2014 off-season which meant that he went into 2014 underprepared. This year he did a lot more training in December and felt ready to strike in the classics. However, he was again far off the pace and was overshadowed by his teammate Jakob Fuglsang who had a much better spring campaign. In the highly anticipated clashes with his key Tour rivals at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie, he was unable to keep up with the three riders that are the biggest candidate to dethrone him in July.


After his usual training camp on Mount Teide, Nibali again returned to competition at the Dauphiné and his showing was very similar to the one he delivered 12 months ago. Unable to keep up with the best in the mountains, he went on the attack and even enjoyed one day in yellow but it was clear that his condition was not good enough to fight for the overall victory. Instead, he ended the race by riding in service of Michele Scarponi before he headed to San Pellegrino to finalize his preparations and do the key block of intensity work.


Last Saturday history repeated itself when Nibali returned to form by winning the Italian championships. He may not have been in a class of his own like one might have expected but that was not the case 12 months ago either. He delivered a solid and aggressive performance and left the race with good sensations, confirming that his numbers were equal to the ones he had last year.


The poor performances have made many question whether Nibali will be a genuine contender come July. However, his preparations completely mirror the ones that brought him the Tour victory in 2014 and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be at the same level when he rolls down the start ramp in Utrecht. In fact, Nibali is already hugely experienced and is one of the select few who always time their condition perfectly for a grand tour. Only the 2011 Vuelta stands out as a failure for the Italian who has been one the podium in every other grand tour he has done since he finished third in the 2010 Giro, meaning that he has now been in the top 3 no less than 7 times! Only Alberto Contador has shown a similar consistency over such a long period.


Nibali’s mentality has clearly changed. Having become a father, he is no longer willing to do the sacrifices that are needed to be competitive throughout the entire season. However, he will still time his condition well for the one big objective of his season and as he is still work in progress, there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be able to improve his level even further.


Nibali is no pure climber and he is no time trial specialist either. Both Contador and Froome are stronger in the race against the clock and so the limited amount of time trialling is clearly in Nibali’s favour. His two latest grand tours prove that he has reached an excellent level on the climbs but it is still hard to gauge how he compares to Froome, Contador and Quintana. In fact he has not been testing himself against those riders on a long climb in a grand tour since the 2012 Tour! Even though he may not be strong enough to drop his key rivals, it will be very difficult for them to get rid of the strong Italian.


If he can just keep up with his rivals on the key climbs, Nibali has a great opportunity to make it two in a row. Among the riders known as the Fabulous Four, he by far the most versatile and aggressive rider and he can make a difference in any kind of terrain. Even though his lack of explosiveness means that he is not really suited to the many explosive finishes in the first week, the series of classics in the first part of the race is clearly in favour of the Italian. Last year he showed his superiority on the cobbles and even though we don’t know how Froome will fare in stage 4, it seems to be almost guaranteed that Nibali will distance both Contador and Quintana on the pave. In general, the first week is loaded with pitfalls and opportunities that Nibali can grab – just like he did in Sheffield 12 months ago.


Furthermore, Nibali has an extra weapon in his arsenal. Being the superior descender, he can put his rivals under pressure on some of the tricky descents along the way and the treacherous slopes of the Col d’Allos in stage 17 stands out as an opportunity for Nibali. With no valley section and just a short climb to the finish in Pra Loup, Roman Bardet has proved how to turn things around in this stage. Nibali will be keen to grab every opportunity along the way and a few rainy days won’t be a disadvantage for him.


Nibali excels in rainy conditions. In 2013 he made use of those characteristics to beat Froome in Tirreno-Adriatico on an epic day in the Apennines at a point where the race seemed to have been completely decided. In the Giro he contributed to Bradley Wiggins’ collapse by attacking on the rainy, lumpy day to Pescara and in the 2012 Tour he attacked Wiggins from afar on a descent. Being up against Froome, Quintana and Contador, Nibali is unlikely to win the race in the mountains or the time trials but have to make use of his aggressiveness and ingenuity to create a surprise.


