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Using recent results as a gauge, only one rider deserves the favourite status for this year's Tour. Chris Froome has been absolutely outstanding throughout the spring, going from his first ever stage race win at the Tour of Oman to...

Photo: Sirotti

TOUR DE FRANCE

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
25.06.2013 @ 21:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

This year's best stage racer, the most decorated grand tour rider during the past 7 years and the man that was once seen as his most likely challenger go head-to-head in the 100th edition of the Tour de France, and they will be challenged by another former Tour winner, a duo of Spanish attackers, last year's Giro winner and a bunch of young talents that are ready to make their impact on the biggest cycling scene. Tour organisers ASO have attracted a formidable line up for what promises to be a truly spectacular edition of the sport's leading cycling event and the entire cycling world look forward to finding out if anyone has what it takes to beat the seemingly invincible Chris Froome. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.

 

Last year's Tour de France evolved into a one-sided affair as the Sky team proved superior to the rest of the field. This year the British super team once again lines up the race's biggest favourite Chris Froome who will be backed by a formidable team, but a host of aggressive and offensive contenders should make it a much more entertaining affair.

 

Former arch-rivals Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck will be back to try to take back the crown that has eluded the duo since 2010, former champion Cadel Evans wants to prove that he still has what it takes to win the world's biggest race and Alejandro Valverde, Joaquin Rodriguez and Ryder Hesjedal are eager to show that they are capable of repeating their Giro and Vuelta performances on the biggest scene.

 

At the same time, young riders like Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Pierre Rolland, Andrew Talansky, Rui Costa, Rein Taaramae and Tejay Van Garderen are knocking on the door and eager to make an impression in the race that counts most.

 

CyclingQuotes.com 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 race's 6 biggest favourites while we will analyze the 9 outsiders in a later article.

 

Chris Froome (*****)

Ever since Alberto Contador went on from a solid spring performance in 2009 to win the Tour, the dominant stage racer of the spring has stepped onto the top step of the podium in July. Alberto Contador won the Volta ao Algarve, the Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon ahead of his 2010 win at the world's biggest bike race (even though that triumph was later taken away from him) while Cadel Evans took wins in the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie on his way to his 2011 triumph in France. Last year it was Bradley Wiggins whose wins at the Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphiné saw him marked out as a danger man for July and the Briton later confirmed his potential at the world's biggest bike race.

 

Using this recent trend as a gauge, only one rider deserves the favourite status for this year's Tour. Chris Froome has been absolutely outstanding throughout the spring, going from his first ever stage race win at February's Tour of Oman to triumphs at the Criterium International, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphiné. During the first part of this millennium, no other rider has started the Tour de France with 4 stage race victories already in his pocket and every pedal stroke so far has been made with the Tour de France clearly on his mind.

 

What turns Froome into the overwhelming favourite for this year's Tour is not only his recent performances but also his all-round abilities and mental strength that turn him into the perfect stage racer. The Kenyan-born Sky leader is a truly versatile athlete and he possesses four distinct features that makes it very hard to find any chink in the Briton's seemingly invincible armour.

 

On paper, his greatest asset compared to his rivals is his time trialling ability. While most GC riders defend themselves well in the discipline if the course if sufficiently hilly, the pure climbers usually struggle on the flat routes which are geared towards specialists and high speed. Froome is of a completely different nature, and while he is not a real time triallist like his former team leader Bradley Wiggins, he is still one of the world's very best in the discipline. Last year's Olympic time trial was held on a completely flat course in London and did not take place in the middle of a stage race, thus favouring the pure time triallists. It was no surprise to see Wiggins and Tony Martin ride away with the gold and silver medal, what came much more unexpected was that Froome defied his own expectations and took bronze ahead of Taylor Phinney. He finished 2nd in both long time trials of last year's Tour - on both a flat and a rolling course - and underlined his credentials this year by taking 3rd in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphiné races against the clock which were both held on true specialist routes.

 

Time trials do not play the crucial role they did last year but Froome still has 65km on his own to make up time on his rivals. He is likely to be beaten by a superior Martin in the first, flat time trial but should nonetheless make huge time gains on the climbers and while he is likely to benefit a little less of the final, hilly one GC-wise, he is the big favourite to take the stage win on that occasion.

