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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: Tinkoff-Saxo / BettiniPhoto






28.06.2016 @ 16:03 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, Nairo Quintana or Fabio Aru. For the first time ever, those five riders will be gathered at the start of a grand tour when the riders roll out from Mont-Saint-Michel on July 2. If one adds an in-form Richie Porte and a much improved Thibaut Pinot to the list, no one could have asked for a stronger field for what is set to be a great 2016 edition of the Tour de France takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.


Since he got his first chance to ride for himself in 2013, Chris Froome has been the dominant Tour de France king. Only a crash in 2014 briefly interrupted his string of victories in the world’s biggest race, and the Brit has done nothing to hide that his goal is to keep winning the world’s biggest race as long as he can.


However, the Sky leader probably faces his toughest challenge yet when he rolls out on the opening flat stage later this week. Last year Nairo Quintana gave him a run for his money in the final week and this year the Colombian has had a better spring than ever before. The Movistar captain is at a new level both in the mountains and the time trials and this year he goes into the race with much better chances to end Froome’s reign than ever before.


At the same time, Alberto Contador has done everything possible to prepare himself optimally for the race that is dearest to his hard and he claims to feel like he did in 2014, the year when he claims to have been at his best level ever. At the same time, Fabio Aru hopes to continue the progress that allowed him to win last year’s Vuelta and if he can take another step, an amazing Tour debut may be in store. He will be the Astana leader but the Kazakh team has a dangerous joker in Vincenzo Nibali who goes into the race on the back of a second Giro win. Officially, he may be using the race to prepare for the Olympics but everybody knows that the 2014 winner relishes and outsider role and can take opportunities when no one expects it.


The former grand tour winners face a new big rival in Richie Porte who has long proved to be able to match the very best in the mountains. For the first time ever, he goes into the Tour with a leadership role and his performance at the Dauphiné suggests that he is on track for a breakthrough as a grand tour rider. If one adds his teammate Tejay van Garderen who was so close to the podium in 2016, Thibaut Pinot who has improved massively, progressing Frenchmen Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil, veteran Joaquim Rodriguez, an improved Daniel Martin, strong GC riders like Pierre Rolland, Wilco Kelderman, Bauke Mollema, Mathias Frank and luxury domestiques and back-up plans like Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas, Roman Kreuziger and Alejandro Valverde, the scene is evidently set for a fantastic edition of La Grande Boucle. 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 confirmed his status as the world’s best grand tour rider by taking his second Tour win in 2015. 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 in 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 at the 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.


After a surprisingly poor spring season, many questioned whether Froome would be able to return to the top step of the podium at last year’s Tour where a course with unusually little time trialling had even briefly put his participation in doubt. However, the Brit delivered a fantastic show on the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees to build a comfortable lead that not even a bout of illness in the final week could erase. He planned to confirm his dominance at the Vuelta and seemed to be on track for a possible win when he crashed out of the race in the queen stage.


During the last three years, Froome has clearly been the best grand tour rider in the world and he obviously goes into the 2016 Tour de France as the man to beat. However, just like in 2015, there are reasons to have certain doubts as things haven’t gone completely to plan for the formidable Brit who has been a shadow of the dominant figure that demolished the opposition at almost every race in 2013. The lack of results is partly due to a new approach which always presents a risk. It is always dangerous to try to change a winning formula!


When he emerged as a grand tour contender, Froome raced lots of stage races in the spring and he won most of them. The goal was to get used to having the stress of being both a team and race leader and getting the confidence from his teammates. Since then, Froome has scaled down his spring racing but this year he has taken it to a new level.


He made a low-key debut at the Herald Sun Tour which was a way too easy event for such a big star. He first rode in support of Peter Kennaugh but team tactics allowed him to win both the queen stage and the overall. Since then, he has only been riding at the Volta a Catalunya, Liege-Bastogne-Liege-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphiné.


Concerns were raised when he failed to perform in Catalonia where key rivals Contador and Quintana easily left him behind and we never got the chance to see what he could really do in Romandie. A puncture in the first mountain stage took him out of GC contention and even though he bounced back with a fourth place in the time trial and a win in the queen stage where he attacked from far out, the fact that he was not riding for the overall denied us to the chance to see him in a direct battle with Quintana.


However, Froome did a lot to silence his critics at the Dauphiné. Every year he arrives at the race on the back of a training camp in Tenerife and just like in the previous editions of the race, he turned out to be the strongest rider in the race. He has a surprisingly bad mountain prologue where he was beaten by both Contador and former teammate Richie Porte but then he affirmed his status in the first mountain stage where only Porte could match him. From there, he rode in control and kept his rivals in check to secure his third overall win in the race.