Finally, Nibali has gained consistency. In his early time as a grand tour rider, he rode fairly irregularly in the mountains. He has always had a fantastic ability to limit his losses and knows how to gauge his effort – his impressive grand tour palmares is a testament to that – but the 2013 Giro and the 2014 Tour are still the only three-week races where has avoided any kind of bad day. It may be that his superiority has been enough to hide those bad moments and he may be more vulnerable in a field where he faces three riders who are at a similar level, but from an outside perspective it seems that he now has the consistency that has always been Contador’s trademark.


Another weapon in Nibali’s arsenal is his team. In the Giro, Astana showed how impressive their team of climbers is and even though it will be a completely different team in the Tour, it is still a formidable line-up. They may not have the same wide range in the mountains as they had in Italy as the tricky first week and the team time trial have forced the management to include heavier guys like Lars Boom and Lieuwe Westra in the selection but with Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert and Rein Taaramae at his side he will be well-supported in the mountains. The team may not have the same depth as Sky or Tinkoff-Saxo but Nibali is a rider who doesn’t need the same kind of help. He hopes to benefit from his teammates in the tricky first week and after last year’s exceptional performance by Fuglsang, Westra and Nibali on the cobbles, the addition of Boom who won that stage, will only make the team even more impressive. Astana is ready to crush the opposition in stage 4 which is a key day for Nibali. Furthermore, they have an excellent and very homogeneous team for the team time trial and after they were beaten into second by BMC in the Dauphiné TTT, it would be no surprise if they go one better in stage 9 on a harder course that suits them better.


Nibali may again have flown under the radar in the pre-race hype that has mostly surrounded Froome, Contador and Quintana. Most pundits have put the defending champion at the bottom of the Fabulous Four and it is definitely true that the Italian is unlikely to be the strongest climber in the race. However, the 2015 Tour has the many pitfalls that make it tailor-made for the brave and aggressive riders and in that area, Nibali is clearly at the top of the list. If he can grab the opportunities that the first week offers him, Nibali could find himself with a solid advantage on the first rest day and then history shows that he one of the most consistent grand tour riders is very hard to beat. Italy has finally found their grand tour star again and if he can make it two in a row in the world’s biggest race, he suddenly stands out as one of the greatest three-week races in the history of one of the most cycling-mad nations.


Alberto Contador (****)

Scroll back the time to September 2013 and recall how Alberto Contador found himself in a very difficult situation. Having had a disastrous spring season, the most decorated grand tour rider of the current generation had failed to finish on the podium at the Tour de France and his autumn season ended as a real disaster. Contador had made the World Championships his final big goal of the season but going into the hilly race which on paper should have suited him well, no one even mentioned him as a possible outsider. He finished the race anonymously and one week later he delivered a disastrous performance in Il Lombardia.


At the same time, he found himself in a difficult situation with his team. Rumours had started to emerge that then team owner Bjarne Riis was no longer willing to build his team around his star rider and only a long, expensive contract with the Spaniard seemed to prevent the Dane from making a change in team leadership. Things didn’t look any brighter when Oleg Tinkov who had publicly criticized his performances took over the reins two months later.


If anyone had suggested such a scenario when Contador crushed the opposition in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, he would have been proclaimed completely ignorant. Nonetheless, the relatively short suspension he served for his famous clenbuterol case apparently has a disastrous effect on his performances. He performed well at his first race, the Eneco Tour, but as soon as the Vuelta hit his preferred terrain in the mountains, it became obvious that Contador was not his usual self.


At his pre-suspension level, he would just have ridden away from Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez to put daylight into them at the finish line but this time it did not happen. While he was able to distance his compatriots on a number of occasions, Rodriguez always managed to claw his way back to the Saxo-Tinkoff leader. In the final mountain stage to Bola the Mundo, they even left the usually superior Contador behind, and the multiple grand tour champion had to make use of a bold move in an intermediate stage - completely unsuited to Rodriguez' characteristics - to take a win that appeared to have escaped him at that point.


His woes continued for the entire 2013 season and reached a low point when he failed to finish on the podium in the Tour de France, an event he had completely dominated in his heydays. At the end of the year, Contador had only won a single race, a stage in the Tour de San Luis at a time when nobody was even close to their best condition.


There was no explanation of his sudden drop in performance level but in sport the difference between success and failure is usually very small. And just as fast as he went from grandiose to mediocre, he turned everything around and turned the 2014 season into one of the greatest in a long and glorious career.