 

With Froome being the superior time triallist, his rivals will put all their hopes into the mountain stages if they are to take away the win from the phenomenal Briton. Those hopes are, however, not well-founded at all as Froome has emerged as the world's best climber ever since he slowed down to wait for Wiggins twice during last year's Tour. This year the Sky leader has raced 6 mountaintop finishes and none of his rivals have been able to distance him so far. At February's Tour of Oman, Joaquim Rodriguez - who had already lost time on GC - was allowed to sneak away and take the win with the GC candidates looking at each other until Froome finally put down the hammer and left his main rivals in his wake. At the Tirreno-Adriatico, neither Rodriguez nor Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Evans were any match to the Briton on the Prato di Tivo climb and he was truly dominant on the Col de l'Ospedale at the Criterium International. At the Tour de Romandie, he soloed clear on the queen stage, picked up Simon Spilak on his way and allowed the Slovenian to take the stage win while riding himself into yellow. Finally, he crushed the opposition on the Valmorel climb at the Criterium du Dauphiné and he could very well have taken win number two in the final summit finish, had he not waited for teammate Richie Porte.

 

As a climber, Froome is of a completely different nature than his former leader Wiggins. Both prefer to use their formidable team to set a torturous tempo on the lower slopes of the climbs but while Wiggins is usually unable to respond to the attacks and has to claw his way back by gradually increasing his pace, Froome is not put into difficulty by sudden changes in rhythm. On the contrary, the most efficient accelerations during the early part of the season have all been made by the Briton who generally soars clear of his rivals when his final team rider starts to slow down.

 

As it was the case last year, the Sky team lines up a formidable roster to support its captain and Froome can be totally confident that his team has what it takes to defend the jersey, should he ride himself into the lead already in the stage four team time trial. Wiggins is of course absent but Richie Porte has stepped up his game and will take over Froome's role as the protected back-up rider. Last year the final crucial selection was made by Michael Rogers and Porte and while the former has left for Saxo-Tinkoff and the latter has risen through the ranks in the internal hierarchy, new signings are formidable replacements. Vasil Kiryienka is tailor-made to the role of tapping out a hard tempo on a climb and has proved so throughout the early part of the season while David Lopez has shown his worth during the spring season. At the same time, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh both stepped up their game as climbers at the recent Dauphiné while Kanstantsin Siutsou will finally take up the role on the climbs that he was denied last year due to a fractured leg sustained early in the race. Finally, Edvald Boasson Hagen was simply impressive in the early part of the mountain stages last year while Ian Stannard is one of the best support riders in flat, windy stages. The team's signing policy has clearly been designed to support its ambition of riding in a controlling way and Froome could not have a stronger team to satisfy that ambition.

 

Finally, there is no doubt that Froome will take to the start extremely well-prepated. The Sky setup had proved its efficiency in preparing its stage racers for their targets and so far their strategy and scientific approach has not failed in that regard. Froome knows how to benefit from his team's strength in that area and whenever he has been required to, he has turned up at a race in splendid condition.

 

Knowing that he has done his homework and that his numbers are at their peak will allow him to start the race with peace in mind. The potential stress factor of an internal rivalry with Wiggins over team leadership has also been taken away, and Froome knows that he has the complete backing of his team. Porte has had a tremendous breakthrough this year and prior to the Dauphiné, one could fear that we could face another Sky captaincy drama this year if Porte suddenly sensed that he had the possibility to win the race himself. That fear has certainly been firmly put to rest by the events in the final stage of the Dauphiné where Froome clearly had to slow down to wait for Porte, the leader wanting his lieutenant to win the stage. Porte now knows that Froome is superior both in the mountains and the time trials and having been promised a captaincy role at next year's Giro, he will probably be glad to put himself at Froome's side, the Briton also being one of his very dear friends.

 

It's hard to see where Froome can be defeated on this year's course. The time trials are certainly a no-go, Boasson Hagen, Stannard and Thomas will keep him protected in the crosswinds and his formidable team will steadily reel in long-distance attacks in the mountains while Froome should take into his own hands late in the race. Furthermore, he is likely to gain an early advantage in the team time trial and should ride himself into yellow no later than after the first long time trial.

 

While he suffered from the tropical bilharzia disease early last year, making this period unsuitable to gauge his weaknesses, he has had very few crises since his grand tour breakthrough at the 2011 Vuelta. He clearly suffered in the last part of last year's Vuelta but that race came at the end of a very hard racing schedule featuring the Dauphiné, the Tour and the Olympics ahead of the Spanish grand tour and Froome openly admitted that his body was unable to handle such a heavy race burden.