The rationale behind his less intensive spring schedule is two-fold. First of all, Froome has faded in the third week of all the Tours he has done. Knowing that most of the mountain stages come in the final third of the race, he deliberately wants to postpone his peak and maybe arrive at the start a few percent shy of his best form. Furthermore, he has a very ambitious schedule that also includes both events at the Olympics and another Vuelta campaign and to stay fresh for those later goals, he has downscaled his calendar in the spring.


History shows that an in-form Chris Froome is the best climber in the world but it is very risky business to try to change a formula that has worked so well. The trend is clear: Froome doesn’t recover as well as the likes of Quintana and Contador and he has never been able to maintain his level in third week. In both 2013 and 2015, Quintana was stronger than him in the final part of the race and even though illness partly contributed to his downward trend in 2015, no one can deny the evident tendency.


No one knows whether it’s even possible for Froome to get to 100% of his capabilities in the third week and whether he will ever be able to match Quintana in the tail end of a three-week race. If he is not at his usual superior level at the start of the race, he may fail to build his usual advantage and that could potentially cost him the win.


Apart from his desire to focus on Rio and the Vuelta too, there is no real reason to change the winning formula. The first part of the race is sufficiently hard for Froome to make a difference. The Pyrenean stages are harder than usual and even come at a very early point where Quintana is probably still finding his best legs due to his lack of racing in the build-up. The summit finish in Arcalis and stage 7 offer Froome a great chance to gain some ground and deal his rivals a blow but the new approach means that he may not be able to do that.


The new approach presents a risk but Froome is still the favourite to win the race. Quintana may have proved his time trialling but the Brit is the most complete rider and he should find the course to his liking. The race has hard mountain stages early in the race which evidently suits him and as said, he is the best climber in the world. Furthermore, he has traditionally been in a class of his own when it comes to time trialling and so he should relish the increased amount of individual riding against the clock.


However, there are reasons to question his TT skills too. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, Froome was one of the best time triallists in the world and even nearly beat Tony Martin in the flat TT at the 2013 Tour. However, he has not been at the same level since then and in both 2014 and 2015 he time trialled very poorly. In fact, he was the big loser in the long TT at the 2014 Vuelta.


The reason for his declining TT skills is probably a lack of focus on the discipline. The 2015 Tour barely had any TTs and so there was no reason to spend much time on the TT bike. This year he has had more of an incentive to keep working on that aspect and his fourth place in Romandie indicated that he has improved. However, he was still beaten by Thibaut Pinot in that stage and he was only fractions of a second faster than Quintana. The course for that TT is pretty similar to the one that the Tour peloton faces on stage 13 and it’s the kind of hilly time trial where Quintana has shown most progress. In general, Froome has been much more superior in flat time trials and his rivals have been closer on the hillier routes. This year both time trials are hard and the final individual test is almost like a mountain time trial. There is no guarantee that Froome will be able to gain the amount of time than he has usually done and if he hasn’t improved since last year, he may even lose time to some of his rivals.


However, Froome has two strong aces up his sleeve. First of all, he is a much more powerful than most of his fellow GC riders and last year he proved all his critics wrong by riding excellently in the flat classics stages in the first week. The first two stages along the coast and the stage to Montpellier can all be windy and with the likes of Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas at his side, he will be keen to grab an opportunity to distance riders like Quintana and Pinot in terrain that they don’t like.


Furthermore, Sky is by far the strongest team in the race. Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa are both back-up plans for the GC and if one adds , Mikel Nieve Sergio Henao and Wout Poels as mountain domestiques and an in-form Vasil Kiryienka who is climbing better than ever, the team can potentially have 4-5 riders when there are less than 15 riders left in the hardest stages. That offers the team a number of tactical options that can really put their rivals under pressure. By keeping Landa and Thomas in GC contention, the team can use the new tactics that they applied in both Catalonia and the Dauphiné: sending the domestiques off in attacks. Quintana and Contador have much weaker teams and can potentially be forced to do some chasing themselves. Furthermore, the strength of the Sky team will make it very hard to attack Froome from afar if he gets his usual firm grip on the yellow jersey after the first mountain stage.


The 2016 Tour de France is one for the climbers and being the best climber in the race, Froome has to be the favourite. His versatility and a formidable team mean that he has more opportunities to gain time than any of his rivals and his performance at the Dauphiné proved that he is on track for another great Tour. However, we have more concerns in Froome’s ability to win than we have ever had before. His new approach presents a big risk as his ability to recover for the third week is questionable. He is up against a Quintana who is stronger than ever and has improved his time trialling massively. Froome has to dig deeper than ever to win this year’s Tour but if he can return to the level he has had at the first mountain stages in 2013 and 2015, there is little doubt that the Brit will be the strongest rider in the race and then only misfortune can prevent him from adding a third crown to his growing palmares.



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