Contador made the wise decision to leave behind all experiments and go back to the formula that had worked in the past. During the off-season, he scaled down on his different commitments to focus on his training and diet. He postponed racing debut and again kicked off his season in the Volta ao Algarve as he had done successfully in the past. He focused on select WorldTour stage races in the spring and forgot the idea of going for glory in the Ardennes.


The efforts paid off as he emerged as the stage race rider of the spring season, winning the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing second in Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya. With a solid performance in the Criterium du Dauphiné, he was on track for big things in the Tour de France until a disastrous crash on a wet day in the Vosges sent him out of the race.


Contador went on to play one of his usual mind games with the press as he aimed to bounce back in the Vuelta a Espana. Claiming that he was not able to contend for the overall victory due to his injuries, he flew under the radar but by the time the race hit the mountains, he was ready to strike. He took the overall lead already at the halfway point and with two incredible stage victories in the hardest mountain stages, he both returned to his status as one of the top 2 grand tour riders in the world and got the much-needed revenge over Chris Froome.


However, Contador has still not been on the top step of the Tour de France since 2010 – and he has been stripped from that victory – and it has been very evident that his biggest desire is to show that he can again win the biggest event in the world. Hence, it came as a surprise to many that he vowed to take on the arduous Giro-Tour challenge in 2015, a double that has not been successfully completed since the late Marco Pantani did so in 1998 at a time when the sport was in a completely different place.


However, Contador has always been a rider who aims to make history. Another win in the Tour de France may be a personal satisfaction but it will do nothing to elevate him in the overall hierarchy of grand tour riders. A successful Giro-Tour double has always been part of his plans but with Father Age catching up with him and retirement looming – he has made it clear that the 2016 season will be the final one of his long career – the Spaniard has had to take the risk of going for double glory in 2015.


This also means that he finds himself in a completely different place than he did 12 months ago. The spring season cannot be described as a disaster but it was far from the jubilant run of success he had last year. He got a huge confidence boost when he beat Chris Froome in the first mountain stage of the Vuelta a Andalusia, only to see everything getting turned around by the Brit one day later. In his big goals Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta a Catalunya, he rode surprisingly poorly and was unable to make his usual difference in the mountains. In Catalunya, his morale must have taken a beating when key Giro rival Richie Porte distanced him in the queen stage.


Since then Contador prepared for the Giro at altitude in Tenerife and he didn’t pin on a number before he rolled down the start ramp for the opening team time trial. That was a very unusual approach as he has mostly been doing a key preparation race a few weeks before his grand tours.


However, last year’s Vuelta proved that Contador can reach a sufficiently high level purely by training and this is likely to have played a key role in his planning. Nonetheless, the main reason was definitely the fact that he had to approach the huge challenge of two consecutive grand tours with great caution. When he last tried the double in 2011, he was clearly fatigued in the Tour and this year he aimed to go into the Giro a lot fresher.


The approach paid off as Contador never left much doubt about the overall victory in the Italian race. Clearly not at 100% yet and set back by a small injury, he rode conservatively in the first week but still found himself in the maglia rosa very early in the race. At that point, it still seemed like Richie Porte would be able to challenge his supremacy but Contador’s life was made much easier when a series of mishaps sent the Australian back to Nice to prepare for the Tour. With what is probably his best time trial performance since his comeback – he would definitely have taken the win if all riders had ridden in similar conditions – he firmly established himself at the top of the leader board and the rest of the field was left to fight for second.


Contador may have accomplished the first part of his arduous mission but the Giro still left the cycling world with the impression that the Spaniard was below his usual level. For the first time since 2008, he ended a grand tour at the top of the podium without winning a stage and it was evident that Mikel Landa was the strongest climber in the race. Due to his superiority in the TT, Contador would always have been the winner but the Basque would definitely have been a lot closer if he had been the clear Astana leader. In fact, Contador was clearly on the limit on several occasions and he had to focus fully on a single rider several times which was the main reason that he missed out on a stage win.


Furthermore, Contador had a number of setbacks in the hard final week that forced him to go a lot deeper than he would have preferred, most notably in the penultimate stage where he suffered his first major crisis in a grand tour since he emerged as a three-week contender. Contador’s main advantage is his formidable ability to recover and he has always been hugely consistent in grand tours. His overall level has been varying from race to race but there haven’t been any big deviations during the events. Hence, it was a huge surprise to see him get distanced by several riders on the Colle delle Finestre and even though he proved his great experience by defending his position on a day that could have been disastrous, it just confirmed the impression that Contador was not at 100%.