 

This year he has only failed to live up to expectations twice. The least obvious occasion was the Liege-Bastogne-Liege where he failed to make the impact that many had predicted. What was far more crucial was his breakdown in the epic penultimate stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico. On a rainy day on sinuous roads in the Appennines, the repeated strain of short, extremely steep climbs saw not only the Sky team but also team leader Froome himself crack under the pressure, Vincenzo Nibali taking away what appeared to be a guaranteed win for Froome.

 

Due to the French geography, Tour organizers ASO have no possibility to design a similar stage and so Froome's rivals will get no help from the terrain which is generally perfectly suited to Froome. However, both Froome's crises came in long races of attrition that were characterized by plenty of accelerations and changes in rhythm and while the long gradual climbs are not suited to this kind of racing, his rivals could try to make it happen through an aggressive approach. Last year's Tour contenders were not punchy riders and so the racing suited Froome perfectly. Contador, Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Andy Schleck are of a completely different nature and all born attackers and if they form an alliance and make a joint long-distance attack, Froome may be unable to rely on his team to reel it back and could be forced into action on his own. Left in isolation, he could be vulnerable to repeated attacks from those punchy riders but it will take a concerted and dedicated effort from most of his rivals in unison to create such a situation against his mighty Sky team. The epic 14th stage of the 2011 Giro d'Italia could be an example of the kind of racing that could force Froome on the defensive.

 

However, Froome's dominance has been so impressive so far that he may even overcome such a Spanish alliance and the peloton's most versatile GC rider is most likely to step into the role as the world's leading grand tour racer when the Tour comes to a conclusion in Paris in late July.

 

Alberto Contador (****)

Scroll back the time to May 2011 and recall which excessive dominance Alberto Contador had imposed on that year's Giro d'Italia. If anyone had suggested that the Spaniard - at the time the world's by far best stage racer - would enter the 2013 Tour de France on his back foot, he would be proclaimed completely ignorant. Fast forward two years, and the Saxo-Tinkoff leader now finds himself in exactly that very unexpected situation.

 

The surprising development is a testament to the extreme difficulties Contador has had ever since he returned from his - rather short - doping suspension in August last year. 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.

 

Many thought that Contador only lacked racing kilometres and that the Spanish grand tour would put him back up to his best level for the 2013 season. That hasn't exactly been the case, and we have seen the opposite scenario. In the Tour de San Luis and the Tour of Oman, he was unable to make his usual early-season impression that had seen him win the Volta ao Algarve twice in the past. At the Tirreno-Adriatico - his first season target - he only managed to take third over Michal Kwiatkowski by 1 second and in his final spring objective, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco - a race he has already won twice - he finished an unusually low 5th. His participation in the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege went almost unnoticed and he was clearly not satisfied with his spring season when he started his mid-season break from competition.

 

Many Spaniards had hoped that Contador would show sign of improvements at the Dauphiné but the indications from the French race were mixed. On the one hand, his performance in the time trial was a complete disaster, on the other hand he did have a solid ride in the mountaintop finish to Valmorel before settling for a domestique role for teammate Michael Rogers who was in podium contention.

 

What is most eye-catching is the fact that Contador's level has decreased in all disciplines, with the time trials being the most apparent. Strangely, he started off well, performing solidly in both the Eneco Tour and Vuelta time trials, but since then things have deteriorated drastically. He had the embarrassment of being overtaken by Tony Martin at the worlds and this year 17th at the Tirreno-Adriatico, 10th at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and 61st at the Dauphiné have been a far cry from his results earlier in his career, his most stunning performance coming at the 2009 Tour de France when he beat Fabian Cancellara in an almost entirely flat time trial.

 

During his pre-suspension career, Contador usually found himself in the position of being the superior time triallist among the GC riders but that won't be the case this year. The Dauphiné time trial is comparable to the first race against the clock in the Tour and while he is unlikely to repeat his poor performance -  he explained his result by allergy - he is very unlikely to erase his entire 2.45 deficit. Using his previous time trial performances as a gauge, he could lose as much as 2-3 minutes in the two time trials, time he has to take back in the mountains.

 

However, there is little encouragement to be found in his climbing performances in the first part of his post-suspension career. At the Vuelta, the Tour of Oman and the Tirreno-Adriatico, he still raced as if he was the old Contador, attacking 4-6km from the finish on the final climb. Mostly, he was able to distance his rivals, proving that he still has his furious acceleration. What appears to have changed is his ability to sustain a high tempo throughout the remainder of the climb. At all three races, he was brought back by his rivals what was almost unseen during his pre-suspension career. Having used up most of his energy in fruitless attacks, he ended up being dropped on most occasions - at two of the races by none other than Chris Froome.

 

At the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he appeared to have learned the lesson, racing much more defensively than he usually does but the results were not more encouraging at all. And if he is to bring back the time lost in the time trials during the Tour, it won't suffice to attack at the flamme rouge.

 

Despite his adversity, we still see Contador as one of the top favourites to win the race. Froome is such a superior competitor that very few riders are talented enough to beat the Briton and Contador is certainly one of the select few. To win the race, he needs to fulfill two requirements.

 

First of all, his physical level simply has to improve. It may not be necessary to fully match his incredible performances at the 2009 Tour and the 2011 Giro but he has to get close. While the Dauphiné time trial was a huge disappointment, his climbing offered some source for optimism. He attacked hard in the stage to Valmorel and despite being caught by Froome inside the final kilometer, he only lacked a little bit to keep up with the Briton. For observers, it was a shame that he chose to play the role of luxury domestique for Rogers in the stage to Risoul as it could have provided a good gauge of his current level compared to Froome's. Based on previous performances, it will even be reasonable to suggest that Contador has more room for improvement between the Dauphiné and the Tour than Froome has.

 

Secondly, he has to change his strategy. Gone are the days where he can just count on his ability to distance all of his rivals 5km from the finish and put more than a minute into them. Instead, he has to put Froome out of his comfort zone by joining up with compatriots Valverde and Rodriguez in a Spanish attacking alliance. As discussed in our assessment of Froome, repeated accelerations in hard races of attrition have seen Froome break down in the past. A similar strategy could be Contador's key to success.

 

Furthermore, Contador has not been backed by a stronger team since the 2009 Tour - and on that occasion, his teammates were more rivals than support riders. It is, however, questionable how much use he can make of riders like Roche, Rogers and Kreuziger. It would only play into Froome's hands if the team sets a hard, steady tempo on the climbs and attacks by his luxury domestiques won't worry Sky much. Only accelerations by the captain himself will force the British team to react. He could try to send his teammates up the road to prepare an attack but it is questionable whether Sky will ever allow this to happen.

 

If Contador is to win this race, he has to do it mostly by himself. And this time there won't be any excuses: he cannot refer to lack of racing, later objectives or allergy. If he wants to keep his position as the world's best stage race rider, he has to beat Froome in a head-to-head battle. At present, that is a very difficult task.

 

Andy Schleck (****)

We know that it is controversial to make a rider who has not finished in the top 10 in a bike race since the 2011 Tour (if we exclude the recent Luxembourg national championships whose line-up lacked strength in depth) one of the top 3 favourites to win the Tour. And had it not been for Froome's superiority, we would never do so.

 

However, this is an assessment of the rider's chances of WINNING the race - not finishing on the podium or in the top 10. Froome is such an outstanding competitor that it takes a very rare talent to beat him in a direct battle and only two of the current professionals have shown such a talent on a grand tour level: Contador and Schleck.

 

It is unlikely to happen but if anyone should beat Froome, it has to be either Contador or Schleck. At his 2010 level, the Luxembourger is an outstanding climber and all his adversity cannot have taken away that ability. The question is whether Schleck will find back to it in time for the Tour de France.

 

Recently, there has been some cause for optimism in the Radioshack camp and the team would certainly not build the entire team for the most important race around Schleck if they did not have any reason to believe in him. He had a terrible 2012 season, unable to find his form for the Ardennes classics in the spring and his Dauphiné crash took him out of competition until the Binche-Tournai-Binche in October.

 

He started this season on the same note, struggling to finish his races and getting dropped as one of the first riders on the climbs. Nonetheless, his legs started to come around at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege when he only finished 1.20 behind winner Daniel Martin and while this is still a far cry from his former level, it takes a good bike rider to make such a performance in one of the year's hardest one-day races. At the Tour of California, he improved significantly throughout the week and after a tough start, he showed the first signs of competitiveness in the mountains during the queen stage at the Tour de Suisse.