With his big goal of the Giro-Tour double, it was probably never the plan to be at full capacity in Italy but as it came at the end of an entire spring season where he clearly lacked the edge, it must definitely have been a cause for concern. Furthermore, he left the race more fatigued than he would have preferred as it turned out to be one of the hardest grand tours in recent history with most stages being raced at an impressive speed and while he has had everything but an ideal build-up to the Tour, he has had to see his three key rivals all being very satisfied with their smooth preparations.


With Froome being the superior time triallist, Contador is clearly pleased with the lack of time trialling in this year’s Tour. He has made no secret of the fact that he regards the Brit as his biggest rival and even though he would be able to gain time on both Nibali and Quintana in a long TT, there is no doubt that he prefers not to lose time to the Sky leader. With the race set to be decided in the mountains with lots of consecutive tough stages in the second half, the route is clearly well-suited to the Contador who probably recovers better than anyone else and is at his best on tough days with lots of climbing throughout the entire stage.


However, the overall design of the Giro and Tour courses haven’t done Contador many favours in his quest to make the double. The first week of the Italian race was pretty tough and forced Contador to be close to his best right from the start of the race. Furthermore, the first week of the Tour will be all about survival while he has to make the difference in the final week. This means that he has to maintain great condition for almost three months which won’t make it any easier to make the historic feat.


Another disadvantage for Contador is the difficult first week. Contador has a fantastic ability to stay focused throughout the longest races and he carefully rides near the front all the time. With the likes of Peter Sagan, Matteo Tosatto, Michael Valgren and Daniele Bennati at his side, he has a formidable support crew to keep him in a good position and he won’t miss a split in the crosswinds. However, his previous performances on the cobbles have been far from perfect and last year he lost 2.35 to Nibali on the dreaded paves. In fact, he saw several overall rivals simply ride away from him on the rough surface and he was clearly not comfortable in that stage. He is very likely to lose a chunk of time to Nibali on the ride to Cambrai and it would be no surprise if he also loses ground to Froome whose skills on the cobbles is a bit of an unknown.


To add to his woes, his team which looks formidable on paper, has been below their usual level throughout the entire year. Roman Kreuziger may have fallen ill in the final week of the Giro but earlier in the race he was still far from his best. Rafal Majka has been off the pace throughout the entire season and his performance in the Tour de Suisse did nothing to suggest that he is back on track. Ivan Basso and Michael Rogers haven’t hit top condition either. With this strong competition and a hard Giro in his legs, Contador won’t be able to win this race along and his team needs to step up significantly to make the double. On paper, the team should be able to do well in the TTT but against the likes of Sky and Astana they may come up short. That could provide Contador with another time loss that he needs to make up for in the mountains.


However, the main issue still remains what kind of form Contador will have. He recently did the Route du Sud to get back up to racing speed and that race left us with mixed feelings. On one hand, Contador won the race due to an excellent display on the descent from the Port de Bales. On the other hand, he was unable to distance Nairo Quintana on the climbs. It was hard to gauge how much the Colombian was under pressure as he didn’t seem to really ride the race for the win. However, it was evident that Contador was his ever-competitive self and was going all out in a quest to come out on top.


The odds may be against Contador but it would be unwise to rule the Spaniard out. After all, he is the most accomplished grand tour rider of his generation and with his excellent recovery skills, he is probably the only rider who can realistically achieve this kind of feat. On several occasions, he has proved that he is at his best when things look impossible like when he won last year’s Vuelta. In general, the 2014 season must have provided him with lots of confidence and even though 2015 has not been the same kind of smooth journey, it is still hard not to put Froome and Contador one step above the rest when it comes to pure climbing skills. Froome, Quintana and Nibali have all shown signs of weakness in 2015 and this could open the door for Contador to do what most thought to be impossible. Everything will depend on recovery in the final week and how well he survives the tricky first half. If those key elements fall into place, Contador will kill two birds with one stone: write himself deeply into the history of the sport by making the double and take that elusive third Tour win that he has desperately been chasing for half a decade.



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