 

For some reason, most people appear to have forgotten it but Schleck's form has always had a tendency to come out of nowhere. When he won the 2009 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he had delivered a poor showing at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and since he started to be a Tour de France contender in 2009, only his 2010 performance in the Swiss mountains has been better than this year's. While Schleck lacks recent experience in riding at the highest level and competing for the win, it is not completely impossible that he can transfer those positive signs into some strong form for July.

 

Two further elements could play into Schleck's hands: first of all, Schleck has always become stronger and stronger during a grand tour. In 2011, many almost wrote the Luxembourger off after a poor showing on the Mur de Bretagne and in the Pyrenees but he bounced back with a splendid stage win, a stint in yellow and another overall 2nd place later in the race. With his lack of competitive racing kilometres, there is no reason to believe that it should be any different this time.

 

Furthermore, this tendency has been even more obvious in recent races. In both the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse, he started out terribly but gradually his legs came around. Had it been the Giro or Vuelta, a slow start could turn out to be costly but the Tour is of a different nature. The stages on Corsica may contain some difficult climbing but it should not be severe enough to put Schleck into difficulty, thus allowing him to get into race-mode before the peloton starts the Pyrenean stages. Those two days are also not overly difficult and if Schleck can limit his losses during the first two weeks, he will be a danger man in the Alps.

 

Furthermore, very few have even mentioned Schleck among the favourites and this could allow him more freedom than he would usually have. The GC contenders won't necessarily react to his first accelerations and that could hand him some unexpected time. In the past, his rivals would have raced hard in the Pyrenees to exploit any signs of weakness from Schleck but that will probably not be the case this year. The underdog status and lack of pressure could play into Schleck's hands.

 

Before he reaches the Pyrenees, Schleck has to survive the nervous and stressful opening week without losing any time and this could end up as a difficult task. The Luxembourger has never been comfortable in the fierce battle for position on flat roads and strong riders like Fabian Cancellara, Gregory Rast, Stijn Devolder and Hayden Roulston won't be on the start line in Corsica. Schleck clearly lacks the team to protect him in the flat stages and he is likely to fall victim to some crosswinds action.

 

Furthermore, there is no reason to suggest that he has improved in the time trials. His most recent races against the clock have all been rather low-key and he is unlikely to have given the individual discipline much attention. In the past, he did a huge amount of work to improve - without really benefitting from it - but this year has all been about getting back into form. He will probably suffer a huge time loss to Froome in the two time trials and it will be very difficult to take back that time in the mountains.

 

However, it is not all about the win for Schleck this year. He mostly hopes to regain his confidence and prove that he still belongs to the world elite and this year's Tour could very well be the occasion for him to step back into the game.

 

Richie Porte (***)

If everything goes to the Sky plan, Richie Porte won't have any chance of winning this year's Tour. The Australian has the role of luxury domestique and is expected to be the last man to support Froome in the mountains.

 

Nonetheless, Sky knows from bitter experience that a team leader not always gets safely through the opening part of a grand tour and so it is a good idea to have a back-up plan in place. When Wiggins crashed out of the 2011 Tour, the team completely lost its purpose and since then the team has always had a couple of protected riders at grand tours. At the 2012 Giro, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran both rode for GC, at the 2012 Tour Froome was protected throughout the opening week, at the 2012 Vuelta Henao and Uran were back-up riders for Froome and the duo had a similar role for Wiggins at this year's Giro.

 

When the race starts in Corsica on Saturday, Porte will enjoy almost as much protection as Froome and the team aims to present a formidable two-pronged attack in the mountains. The team hopes to keep Porte away from the pace-setting duties as long as possible, thus copying last year's strategy that saw Froome taking very few turns on the front until late in the stages.

 

The team has a good reason to believe in their Australian rider. Porte already showed signs of big improvement when he won the Volta ao Algarve last year and his performance as a Saxo Bank domestique during the 2011 Tour was a far cry from the incredible effort he delivered throughout last year's French grand tour. This year he has stepped up his game a further notch by winning the Paris-Nice, finishing 2nd behind Froome at the Criterium International and the Dauphiné and 2nd behind Quintana at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco - at a time where he was clearly fatigued from a long early season. He has risen through the ranks from his status as super domestique to one of the best stage racers in the world.

 

The next step in his development will be to contend for the win in a grand tour and this year should provide him with the learning experience that Froome had last year. Without having to deal with the media pressure, his recent performances suggest that he could very well end up on the podium - provided that the rest of the team is strong enough to do most of the pace-setting in the mountains.

 

At the same time, we should not see a repeat of last year's rivalry over team leadership. First of all, the personal relationship between Froome and Porte is a lot better than it was between Froome and Wiggins. Secondly, Porte learned during the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné that Froome is the stronger of the two. At the same time, he was promised a captain role at next year's Giro when he recently extended his contract and so he has little reason to show disloyalty towards his team.

 

If Froome has an accident and is taken out of contention, Porte moves up in the hierarchy from podium contender to possible race winner. Like Froome, he is an exceptional time triallist and so is likely to gain time on most rivals in the two races against the clock. He is unlikely to match the best climbers in the mountains but his recent Dauphiné performance showed that he will not be far off. In the final stage, he simply rode away from his rivals with Froome, proving that he was one of the best three climbers in that race. As he is likely to have a buffer of time earned in the time trials, he has a solid chance of winning the race if he ends up being given the chance. If that happens, he will enter the world elite of grand tour riders, a step he will otherwise have to postpone to next year's Giro.

 

Joaquim Rodriguez (***)

During the early part of his career, it was not at all obvious that Joaquim Rodriguez would develop into one of the best grand tour riders in the world. Being a formidable classics rider and stage hunter in the biggest races, he was hugely inconsistent during the three-week events and was mostly unable to handle long, gradual climbs as opposed to the short, steep ramps on which he thrived.

 

A dedicated effort to develop into a rider also for the high mountains, improve his poor time trialling ability immensely and get rid of his numerous bad days has seen him step onto last year's  podiums at both the Giro and the Vuelta and so it is completely justified that he enters this year's Tour de France as one of the obvious race favourites.

 

He had come close on a number of occasions but last year he finally stepped into the world elite of grand tour riders. He had no bad day at neither the Giro nor the Vuelta and he even finished 7th in the long time trial at the Vuelta - a performance that was not even comparable to the one that had seen him lose more than 6 minutes 2 years earlier. While his climbing was not outstanding at the Giro, he was doubtlessly the best rider in the Vuelta mountains and only a bold move by Contador in an intermediate stage that was completely unsuited to Rodriguez' characteristics, saw the Katusha rider miss out on the win.

 

This year's mountainous Tour route has seen him skip his usual Giro-Vuelta double and make his only second appearance at the world's biggest bike race. When he last tried his hand in 2010, he finished 7th, and this year he targets the only grand tour podium that has eluded him so far. He has based his entire season on the world's biggest race, limiting his race burden dramatically and he has raced far less during the spring than he usually does.

 

However, he has given small indications that his level has not decreased at all. As it has been a trend in recent years, he struggled at the Tour of Oman and the Tirreno-Adriatico but went on to prove his fantastic climbing legs at the Volta a Catalunya where he finished 2nd overall. He would probably have won, had he not allowed Daniel Martin to gain time in a long-distance breakaway. His only other spring appearance was at the Ardennes classics but a crash during the Amstel Gold Race saw him miss out on his best level on that occasion. Nonetheless, he still managed to finish 2nd in Liege, thus proving that he still has what it takes to contend with the best.

 

Some have been concerned by his apparent lack of condition at the recent Dauphiné but there is really no need to worry on behalf of the tiny Spaniard. Prior to his best ever grand tour performance at last year's Vuelta, he struggled in the mountains at the Volta a Burgos and - as it was the case in the Alpine race this year - put his services completely behind teammate Daniel Moreno. There is no reason to believe that he will not take to the start in red-hot condition and if he can rediscover his Vuelta climbing legs and perform equally well in the time trials, he is certainly an obvious podium contender.

 

On the other hand, the Tour is clearly the grand tour which is least suited to his characteristics. The Spanish and Italian climbs are generally irregular and steep, thus offering plenty of opportunities to change the rhythm. Conversely, the French climbs are longer and more gradual and Rodriguez' has no natural ability to handle such ascents. Just remember how he struggled on such a climb in Andorra at the 2010 Vuelta.

 

At the same time, he usually makes up for the time lost in the time trials by taking numerous stage wins and bonus seconds on the short, steep climbs that are so often part of the Giro and Vuelta courses. The French geography is, however, of a different nature and there won't be any "Rodriguez stages" in this year's Tour. At the same time, there won't be any bonus seconds and so he simply needs to ride away from his rivals if he wants to reach that podium target. Finally, he could face troubles during the nervous first week and he is a likely crosswind or crash victim.

 

Even if his climbing legs are as strong as they were during last year's Vuelta, it is hard to see Rodriguez take back enough time on Froome to make up for his time trial losses - he will probably not gain any time at all. Nonetheless, he has a solid chance of stepping onto the podium, thus joining Contador, Nibali and Evans as the only current professionals to have finished on the podium in all three grand tours - a feat that few would have expected him to achieve when he started his career as an inconsistent classics specialist.

 

Ryder Hesjedal (***)

The public opinion on grand tour favourites is a strange thing. Prior to this year's Giro, it was a general perception that Ryder Hesjedal would be an almost equal match to Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali at the Italian grand tour and he entered the race as one of three outstanding favourites. Fast forward two months and very few have even mentioned the Canadian as even a podium candidate for the Tour.

 

However, it would be a big mistake to underestimate the lanky Canadian who could very well cause a surprise as he did one year ago at the Giro. Actually, it was probably only by coincidence that his final breakthrough as a grand tour rider came at the Giro and not at the Tour and the Garmin leader has all the abilities to also contend for the podiumat the world' biggest race.

 

On paper, the French grand tour is even better suited to his diesel engine than the unpredictable Italian ditto. The long, gradual climbs should be to his taste and as he has a fantastic ability to recover, he will be favoured by the very tough final week in the Alps. He has shown his abilities at La Grand Boucle twice before: when he rode to a completely unexpected 6th in 2010 and when he bounced back from early bad luck to ride extremely well in the third week of the 2011 race. Last year we never got to see how he would stand up against the likes of Wiggins and Froome as he crashed out of the race on the dramatic stage into Metz.

 

The main reason for the apparent underestimation of Hesjedal is probably his lack of recent racing. He left the Giro early due to illness, having clearly suffered during his final few days in the race. Whenever he has been on form this year, he has, however, underlined that he has gradually developed into one of the very best riders in the world.

 

He was probably the strongest rider at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, laying the foundations for his teammate Daniel Martin's win, and single-handedly held off the chasing peloton until a couple of race favourites bridged to him on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas. Settling into a domestique role, his huge work was what made that move survive all the way to the end, thus proving that he was maybe even stronger than he was when he won the Giro one year earlier.

 

He recovered well from his Giro illness and showed tremendous condition at the Tour de Suisse. Having finished in the top 10 in the prologue - partly because of a change in wind direction - he performed outstandingly one day later in the first mountain stage to Crans-Montana. He attacked early on the final climb, left his companions behind him and rode most of the ascent on his own into a fierce headwind. Nonetheless, he was only caught inside the final kilometer of the race and still had enough energy to stay in the chasing group that sprinted for 2nd behind stage winner Bauke Mollema.

 

An unfortunate crash saw him abandon the race the next day and thus we were robbed of the chance to see him go head-to-head with Rui Costa in the two decisive stages later in the week. Gauged on his effort early in the race, he was likely to have been an equal match to the outstanding Portuguese.

 

Of course his crash saw him miss important pre-Tour racing and as he chose not to cross the Atlantic to contest his national championships, he has only had one real day of racing since his premature departure from the Giro. Like Schleck, he will, however, benefit from the fact that the Pyrenean stages are not overly hard this year and by the time the peloton hits the Alps, he should have ridden his legs back up to racing speed.

 

Actually, his Swiss crash could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Had he won the WorldTour race, he would have ridden himself into the role of strong podium contender but now his participation is almost unnoticed by his rivals. That will allow him the time to gradually settle into the race without having to deal with the immense media pressure and he could even be allowed some extra freedom on the road.

 

He is a decent time triallist who will gain time on the pure climbers in the two races against the clock but will lose a chunk of time to a specialist like Froome. At the same time, he is no spectacular climber but his consistency and recovery are what could put him onto the overall podium. It is hard to see him seriously contend with Froome for the win but if something happens to the seemingly invincible Brit, it would be a huge mistake to underestimate the Canadian. His Giro rivals did that one year ago, missing the opportunity to put time into him when he struggled on the roads to Lago Laceno, and they paid dearly for it in the end.

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